Hawkeye and Trapper’s antics. Hawkeye and B.J.’s pranks. Frank and Hot Lips’s torrid romance. Klinger’s cross-dressing. Colonel Blake and Colonel Potter’s attempts to reign in the craziness. On September 17, 1972, “M*A*S*H” premiered, and for the next 11 years, the friendships, the tragedies and the hijinks of the 4077th captivated audiences. Let’s now celebrate the 50th anniversary of the CBS premiere with our photo gallery ranking the 25 best episodes.
The long-running series based on the three-year Korean War was adapted from a hit 1970 film, which in turn was adapted from a best-selling 1968 novel by Richard Hooker. Debuting at the height of the controversial Vietnam war, the series subtly mocked government bureaucracy and the senselessness of war, balancing the heaviness of tragedies that come through the surgical camp with the comic relief of the character’s efforts to survive the war with humor and compassion.
The first few seasons were almost pure sitcom, with Commanding Officer Henry Blake (McLean Stevenson) trying to manage the comic battle of wills between the mischievous Captains Hawkeye Pierce (Alan Alda) and Trapper John McIntyre (Wayne Rogers), plus the uptight Major Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan (Loretta Swit) and her paramour Major Frank Burns (Larry Linville), while Blake himself is kept in line by his trusty clerk Radar O’Reilly (Gary Burghoff, the only actor to carry over from the film). Rounding out the cast of unforgettable characters were Maxwell Klinger (Jamie Farr), the cross-dressing corporal aiming to get a Section Eight discharge, and Lieutenant John Mulcahy (William Christopher), the non-judgmental and calming Army chaplain.
Alda quickly became an audience favorite, and was soon involved in the behind-the-scenes production, including co-writing 19 episodes and directing more than 30. With the shift of emphasis moving away from the ensemble and towards Hawkeye as the main character, Stevenson and Rogers opted to leave the show at the end of Season Three. It’s difficult for a series to lose one major beloved character, much less two. On top of that, the writers chose a tragic end for Stevenson’s affable Blake, becoming the first sitcom to kill off a major character, stunning not only audiences, but the cast. The actors weren’t told of Blake’s fate until right before the O.R. scene was shot, so the utter disbelief above those surgical masks is real. The episode sparked controversy and redefined the genre, leading the way for more dark humor and a heavier lean on drama mixed with comedy.
The series would not only survive these departures and controversy, but remain as popular as ever, with new characters blending in as though they had always been there. Hawkeye’s new bunkmate and partner in pranking crime was Captain B.J. Hunnicutt (Mike Farrell), who might have been more subdued than Trapper, but was just as crafty and mischievous, while the laidback and looking-forward-to-retirement war veteran Colonel Sherman T. Potter (Harry Morgan) took over as Commanding Officer. At the end of Season Five, Linville also departed; the neurotic, inept Burns was replaced at the 4077th by the highbrow and extremely capable Major Charles Winchester III (David Ogden Stiers). Burghoff was the last to leave, with Radar receiving a hardship discharge during Season Eight, and Klinger taking over his role as company clerk.
Several recurring characters visited the 4077th over time, with two of the most popular being the rational psychiatrist Major Sidney Freedman (Allan Arbus) and the mentally unstable and paranoid intelligence agent Colonel Samuel Flagg (Edward Winter); the two at times appear together as foils to one another. A long list of guest stars frequented the series, including established stars such as Ron Howard, Ned Beatty, Brian Dennehy, Leslie Nielsen and Pat Morita, as well as then lesser-knowns, such as John Ritter, Patrick Swayze, George Wendt and Rita Wilson.
During its decade-long run, “M*A*S*H” became a fixture at awards ceremonies, earning over 100 Emmy nominations. In competition with shows like “All in the Family” and “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” in its first few seasons, and “Taxi” and “Cheers” in its later years, “M*A*S*H” won a total of 14 Emmys, including Best Comedy Series for its second season in 1974. Swit received a nomination for Supporting Actress every year between 1974 and 1983, winning twice, while Morgan and Burghoff each won Supporting Actor once. Alda received 27 nominations for the series, winning three for acting and one each for writing and directing.
What the program lacked in Emmy wins, it more than made up for in viewership and audience loyalty. When the series signed off on February 28, 1983, it was with an epic two-and-a-half-hour episode, unheard of for a 30- minute sitcom, and with advertisers paying an unprecedented $450,000 (over $1 million today) for a 30-second slot. An unrivaled number of viewers tuned in to see the fates of the beloved characters, and nearly 40 years later, this finale remains not only the most-watched finale of all time, but the most-watched single TV series episode of all time, with over 100 million viewers – and that doesn’t include the viewers in California who had to watch it a month later due to a power outage the night of the original broadcast – and has only been surpassed in viewership by sporting events.
I was not quite two years old when “M*A*S*H” premiered; it was one of my mother’s favorite shows and I can quite literally say I grew up with the members of the 4077th. As a child, most of the humor was beyond me – I thought Klinger was funny, and always liked to see what delightful ensemble he would wear next. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve grown to appreciate the underlying messages and the slightly raunchy humor – all of which is timeless, and doubtlessly will continue to bring new generations of audiences for another 50 years and more.
Although it’s hard to narrow down 251 episodes to only 25, we’ve made an attempt to pick the best of the best? Did your favorite make the list?