M*A*S*H

‘M*A*S*H’ Finale, 35 Years Later: Untold Stories of One of TV’s Most Important Shows (PART 2 )

CASTING

Reynolds knew Alda from his theater work in New York. He never asked him to test for the role because he truly believed he had found Hawkeye.

Reynolds: He was attractive, a leading man and wonderfully comedic actor who could play the sober moments. There’s not a lot of guys like that floating around.

Alda: I was making a movie in the Utah state prison. M*A*S*H was by far the best script I’d ever read in prison. I said to my wife, Arlene, “I can’t do it because it’s going to be made in California and we live in New Jersey. Who knows, this thing could run a whole year.”

Reassured of the show’s intentions, Alda signed on as Hawkeye. Gelbart envisioned the role as an endearing jokester who uses humor to combat the insanity of war. Alda’s take on him rounded him out even more.

Swit: Alan’s approach to Hawkeye was a large child looking for companionship, a hug and a squeeze. His flirting was all talk and never predatory.

Reynolds: He voiced early on that we shouldn’t be like “billy goats,” where the women are always at the doctor’s disposal. Guys could be fresh, but you’d never see them sexually using their authority.

Walter Dishell (medical consultant): He wanted to know how you feel when you tell someone they’re going to take their leg off or die. He cared about how Hawkeye would act in these situations. “If I can’t stop the bleeding, what’s going through my head?”

Wilcox: Alan was brilliant at finding a way to play a scene so that he wasn’t directly in it. If he had an exposition in the mess tent, he spent the whole time studying his food. He’d pick up a fork, sniff at it and put it back down, meanwhile participating in the conversation.  

Burghoff: I never worked with anyone so completely dedicated to a project. His creative energy was endless.

Jeff Maxwell (Igor Stravinsky): I remember his doing the “River of Liver” speech (above). I never expected him to dance on the table. I asked him afterward if he planned that and he said he hadn’t. No one else could do that.

Other actors came from television, movies and theater. Metcalfe, who would ultimately become the showrunner after Reynolds and Gelbart exited, found performers who had previously left an impression on him. Swit and Farrell came from episodic TV, Larry Linville from a play at the Mark Taper Forum. David Ogden Stiers guest-starred on Mary Tyler Moore and Morgan appeared on M*A*S*H as a whacked-out generalOther actors came from different channels. CBS recommended McLean (Mac) Stevenson. Burghoff impressed legendary film director Otto Preminger with his Broadway performance as Charlie Brown, leading Preminger’s brother to cast him in M*A*S*H. Others followed a more circuitous path.

Metcalfe: We made the pilot with a different Father Mulcahy. He was the only performer Larry wanted to change. Bill was my great white hope. He blew the audition, though. Larry wrote in a specific rhythm and if you don’t adhere to it, you destroy the humor. I managed to get him another audition.

Christopher: Larry said he wanted someone with natural idiosyncrasies.That was Bill. An interviewer told me once that Bill “is a man who likes to take an idea, and surround it with words until it surrenders.”

Farr: Klinger was a one-shot deal that came from Larry reading about Lenny Bruce in the Coast Guard. They said, “Dress for the day.” Bruce thought it’d be funny if he showed up at morning reveille wearing a dress.

Metcalfe: Wayne Rogers was one of six candidates we tested. He was by far the most colorful and won hands down. Interestingly, they’d all tested as Trapper or Hawkeye because Alan hadn’t officially signed yet. Once he agreed, we put Wayne into the Trapper role. The two of them had a wonderful chemistry together.

Farr: Gene took me to a trailer that had a women’s Army Corps uniform hanging with these high heels. I thought I was dressing with an actress. He said, “No, those are yours.” I thought to myself, “What kind of character is this?” He takes me in my high heels and hairy bow legs to stage 9. Everyone’s laughing. They gave me a couple of lines and Gene leaves. The director then tells me to play Klinger “gay.” I was out of work and $250 paid my rent. So, I did my lines. My agent calls the next day and says Gene doesn’t want to do the part the way the director designated it. I came back and played it straight.

A group of performers built an ensemble and then a community. They got together on weekends, charted a bus to attend the Emmys together, celebrated weddings and mourned at funerals.

Farrell: When I found out I got the part, my agent told me Alan wanted to have dinner with me. I said, “Oh, shit, yes.” I met him at a Chinese restaurant where we talked for hours. He was full of interest in me, wanting me to know his love for the show, his intentions and concerns. It was one of the more extraordinary moments in my wonderful career. I thought I’d fallen into paradise.

Swit: The first day we met, I can still visualize the room. I see where everyone was sitting. It was an important moment in my life. Everyone’s attitude was so fresh, positive and energetic about the project. We were all on the same page about what we were going to say.

Alda: Most of the time actors disperse and go to their dressing rooms between shots. We sat around in a circle of chairs making fun of one another, having fun. Laughing. I’ve taken that with me whenever I do a play. For me, it’s the best preparation for performing on stage because you’re already relating to each other, listening and responding.

Kellye Nakahara (Nurse Kellye): Alan and Mike would play chess all day long. We’d exchange books. I brought my mother from Hawaii to visit the set. Larry took her to lunch at the commissary. That’s all she could talk about for the rest of her life.

