1 9 7 2 – 1 9 8 3 (USA)
251 x 30 minute episodes
M*A*S*H was a fictional account of Dr Richard Hornberger’s years at the 8055 Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (MASH) during the Korean War.
Hornberger’s book (written under his pen name, Richard Hooker) was turned into an award-winning film by Twentieth Century Fox who fortuitously did not destroy their collection of green army tents as Fox president William Self then wanted to try a television series.
Despite the certainty of network advisers that the grisly humour of doctors delving into the shrapnel-ridden torsos of wounded soldiers would be quite unsuitable as entertainment, a pilot show was duly made.
New York stage actor Alan Alda was persuaded to take the lead role of the Martini and nurse-loving doctor Captain Hawkeye Pierce for $10,000. Alda flew home from LA to New Jersey every weekend for seven years, but his salary did rise to $5 million a year.
Hawkeye was a brilliant surgeon, and although he had some dubious interests – including distilling his own gin and subscribing to Nude Volleyball Monthly – he was one helluva doctor.
American daytime soap star Wayne Rogers came in as Hawkeye’s equally irreverent yet caring colleague, Trapper John; Larry Linville came in as pompous Major Frank Burns, who was happiest when he spoiled everyone’s fun; Loretta Swit played the bossy busty Major ‘Hotlips’ Houlihan; McLean Stevenson played the none-too-sharp Colonel Blake; and Gary Burghoff returned from the film version to play Radar O’Reilly, the squinting signals clerk with long-range hearing and the ability to appear a split second before being summoned.
M*A*S*H the series was born, featuring the antics of the 4077th MASH, immediately south of the frontline in Korea and only 6,133 miles from Toledo.
At first, the show was only a moderate success. Network bosses had insisted on fewer serious stories and more skirt-chasing. They had also censored out such words as ‘breasts’ and ‘virgin’ – though writer Larry Gelbart snuck that in the following week, inventing a soldier from the Virgin Islands.
A great improvement came after Gelbart interviewed a bunch of real MASH doctors and went to Korea with Gene Reynolds.
Several true stories couldn’t be included in the show as they were too bizarre – one whole unit dying their hair red for a party, for example, or deliberately getting frostbite to get demobbed.
The stories of the doctors, nurses, patients and administrators of the 4077th brought both comedy and pathos into the viewing audience’s homes. The sitcom broke many traditions and set many new standards.
It also was one of those rare occasions when the series was better than the movie it sprang from. Cast transitions were made effectively and a whole new concept to the meaning of television comedy was born – the introduction of “dramedy”.
The jokes were brilliant . . .
Frank Burns: “Why do people take an instant dislike to me?”
Trapper John: “It saves time Frank”.
“This Man has a chest wound, he should be in surgery”
“But he’s Chinese”
“OK, we’ll operate with chopsticks”
“Anyway, Klinger’s not a pervert”
“How do you know?”
“I’m a pervert. We have meetings. He’s never there”
The series ran for 11 years – 8 years longer than the war it depicted! Similarly, its impact on the television viewing audience may, fortunately or unfortunately, be more significant than the Korean War.
Eventually, after 251 episodes, M*A*S*H ran out of anecdotes to turn into plots and Alan Alda tired of putting boot polish on his hair to hide the grey.
The show had collected 14 Emmy Awards, received 99 nominations, and Alda had won awards as one of the show’s writers and directors as well as its leading actor.
The extra-long final episode, ‘Goodbye, Farewell and Amen’, aired on 28 February 1983, attracting a record-breaking audience of 125 million people.
Sadly, Charles Winchester (David Ogden Stiers) had the enjoyment of his beloved classical music marred permanently when a group of Chinese soldiers he’d taught to play Mozart were killed; “For me, music had always been a refuge from this miserable experience,” he observed. “Now, it will always be a reminder.”
Max Klinger fell in love with a Korean woman named Soon-Lee (Rosalind Chao), married her and later joined Father Mulcahy (William Christopher) and Colonel Potter (Harry Morgan) at a stateside VA facility in the After Mash spin-off.
The last we saw of Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan (Loretta Swit), she was off to the 8063rd after loading a jeep with so much luggage there was no room for Winchester, who was supposed to share it with her.
But she didn’t go without a parting gift – Winchester’s copy of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnets From the Portuguese, which she’d wanted so badly.
Hawkeye faced and overcame an emotional breakdown via a stint in a psych facility to return to the 4077th and the ensuing goodbyes.
He and B.J. (Mike Farrell) managed one of the most touching farewells to ever hit the small screen, as Hawkeye’s chopper lifts off and he sees the word “GOODBYE,” spelt out in stones, which his friend hadn’t been able to speak in person.
Apart from the announcements periodically made over the camp PA system by Radar O’Reilly and Max Klinger, all PA announcements were made by actors Sal Viscuso or Todd Susman, both of whom appeared in an episode or two themselves.
The controversial laugh-track was removed from all scenes in the operating room. The track was removed completely when the series aired in the UK.
W*A*L*T*E*R focused on the post-military police career of Walter O’Reilly (Gary Burghoff), who had now dropped the “Radar” part of his identity. Directed by Bill Bixby, the pilot never made it to series.
Captain Benjamin Franklin “Hawkeye” Pierce
Captain John Francis Xavier “Trapper John” McIntyre
Colonel Henry Blake
Major Frank Burns
Major Margaret “Hotlips” Houlihan
Corporal Walter Eugene “Radar” O’Reilly
Colonel Sherman T Potter
Captain B J Hunnicut
Major Charles Emerson Winchester III
David Ogden Stiers
Corporal/Sergeant Maxwell Klinger
Lieutenant (Reverend) Francis Mulcahy