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50 things to know about iconic series ‘M.A.S.H.’

Groundbreaking comedy-drama about Korean War debuted 50 years ago

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Published:
Updated: September 22, 2022, 1:54pm
2 Photos
The final scene of "M.A.S.H.," featuring Loretta Swit, Alan Alda and William Christopher, in 1983.
The final scene of "M.A.S.H.," featuring Loretta Swit, Alan Alda and William Christopher, in 1983. (Nate Cutler/Globe Photo) Photo Gallery

On Sept. 17, 1972, the TV series “M.A.S.H.” premiered, and it’s not much of a stretch to assert that it changed the course of television.

Yes, there had been a very good movie of the same name two years earlier, but many more people saw the TV series “M.A.S.H.”

Mixing comedy with drama, the show told the stories of men and women serving during the Korean War, providing a way to process the trauma and toll that the Vietnam War, which was still being fought when the show premiered, had on the country. Often aiming to counter bigotry and promote equality in its storylines, the show does have occasions where it used what would be seen today as racist or sexist stereotypes and language.

To mark the 50th anniversary of the series, we dove deep into the past, digging up memories, anecdotes and random facts about the show. So, attention all personnel: Tonight’s movie has been canceled so that we might bring the following special programming:

1. What’s a MASH? Good question, civilian! MASH stands for Mobile Army Surgical Hospital, a new kind of field hospital conceived after World War II that the U.S. Army started using when the Korean War began in 1950.

2. The 1970 Robert Altman-directed film starred Donald Sutherland as Hawkeye Pierce and Elliott Gould as Trapper John, both of whom were captains in rank. Sally Kellerman played Maj. Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan. Robert Duvall was the ever-annoying Maj. Frank Burns.

3. It’s a very good movie. “MASH” earned five Academy Award nominations, including best picture, best director and best supporting actor for Kellerman. It only won for screenwriter Ring Lardner Jr.’s screenplay.

4. Perhaps reflecting the country’s schism over the U.S. role in Vietnam, “MASH” lost the best picture Oscar to another war movie, the more traditional World War II biopic “Patton.”

5. The TV series “M.A.S.H.” almost didn’t survive infancy as poor ratings in its first season — it finished No. 46 overall — had the show on life support. But CBS renewed it for a second season in 1973, placing it in the Saturday night lineup directly after the hit “All In The Family” and “M.A.S.H.” took off.

6. That Saturday night lineup is considered one of the best in TV history: “All In The Family” and “M.A.S.H.,” then “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” “The Bob Newhart Show,” and “The Carole Burnett Show.”

7. The second season landed “M.A.S.H.” in the Top 10, and though it moved to Monday or Tuesday for the rest of its run, it never placed outside of the Top 20 thereafter.

8. The original source material for both movie and TV series was a 1968 novel with the uninspiring title of “MASH: A Novel About Three Doctors,” by Richard Hooker, the pen name of Dr. Richard Hornberger.

9. Dr. Hornberger had lived this story, having been drafted after medical school, sent to Korea and assigned to the 8055th MASH.

10. Hornberger was a fan of the movie — but not the TV series. “He liked the movie because he thought it followed his original intent very closely,” his son told The New York Times for its obituary on Hornberger. “But my father was a political conservative, and he did not like the liberal tendencies that Alan Alda portrayed Hawkeye Pierce as having.”

11. Alda said he never really considered Hawkeye Pierce to be truly liberal. “Some people think he was very liberal,” the actor told an interviewer. “But he was also a traditional conservative. I mean, he wanted nothing more than to have people leave him alone so he could enjoy his martini, you know? Government should get out of his liquor cabinet.”

12. In addition to Alda as Hawkeye Pierce, Wayne Rogers played Trapper John, Loretta Swit took the role of Hot Lips Houlihan and Larry Linville played Frank Burns.

13. Dr. Sidney Friedman, the MASH psychiatrist, was played by Allan Arbus, the former husband of noted photographer Diane Arbus.

14. The theme song, “Suicide Is Painless,” was written for the 1970 movie by Johnny Mandel and Michael Altman, the director’s 15-year-old son.

15. “ ‘It should be the stupidest song ever written,’ ” Mandel recalled Altman telling him. “I said, ‘Well, I can do stupid.’ Altman took a stab at writing the lyrics, but it just wasn’t stupid enough. “[Altman] said, ‘Ah, but all is not lost. I’ve got a 15-year-old kid who’s a gibbering idiot. He’s got a guitar. He’ll run through this thing like a dose of salts.’ ”

16. Robert Altman always claimed he made $70,000 for directing the movie, but his kid made more than $1 million from the song.

17. Alan Alda was the only character on the TV series to appear in every episode.

18. The character Hawkeye got his nickname from his father, whose favorite book was “The Last of the Mohicans,” in which the character Natty Bumppo is nicknamed Hawkeye.

19. This is the same character played by Daniel Day-Lewis in the film adaptation of “The Last of the Mohicans,” though there he was Nathaniel Poe because the filmmakers thought viewers would laugh at a name such as Natty Bumppo. (They would.)

20. Hawkeye came from the fictional town of Crabapple Cove, Maine, which suggests that had a murder occurred there he might have been able to enlist the help of “Murder, She Wrote” snoop Jessica Fletcher from Cabot Cove, Maine, to crack the case.

21. Wayne Rogers left the series after three seasons because he thought Trapper John was always overshadowed by Hawkeye in the scripts. Rogers later played a doctor again in the series “House Calls.” He later had success as an investor and made multiple appearances on the Fox Business show “Cashin’ In.”

22. As well as Rogers, the character Trapper John later returned to TV, with actor Pernell Roberts as the titular star of “Trapper John MD,” which lasted more than twice as long as the character’s run on “M.A.S.H.” during its run.

