Equal parts hilarious and poignant, M*A*S*H is the influential military comedy that changed TV forever. Ready to enlist and learn some surprising behind-the-scenes facts?
See if these stories have popped up on your radar… or did you not have enough of a hawkeye?
It wasn’t just based on a movie
You may know Robert Altman’s 1970 film MASH, which inspired the show. But did you know it all started with a novel? MASH: A Novel About Three Army Doctors by Richard Hooker — a pen name for the team of writer W. C. Heinz and military surgeon Dr. H. Richard Hornberger.
While much of the novel shares DNA with the TV series (including exact character names), Hooker’s work can feel a little more whimsical and warm than the often scathing show. Additionally, there were numerous sequel novels written, including works that followed the soldiers’ journeys back home after the war.
The real Hawkeye hated the fake one
As Benjamin Franklin “Hawkeye” Pierce, Alan Alda created one of television’s greatest characters of all time. But the real Hawkeye, surgeon and co-author Hornberger, hated Alda’s portrayal.
In fact, despite seeing his creation blossom into a hit, he wasn’t a fan of the show at all!
“I am a conservative Republican. I don’t hold with this anti-war nonsense.” Hornberger’s exact words detailed why he disliked the show, crafted to criticize the Vietnam War. Additionally, Hornberger received only $500 per episode, and felt as though the whole thing trivialized his reputation as a revolutionary surgeon.
Character names came from strange places
On a show structured around a rotating litany of incoming patients, writers needed to generate a lot of names. And these names had to come from somewhere. So the writers’ room, including Ken Levine, took their cue from the Los Angeles Dodgers.
“Garvey, Cey, Russell, Sutton, Rau, Rhoden.” All players for the 1978 LA Dodgers, all chosen by Levine and company because they needed names quickly. Eventually, they had to resort to coaches, owners, and announcers. Previous episodes featured characters who had the same name as personal friends of the writers.
There were three spinoffs — one of which had legal issues
From 1983-1985, we had AfterMASH, which followed the lives of Sherman T. Potter (Harry Morgan), Max Klinger (Jamie Farr), and Father Mulcahy (William Christopher) as they struggled with life post-war. There was also W*A*L*T*E*R, a pilot special featuring Gary Burghoff as Walter “Radar” O’Reilly.
Then, there was Trapper John, M.D., featuring Pernell Roberts taking over the title role from Wayne Rogers. The producers of M*A*S*H (the TV show) sued for profits, but the makers of Trapper John, M.D. countered that it was an adaptation of MASH (the movie).
Changes in staff led to wild tones and experiments
At the beginning, M*A*S*H was a fairly traditional laugh track-boosted sitcom that happened to be set in the medical unit of the Korean War. This was in part because of comedy vets on the writing staff.
But as the staff changed, so did everything else.
Eventually, Alda took over as an executive producer, turning M*A*S*H into a borderline experimental drama that happened to have jokes on occasion. Notable episodes produced during this era include “Dreams,” invoking lots of surreal, cinematic imagery as all the characters dream.
Nobody cared for the last seasons
It’s hard to make a good season of television. It’s harder to make 11. And as M*A*S*H went on in their run, they started to struggle with their own standards. They even had real Korean War doctors pitch stories, only to discover they’d already done it.
By the end of season 10, Alda wanted the show to wrap up, figuring they’d said everything they needed to. But CBS convinced producers to make a shortened 11th and final season. The finale, “Goodbye, Farewell and Amen,” was the highest-rated episode of TV ever aired at the time.
A real life accident inspired the series finale
M*A*S*H primarily shot on two locations: A traditional soundstage in Century City, California, and an outdoor ranch in Malibu (incidentally, the same ranch used to shoot the film MASH). But just as the show was finishing its run, nature threw the final episode a curveball.
A brush fire, fairly common in California, destroyed most of the Malibu-based outdoor set. So, in “Goodbye, Farewell and Amen,” producers incorporated a storyline that their base burned down in a forest fire caused by enemy fire. A poetic end to the series’ iconic location.