Farrell: Bill would read Homer, in ancient Greek, laughing, “Ho, ho, ho.” Loretta would be jabbering with us while doing needlepoint.

Swit: [Linville] was a riot. We’d go off on our own and rehearse a scene to find things we liked with each other and then go to the director. Ten times out of 10 the directors were thrilled.

Alda: If somebody had a very touching, dramatic close-up, as soon as someone yelled “cut,” there’d be a snowstorm of gauzes or we’d stand behind them, hanging clamps on them.

GOING BEYOND THE WRITERS ROOM

The writers worked in a building originally built as a schoolhouse for Shirley Temple. To accurately portray the subject matter, Reynolds, Gelbart and Metcalfe interviewed Korean War surgeons who had served in MASH units.

Metcalfe: You can have the greatest writers in the world, like we did, and never come up with some of the rich ideas we put on film.

Alda: We’d pore over those transcripts and look for a sentence or a fragment of an idea that we could build a story around.

Dishell: We drove out to the L.A. suburbs to see this guy who’d filmed his MASH unit. He said he’d never shown it to anybody because it was such a terrible time in his life. That’s where the look of The Swamp and the city signposts and other things came from.

Reynolds: We’d have guys who were over there for two years and said they had to get out because they couldn’t go through seeing guys dying all the time. I’ll never forget that line: “Guys dying all the time.” It was brutal.

David Pollock (writer): This surgeon, trying to remember when he’d done an operation, said it was the same day they got a shipment of eggs. We ended up doing a story about the 4077 receiving a shipment of eggs, which no one had eaten for months.

Wilcox: A surgeon from the 8076, Maurice Connolly, told us about a North Korean soldier brought in for surgery. He takes a hand grenade out and pulls the pin. A doctor grabs the handle and holds it in place so the spark can’t light the fuse. Everyone not doing surgery in the OR got down on their hands and knees until they found the pin and put it back in. We used that.

Alda: The interesting thing was after the second year, Larry and Gene went to Korea to visit a MASH unit. They found out that some of the stories we’d made up had really happened. We were that tuned in to what their experiences were.

In addition to the transcripts, writers went searching elsewhere for ideas.

Farr: Larry’s father, Harry, was a barber in Beverly Hills to big comedians like Milton Berle and Jack Benny. One of his customers was Danny Thomas, who was American Lebanese. Harry tells Danny his son wants to be a writer. Danny ends up buying this high school kid’s material. Larry never forgot that. Klinger became Lebanese because of Danny Thomas.

David Isaacs (writer): Ken and I wrote an episode, season seven’s “Point of View.” We watched a ton of POV movies like Lady in the Lake, where the camera was the eyes of the protagonist. We found it looked dull when the camera was talking. Someone came up with the idea that the soldier had taken shrapnel to his neck and couldn’t talk. That was perfect. Only M*A*S*H could do that.

Elias: Dave and I won a Humanitas Award for an episode about a soldier accompanying his wounded buddy to the 4077. In offering his blood to help save his friend’s life, he discovers he has leukemia. It was based on a real story of a manager tagging along with a big star for an ophthalmologist appointment. While there, the ophthalmologist asked the manager if he wanted his eyes checked, too. The manager agreed and the ophthalmologist discovered he had cancer.

Wilcox: We were working on ideas with Alan and he says, “Sometimes people can get a story out of something an actor’s good at. For example, I’m very good at sneezing.” The next day we were in the office saying, “Hawkeye sneezes a lot, what are we going to do?”

Alda: I was always thinking in terms of writing. I gave Larry a few scenes that I thought might work. He didn’t think the story was right, but encouraged me. My first script borrowed the idea from the play La Ronde, circling around, using a pair of long johns that went from one person to another.

Farrell: I came up with an idea once and asked Burt what he thought of it. He said, “That’s great, why don’t you write it?” I thought, “Oh, shit. OK, let me take a shot at it.” That was the way they operated. They encouraged without dragooning anybody.

The show had numerous battles with standards and practices.

Alda: I wrote an episode where Margaret sees a jockstrap on the table and starts going nuts. “How dare you parade that thing before me?” Standards and practices said we couldn’t show a jockstrap. I got really angry because we’d had countless episodes where we showed brassieres and women’s panties. Hawkeye had walked through a clothesline and had them slapping him in the face. Is there something holy about the male genitalia? They never gave a reason why. They just stuck to it.

Levine: Every week we got the same note, “Cut the casual profanity in half.” If we wanted eight hells and damns we’d put 16 into the script. We tried to slip one by when we had Radar say to a visiting general, “Your tent is ready your VIP-ness.” We got caught.

Wilcox: We did an episode in which Hawkeye yells, “You bastard!” at a South Korean officer who is taking a North Korean female guerrilla away for questioning and probable torture. The censor said we couldn’t say “bastard,” but we could say “son of a bitch.” We weren’t thrilled, but it was still strong language. The next year, we had a similar moment and the same thing happens. In the final season, we went directly to “son of a bitch” and the censor comes back and says, “That’s strong language, would you mind if you say ‘bastard’?”

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