23. Actor Mike Farrell as B.J. Hunnicutt replaced Trapper John in the Swamp, as Hawkeye’s tent quarters were always known.

24. McLean Stevenson, who played commanding officer Lt. Col. Henry Blake, also left after the third season, and did so in unprecedented fashion. Instead of just being shipped back home, the character died in a plane crash, apparently the first time a character ever had been killed off on a half-hour TV comedy.

25. Viewers were not at all happy that the show killed Henry, and controversy created a furor. So much so, in fact, that soon after Stevenson appeared on “The Cher Show,” in costume as Blake and rowing an inflatable raft, saying, “Hey, guys! I’m OK! I’m OK!”

26. “Abyssinia, Henry,” the episode when Col. Blake died, was ranked the 20th best TV episode of all time by TV Guide in 1997.

27. The writers on “M.A.S.H.” were highly regarded. The Writers Guild in 2013 ranked the series as the fifth best-written TV series of all time, placing it after “The Sopranos,” “Seinfeld,” “The Twilight Zone” and “All In The Family,” but ahead of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” “Mad Men,” “Cheers,” “The Wire” and “The West Wing.”

28. Actor Harry Morgan as Col. Sherman T. Potter replaced Blake as commanding officer. Played by Morgan — who had appeared as a difference character, a racist officer, in an earlier episode — he was a straight shooter like his earlier role as Officer Bill Gannon on “Dragnet.”

29. Cpl. Walter Eugene “Radar” O’Reilly was played by Gary Burghoff in both film and TV series, the only significant actor to reprise their role. (Another significant role of Burghoff’s was playing the lead in the original off-Broadway production of the musical, “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown.”)

30. Radar slept with a teddy bear in the series. The bear sold in 2014 at auction for $14,307.

31. He was called Radar because of his almost odd ability to anticipate the requests and orders of others as well as always being the first to hear helicopters arriving with more casualties.

32. Jamie Farr, as Cpl. Maxwell Q. “Max” Klinger, had one goal and that was to get a Section 8 discharge by dressing up like a woman to prove he’s crazy. During the series, he dressed up at times as Cleopatra, Snow White, Dorothy from “The Wizard of Oz” and Scarlett O’Hara from “Gone With the Wind,” though in later years of the series the cross-dressing aspect was largely discarded.

33. Klinger often mentioned his love for Hungarian hot dogs at Tony Packo’s in his hometown of Toledo, Ohio. This real restaurant has been in business since 1932.

34. Series co-creator Larry Gelbart said during a “M.A.S.H.” reunion special that Klinger’s antics were inspired by the comedian Lenny Bruce, who reportedly tried to dodge his military service by dressing as a WAVE, a female member of the U.S. Navy.

35. With soldiers, doctors and nurses constantly shipping in and out of the 4077th, the TV series had roles aplenty. Among the guest stars who became famous after their service on “M.A.S.H.” was complete were Ron Howard, Ed Begley Jr., Lawrence Fishburne, Andrew Dice Clay, Teri Garr, Shelley Long, Patrick Swayze, Rita Wilson and John Ritter.

36. Alan Alda and Jamie Farr were the only two actors to have served in the Army and spent time in Korea, though neither were there before the 1953 cease-fire was declared.

37. Location shoots were done at the 20th Century Fox Ranch, owned by 20th Century Fox Studios, which today is Malibu Creek State Park. The original sets burned as “M.A.S.H.” was done with its run, but some restoration was done 15 years ago, and it’s an easy hike out to the site.

38. Actor Jeff Maxwell, who played Igor the Chef and co-hosts the podcast “MASH Matters,” was scheduled to be part of a 50th-anniversary celebration at the site on Sept. 17.

39. Series creators fought the then-still-typical use of a laugh track on the show, eventually getting CBS to agree not to have canned laughter in operating room scenes.

40. “M.A.S.H.” was often praised for tackling serious topics in its TV format. In 1975, it won a Peabody Award “for the depth of its humor and the manner in which comedy is used to lift the spirit and, as well, to offer a profound statement on the nature of war.”

41. The series finale, “Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen,” a 2½-hour episode, aired Feb. 28, 1983. Though not in the Bay Area, where a power outage deprived thousands of a chance to see the finale.

42. In the United States, that episode drew 105.97 million total viewers and a total audience of 121.6 million, more than both Super Bowl XVII and the “Roots” miniseries.

43. The episode surpassed the single-episode ratings record that had been set by the “Dallas” episode in which viewers learned the answer to the “Who Shot J.R.?” cliffhanger.

44. From 1983 until 2010, “Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen” remained the most watched television broadcast in American history. It was finally passed in total viewership in February 2010 by Super Bowl XLIV, though it remains the most-watched finale of any television series.

45. The series was nominated for over 100 Emmy Awards and won 14.

46. Alan Alda had the biggest haul with five Emmys, three for acting, and one each for directing and writing. At the time, he was the first ever to win Emmys for acting, directing and writing on a series.

47. Other cast members who won acting Emmys include Loretta Swit, who won twice for her portrayal of Maj. Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan, and one each for Gary Burghoff as Radar O’Reilly and Harry Morgan as Col. Sherman T. Potter.

48. “AfterMASH” was a sequel with Col. Potter, Klinger and Father Mulcahey, who was played by William Christopher. With the same actors from the original, this series saw them home from the war and working at a Missouri hospital.

49. It was not a success: In 2002, TV Guide ranked it as the seventh worst TV show of all time between the 2002 Fox series “Celebrity Boxing,” which pit notables such as Vanilla Ice, Tonya Harding and former sitcom stars in the ring to slug it out, and “Cop Rock,” the musical police procedural.

50. The television series lasted 11 seasons. The Korean War lasted three years.

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