M*A*S*H

M*A*S*H

For eleven seasons, television viewers found themselves in the midst of the Korean War – a conflict that only lasted three years in real life. During that run, M*A*S*H captured the hearts of millions of viewers, providing guttural laughter one moment, and tears of sorrow the next, often within the same half-hour. It is one of the highest-acclaimed series to ever grace the television screen.

The TV series M*A*S*H was based upon the film of the same name, which was based upon the book of the same name. All three incarnations enjoyed their share of popularity, but it was on television that M*A*S*H found its most loyal audience. The series was presented at a time when the Vietnam War was still being waged and anti-war sentiments were running strong. It was presented at a time when TV was allowing more controversy, with shows like All in the Family testing the boundaries each week. And most importantly, it was presented at a time when Americans needed to laugh at the absurdity of war, if for no other reason than to keep their sanity. And laugh they did.

The series took place at the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital, located in Uijeongbu, Korea, and revolved around some of the most memorable characters ever conceived. Alan Alda led the wonderful ensemble cast as Capt. Hawkeye Pierce, a surgeon whose razor-sharp wit rivaled his scalpel. He used his humor to battle the disgust of watching soldiers die under his care each and every day. Hawkeye found a sidekick in “Trapper John” McIntyre (Wayne Rogers), a fellow surgeon with a shared penchant for mischief, females and homemade gin. Trapper stuck around for the first 3 years of battle before being replaced by B.J. Hunnicutt (Mike Farrell) who quickly assumed the sidekick/best buddy role and, despite his more responsible nature, still managed to get into his own share of trouble alongside Cpl. Pierce.

Assigned to the impossible job of keeping morale high, all while administering last rites too many times to count was the gentle, always helpful, Father Francis Mulcahy (William Christopher). Communications, mail handling and the occasional bugle serenade was handled by the meek and loveable Radar (played by Gary Burghoff, the only actor in the film to reprise his role on television). Radar was also an assistant to the Commanding Officer. For the first three years, his boss was Lt. Col. Blake (McLean Stevenson), a happy-go-lucky sort that was far more interested in fishing than leading a mobile army hospital. Tragically, upon discharge, Blake was killed when his helicopter crashed while returning him home to his family. He was replaced by the no-nonsense, grandfatherly Col. Sherman Potter (Harry Morgan), an always-fair, if not curmudgeonly, leader who did everything in his power to spend as much time as possible painting and riding his beloved horses.

The antagonist of the show was the whiny and petulant Maj. Frank Burns (Larry Linville), a man who took things far more seriously than his cohorts and became the brunt of many jokes as a result. The love of his life was the sexy, no-nonsense Maj. Margaret “Hot Lips” Hoolihan (Loretta Swit), head of the nurses of the 4077th. Her and Frank shared a nemesis in Hawkeye Pierce (although that didn’t stop her from sneaking in a little intimacy once with Hawkeye while trapped in a foxhole during a fierce battle). When Frank finally left the 4077th after five long years, his bunk was given to a stuffy Englishman with a love for classical music, Maj. Charles Emerson Winchester (David Ogden Stiers,) who quickly became the target of Pierce and Hunnicutt’s playfully evil ways.

And last, but certainly not least, there was the unforgettable Maxwell Klinger (Jaime Farr) the cross-dressing Corporal who did everything in his power to convince his commanders that he was crazy enough to be discharged. No matter what frilly dress he wore (complete with matching hat and handbag, of course) the powers that be weren’t men easily fooled and, unfortunately, Klinger never got the break he so desperately sought. Surprisingly enough, the character of Klinger was only supposed to be in one episode. In fact, he first played the character more effeminately. When the powers that be saw the footage though, they and Farr determined that the character would be far funnier if he played the role straight. The scene was re-cut and Klinger became a favorite with the audience – so much so that he would remain on the show for all eleven seasons.