M*A*S*H broke some rules and changed the game
Nowadays, you can show salacious content on TV and not get in trouble. But in the 1970s, censors were a lot more conservative. That didn’t stop M*A*S*H from featuring some of the first nudity on network television. In “The Sniper,” you fully see Radar’s butt!
Also nowadays, many TV comedies don’t have a laugh track. But, again, in the ‘70s, sitcoms had laugh tracks, full stop. M*A*S*H producers didn’t want one, clashing with CBS on the subject.
Ultimately, a compromise was reached: No laugh tracks in the operating room, yes everywhere else.
Producers went to strange lengths to stop cast arguments
If you’re a cast member on a long-running, hit TV show, we have to imagine you’ll start to feel pretty good about yourself. So good, that you may feel entitled to offer the writers and producers unsolicited notes on scripts.
And then the writers and producers… have to strike back.
Levine wrote a winter-set episode, where characters huddled around a fire in a barrel for warmth, wearing heavy parkas. Here, we’d like to remind you that this was shot in a Malibu, California set. Where the temperature was actually in the 100s.
Cast members never offered notes again.
One key crew member didn’t get along with Alan Alda
Just look at Alan Alda. What a mensch. He’s charming, funny, self-effacing, and accessible. He wrote a book called If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face?, for crying out loud. Who doesn’t love Alan Alda?
A key director of M*A*S*H, for one.
Jackie Cooper, a show biz vet since he was nominated for an Oscar at the age of nine, directed 13 episodes of M*A*S*H. And his relationship with Alda was so fraught with just-below-the-surface tension, they refused to speak to each other by the end of Cooper’s run.
Don’t believe everything you hear about the finale
Audiences were so enraptured in the M*A*S*H series finale, they waited until the end of its two-and-a-half hour runtime to use the bathroom. This hyper-concentrated use of toilets was so potent, it caused a plumbing breakdown in New York City!
Great story, right? It’s so great that Alda wrote about it in his book The Last Days of M*A*S*H.
Unfortunately… it’s all a myth. That story has been attributed to Super Bowls and even radio episodes of Amos ‘n’ Andy.
The cast reunited in the last place you’d expect
These days, sitcom reunions are a dime a dozen. New runs of Will & Grace, Roseanne, and Murphy Brown permeate the airwaves with the exact same creative team and cast.
But in the days of M*A*S*H, you had to take your reunions where you could get them.
In that cast’s case, it was in a series of computer commercials.
IBM hired the entire cast of M*A*S*H to hawk their new line of personal computers. And honestly? These ads are not bad! They pop with near the same level of camaraderie as the show!
One star’s commute to work was pretty intense
Of all the gifted actors to work on M*A*S*H, only one appeared in all 256 of its episodes. That man is, of course, Alan Alda, who anchored the series in front of, and eventually behind the camera.
But his work/home situation was… unorthodox.
Alda’s family lived in New Jersey. M*A*S*H shot in California. So naturally, Alda… kept living in New Jersey, and commuted to and from the two states on weekend shooting breaks. Alda wanted to stay because he didn’t know how long the show would be on the air.
A couple cast members had real life experiences to draw from
The show follows a group of medics in the Korean War. While most cast members just had to, you know, “act” like they were serving in the war, two performers had actual experience in Korean War: Alan Alda, as Hawkeye, and Jamie Farr, as Max Klinger.
Alda served in the Army Reserve after graduating college, and worked for six months as a gunnery officer. Farr was drafted into the Army, but after getting stationed in Japan, comedian Red Skelton called for Farr to tour with him as a part of the USO instead.
You won’t believe how long it took to write the first script
After writing Broadway success A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and working as a journeyman comedy writer on countless TV shows, Larry Gelbart needed a break. He moved to London, away from the Hollywood hustle.
Until producers asked him about a certain “medical war comedy” gig.
Gelbart wasn’t sure if he wanted the work of adapting MASH into a television show. But he couldn’t turn down the money: $25,000 for a single pilot script ($106,000 in 2019 money).
So, Gelbart spent lots of time — just kidding he cranked it out in TWO DAYS.
