Thirty-five years after ending its 11-season run, the cast and creators behind the CBS military comedy look back on one of the most beloved shows in TV history.
Feb. 28, 1983, represents a watershed moment in the history of American pop culture. On that night, the nation seemingly shut down to watch the final episode of CBS’ groundbreaking military comedy M*A*S*H. The series would wrap its 11-season run with a two-hour finale that would unite 106 million in front of their TV screens with the same purpose: to say goodbye to what had become a family of overfatigued doctors and nurses.
When the series launched in September 1972, CBS executives thought they had greenlighted a comedy. Series creators Gene Reynolds and Larry Gelbart instead gave the network seriocomic vignettes of universal truths about the human condition. “We helped break the boundaries of the boss coming to dinner and burning the roast,” series star Alan Alda (aka Benjamin Franklin “Hawkeye” Pierce) tells The Hollywood Reporter.
Viewers laughed at the characters’ antics in Rosie’s bar or The Swamp with Hawkeye, nestled in his purple robe, the color of royalty. They mourned losses in the operating room, sensed how tightly Radar (Gary Burghoff) clung to his teddy bear at night, and felt Maxwell Klinger’s (Jamie Farr) pride in his Statue of Liberty outfit and B.J. Hunnicutt’s (Mike Farrell) broken heart as he missed his daughter’s childhood. Remember Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan’s (Loretta Swit) shaky first attempt at a joke or when her walled emotions leaked out? Millions saw the fatigue of meatball surgery and exasperation knowing the soldiers they healed would soon return with new wounds or in body bags.
Everyone wanted a part of M*A*S*H. Stars flocked to the set. Prince Charles flirted with the nurses over lunch at the commissary. The Harlem Globetrotters dropped by. You’d be as likely to see Jane Fonda as you would Henry Kissinger waiting in the wings. Years later, Barack Obama would claim to have learned many value lessons from the show.
So, what was M*A*S*H‘s secret? The dramedy about the trials and tribulations of a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital unit during the Korean War was really a love story. In building the landmark series, its cast and crew forged a bond of love and respect that lives to this day: a love for truth in storytelling, a love for the audience they were entertaining and a love for each other.
Someone once asked Harry Morgan (who played Col. Sherman Potter from seasons four through 11 and who died in 2011) if working on M*A*S*H had made him a better actor. He responded that it had made him a better person.
In honor of the 35th anniversary of the series finale, THR looks back at the history M*A*S*H — as told by those who built it.
Robert Altman’s feature film M*A*S*H became a surprise hit in 1970, motivating CBS to adapt it for the small screen. Whereas the movie was rated R, the network believed it could create a more family-friendly version of war.
Reynolds (co-creator, producer, director): You’re lucky to fall into a subject like M*A*S*H and the complications of war. The danger I saw was suggesting war is all fun and games. We wanted to be sensitive to the horrors of combat and the valor of the doctors, nurses and servicemen.
Alda: We wanted to reflect the lives of those people who lived through an experience that would rattle anybody. There never was a situation like that on television before.
Swit: We weren’t a commercial for the [Vietnam War]. We were dealing with serious issues with people working in insane situations.
Reynolds hired his longtime friend Gelbart to write the pilot. Gelbart was a highly respected writer for television, films and Broadway. At the time, he was living in England, writing for the BBC. His work on M*A*S*H would lead the cast and crew to label him a “genius.”
Reynolds: I spent a week with Larry in London. We’d take walks in the park for hours laying out the story, scene by scene. When we were done, I came back to L.A. and waited. Finally, after a few weeks, I called and said, “When can I look for the script?” He said, “It’s in the mail.” Then he sat down to write it.
Ken Levine (writer): Larry was the Mozart of comedy writers. It just came out of his head right onto the screen, as if he were dictating it to himself. Amazing.
Elias Davis (writer): From the beginning, he made the conscious decision to place serious and comedic stories side by side.
Alda: He used many different styles — drama, comedy, burlesque, satire — often in the same show. That gave us a surprising combination, which made it interesting to me.
Dan Wilcox (writer, producer): Larry and Gene refused to be slaves to making audiences laugh at regular intervals. They believed you could come to moments that were the meat of what war was about. It’s the only comedy I ever worked on that made me cry.
Farrell: Before I got on the show, a TV producer asked me to star in his sitcom. I read the script. It was full of the usual stupid jokes for jokes’ sake. I said thanks but no thanks. And he said. “You’re turning down a lead in a TV series? Why?” I didn’t want to tell him his script was stupid, so, I said, “Well, it’s not M*A*S*H.”
M*A*S*H premiered Sept. 17, 1972. The show struggled at first opposite ABC’s Wonderful World of Disney. Nevertheless, Reynolds and Gelbart raged against network ideas to lighten their portrayal of war, such as never losing patients, minimizing blood and using laugh tracks outside the operating room.
Reynolds: Before we ever shot anything, someone told me, “You can’t go into the operating room. When I saw the movie, four women in front of me walked out.” And I said, “Yes, but millions of them stayed.”
Dennis Koenig (writer): Gene and Larry were at a point in their careers that they were going to do things their way or not do it. Larry told me they were always packing their bags, ready to leave. They believed, What’s the point of doing the show if it’s going to be like every other one?
Burt Metcalfe (executive producer, director, writer): A seminal episode in the first season was “Sometimes You Hear the Bullet” (above) in which a war correspondent and old friend of Hawkeye’s comes to the 4077th, goes off to the front, and then returns and dies on Hawkeye’s operating table. Larry wrote this beautiful aria for Col. Blake to console Hawkeye with: “Look, all I know is what they taught me at command school. There are certain rules about a war and rule No. 1 is young men die. And rule No. 2 is doctors can’t change rule No. 1.”
Wilcox: They made you care about this guy so that not just Hawkeye lost him, but the audience did, too. That may have been the first patient we lost. Alan told me it’s his favorite episode and it’s mine, too.
Metcalfe: At the end of that season, this jerky CBS executive comes into our offices and says, “Let me tell you guys how you ruined M*A*S*H,” and cites that episode. It’s just so far from the truth.
M*A*S*H introduced dramedy to television, but not many people took notice. It was a bubble show that almost didn’t get renewed for a second season.
Alda: I used to joke that we were in the top 78 [shows on television]. It didn’t bother us, though, because we were too busy doing what we did.
Barbara Christopher (widow of Bill Christopher, who played Father Francis Mulcahy): At the end of the first season, Bill and I went to the closing-night party, but had to leave early. Alan walked us to the door and said to Bill, “It’s been such a wonderful year. What if I never see you again?”
Farr: Babe Paley [the then-wife of CBS founder William S. Paley] supposedly saved us by telling her husband that M*A*S*H could be the crown jewel for the network. By the end of the third season, Larry came up to me and said, “You know what, I think we’re the next I Love Lucy.”