The cast of M*A*S*H, for all its combined talents, was elevated to another level, thanks to the outstanding writing team assembled around them. Larry Gelbart, the show’s main writer and producer, got his feet wet in the business alongside the comedic genius of Sid Caesar, Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner while working on Your Show of Shows in the early 50s. With him and Gene Reynolds at the helm of M*A*S*H, the show initially leaned far more towards the comedic side. In the second half of the show’s history, however, Alan Alda took over much of the writing and directing and at this point, the show moved more towards the dramatic side. The contrast between the two styles is hard to miss. And throughout the years, the show completely altered the use of the laugh track. In the early days, canned laughter could be heard through an entire episode – as was typical for a sitcom. Later, as more dramatic scenes became common, the laugh track would be removed entirely from certain scenes, especially those taking place in the operating room, and sometimes even from an entire episode. It was unheard of – and incredibly effective.

There were a number of other differences in the way M*A*S*H was filmed. Unlike most shows, which relied heavily on indoor soundstages, this series was filmed extensively on location in what is now Malibu Creek State Park in Malibu, CA. You can still see where the helicopters flew over the hills as the theme song “Suicide is Painless” plays in the background. Once know as the Fox Ranch, after movie studio, Twentieth Century Fox, this popular filming location has also appeared in The Planet of the Apes, How Green was my Valley, My Friend Flicka and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, along with many, many others. Today, an old jeep and ambulance are reported to still sit amidst the overgrown foliage, along with a sign that marks the significance of the location. During filming of the final episode, a wildfire raged nearby, threatening the set. The show effectively incorporated the fire into the plot to account for the easily-visible smoky conditions that were present.

The way M*A*S*H was filmed was innovative in itself. Camera work was approached much more cinematically than most television shows, utilizing creative techniques to better enhance the emotional moments. Long shots, with action playing out in the background were common, as were a number of intricate editing techniques. The show experimented with a number of other ideas throughout the years, including one that managed to fit an entire year into a single episode and another filmed entirely in black and white and presented in documentary form. Innovations such as these clearly separated M*A*S*H from its competitors.

For all of its achievements, M*A*S*H was honored with a significant number of awards over the years. It garnered 14 Emmy Awards during its eleven-year run, including five given to Alan Alda for both acting and directing and two to Loretta Swit. Director Gene Reynolds earned 3 of these coveted awards for both directing and “best original comedy series.”

Of all of the classic episodes that were shown throughout the years (and there were many) two stand out as the most memorable. The first is the episode where Henry Blake is reported to have been killed in a helicopter crash. The scene where Radar shares the news with his shocked comrades is nothing short of heart wrenching. The second such episode occurred at the end of the eleventh and final season. In fact, there was never supposed to be an eleventh season. The cast and writers, feeling they had run out of ideas, were ready to call it quits after ten years. CBS executives then offered Alda a proposal to bring to his fellow actors; do one more abridged season of 16 episodes and, in return, the show would be given a grandiose, feature-length send-off. The rest of the cast agreed and on February 28th, 1983, the final episode, “Goodbye, Farewell and Amen” was broadcast to a record-breaking television audience of somewhere between 100-125 million viewers, an astounding 77% of the viewing audience that evening. To this day, it remains the most-watched television episode ever to be broadcast.

The finale takes place at the end of the Korean War, as a long-awaited cease-fire is finally announced and not a moment to soon for Hawkeye who is seriously questioning his sanity. The final moments of this brilliant episode were some of the most tear-jerking scenes ever to be shown on TV. America wept alongside the troops of the 4077th as they said their final heartfelt goodbyes to those with whom they had shared this slice of hell.

M*A*S*H lives on in perpetual syndication and the entire series is available on DVD, ensuring that fans will follow the antics of Hawkeye Pierce and his cohorts for decades to come. The original series co-existed alongside an unpopular war, managing to show the absurdity of it all in a way that enabled America to laugh despite their unrest. Today, it continues to resonate for many of the same reasons and likely will continue to do so, for as long as wars are fought.

If you grew up watching this iconic series, we hope you’ll take a moment to share some of your favorite M*A*S*H memories in our comments section below.

One Response to “M*A*S*H”

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  1. Gina says:

    I used to watch MASH in syndication. It made me feel so grown-up. But I found it more of a drama than a supposed comedy. Another station started showing The Monkees at the same time, and I started watching that happy show instead. When The Monkees ended its run, I found I couldn’t go back to the gloominess of MASH.

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