One beloved character wasn’t supposed to be a regular
Originally conceived as a gay character who behaves wildly over-the-top and inappropriately, Corporal Maxwell Q. “Max” Klinger was supposed to appear in one episode, get a Section 8 psychiatric discharge, and bounce. He was inspired by comedian Lenny Bruce, who was similarly discharged from the Navy for having “homosexual tendencies.”
But then, Jamie Farr came along.
The idiosyncratic comic actor pitched the idea of making Klinger heterosexual, whose cross-dressing was merely a stunt to try and get himself discharged. And Farr’s charisma was so appreciated, his character stayed. Later, it was revealed that Klinger may have cross-dressed before enlisting.
One actor exited dramatically
Wayne Rogers played Trapper John in M*A*S*H. And for the first two seasons, Rogers had fun in this role, feeling equal to his costars. But when Alda moved up behind the scenes, Rogers felt Hawkeye was getting all the best material. So Rogers quit after season three.
The producers were not happy, and sued Rogers for breach of contract.
Just one problem — Rogers didn’t sign a traditional contract, disagreeing with a clause about morals. So the producers didn’t have a case, and Rogers moved on to become a success in the world of finance.
One of the most iconic scenes was a surprise to everyone
When McLean Stevenson (Lieutenant Colonel Henry Blake) told M*A*S*H producers he wanted to leave at the end of the third season, writers Gelbart and Gene Reynolds wrote a season finale, “Abyssinia, Henry,” in which Henry is discharged normally. But then, on the shooting day…
Gelbart and Reynolds handed the cast a brand new set of pages they hadn’t seen until that moment. And revealed that Henry’s plane was shot down, with no survivors. They shot two takes of the scene, using the actors’ real-life surprise expertly.
And then… had their end-of-season wrap party!
One key prop was worth a lot of money
Radar kept a teddy bear — one of the many endearing things about the character so memorably played by Gary Burghoff (who also played him in the original film). Where did that little critter wind up?
After a brief detour, right where it belongs.
After the series wrapped, the bear disappeared for nearly 30 years. Then, a medical student happened to be at an auction, where the teddy bear was for sale. They bought it for $11,500 — and then got in touch with Burghoff to sell it right back to him.
Another key prop was found under strange circumstances
In the penultimate episode of the series, “As Time Goes By,” the characters, aware that the Korean War is coming to an end, bury a time capsule commemorating their time together. To do this, the actual actors buried an actual capsule under the actual set. Where’d it wind up?
A couple of months after shooting, Fox sold the land off. And as a construction company worked on new developments, one worker found the buried capsule. He got a hold of Alda and asked what to do. Alda told him to keep it.
Apparently, the worker “didn’t seem very impressed.”
One cast member became close to another — literally
As Major Margaret J “Hot Lips” Houlihan, Loretta Swit gave the unit a swift kick of energy, earning two Emmys with her brilliant performances in the process. She also became very close with Harry Morgan, who played Sherman T. Potter, and moved in close to him after the series wrapped.
Swit and Morgan remained neighbors until Morgan’s death in 2011. Beyond her friendship with Morgan, Swit remains close with Alda and his family to this day.
After M*A*S*H, Swit had an opportunity to lead Cagney & Lacey, but couldn’t due to contractual obligations.
Some actors had to play multiple roles
To fill up a military base full of soldiers, doctors, nurses, and patients over 11 years and 256 episodes, production had to cut corners wherever they could.
And that’s why you’d see certain actors appear again and again: always as different roles.
Soon-Tek Oh appeared several times as different characters, both North and South Korean. Sometimes “Nurse Baker” was played by Patricia Stevens, and sometimes Stevens needed to be someone else, so Lesley Evans stepped in for Baker. Bobbie Mitchell played 10 different roles over the series!
One famed episode had a strange inspiration
In first-season episode “Tuttle,” Hawkeye, Trapper, and Radar join forces to cause some particularly absurd mischief. They invent a Captain Tuttle, a totally fictional military man based on Hawkeye’s childhood imaginary friend. Things get out of hand quickly, as the fake Captain gets awarded medals and even payment.
The acclaimed episode, nominated for a Writers Guild Award, comes from the pretty darn obscure Soviet novella Lieutenant Kijé, about a Russian soldier who, after accidentally “creating” a lieutenant thanks to a typo, is forced to invent the man, culminating in the need for a personal appearance.
After M*A*S*H, Alda brought his art into his life
In the TV show M*A*S*H, doctors blew off steam with humor. After the series, Alda decided to take what he learned on the show and apply it to real life. He, very adorably, taught improv comedy classes to real doctors, teaching them empathy in communication.
Beyond his work on M*A*S*H, Alda has reliably appeared on the big and small screen. He wrote and directed the acclaimed comedy The Four Seasons, appeared notably in 30 Rock and The West Wing, and popped up in Steven Spielberg‘s Bridge of Spies.
It took some time for M*A*S*H to get going
Hindsight is 20/20.
We all know now that M*A*S*H is one of the most acclaimed, influential, and highest-viewed television series of all time. But when it first started airing in 1972, it got off on a rocky foot.
The show, a satirical look at the military during the Vietnam War, wasn’t exactly what America wanted to watch as comedy comfort food. Its first season scored an abysmal 46th place in the ratings. But from the second season on, it became a top 10 hit.
One actor moved up through the (fake) military
On Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C., a military-themed spinoff of The Andy Griffith Show, William Christopher played Private Lester Hummel. Then, he played Private Jake Schulz in the Bob Hope/Phyllis Diller comedy The Private Navy of Sgt. O’Farrell.
Where did Christopher go from these Private roles? Why, to Captain, of course.
Specifically, as Captain (and Father) Francis John Patrick Mulcahy on M*A*S*H. Isn’t it great to see someone rise through the military rank like that?
Some actors had strange careers before booking M*A*S*H
Before he began his acting career, Gary Burghoff was a promising drummer. He played with a band called The Relatives, and you’ll never guess who was their lead singer: Lynda Carter, Wonder Woman herself. After a stint in Vegas, Burghoff left the band to focus on acting.
While Alan Alda knew he wanted to be a storyteller, his father, actor Robert Alda, wanted Alan to try medicine. To appease him, Alan took one pre-med course in college — and earned a 10% on the final exam.
We hope Robert liked watching Alan play a doctor on TV.
One key item of clothing was reused several times
No, we’re not talking about everyone’s military uniforms.
When Klinger gets married to longtime girlfriend Laverne Esposito over the radio, he wears, of course, a wedding dress. But that ain’t the only time we see this particular dress. Tiffany Haddish, eat your heart out.
You’ll also see Houlihan wear the identical bridal look when she marries Lt. Col. Donald Penobscott (Beeson Carroll) in season five episode “Margaret’s Marriage.” And most appropriately, Soon Lee Han (Rosalind Chao) wears the dress when she marries the love of her life — Klinger.
Many famous folks stopped by the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital
Not content to star in just one of “the best TV comedies ever made,” George Wendt of Cheers appeared in season 11 Halloween episode “Trick or Treatment.” Wendt played a patient with a pool ball fully stuck in his mouth, and he milks that physical comedy for all its worth.
Other famous folks who dropped by? Laurence Fishburne (after appearing in the other ‘70s anti-war classic Apocalypse Now), John Ritter (after appearing in the other ‘70s ahead-of-its-time sitcom Three’s Company), and Patrick Swayze, who played a soldier suffering from leukemia.
One actor had just the most adorable request
How do you replace Trapper John? With Captain B.J. Hunnicutt, another instantly memorable authority figure played by Mike Farrell (he’s even responsible for the finale’s heart-wrenching “GOODBYE” written in stones to Hawkeye).
In taking the role, Farrell had just one request.
Hunnicutt’s daughter was going to be named Melissa. But Farrell has a real-life daughter named Erin. So to pay tribute to his child, he asked producers if they could name Hunnicutt’s daughter Erin. And the producers happily obliged!
Ain’t life sweet sometimes?
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