M*A*S*H

MeTV Airs the ‘M*A*S*H’ Finale on Veteran’s Day — Go Behind the Scenes on the Episode and the Series

To commemorate Veteran’s Day, the MeTV network will be airing “Goodbye, Farewell and Amen,” the series finale of MAS*H, which brought the groundbreaking series to an end in 1983 after 11 seasons. Airing as a three-hour event at 7:00 p.m. ET, it will also feature interviews with, among others, series stars Alan Alda, Mike Farrell, Loretta Swit, Jamie Farr and Gary Burghoff.

Dale Sherman, author of the exhaustive — and indispensable — book MAS*H FAQ explains in an exclusive interview with Closer Weekly, “Running the length of five episodes, ‘Goodbye, Farewell and Amen’ represented a golden opportunity to give major and minor characters on the program a chance to wrap up their stories as we see the Korean War finally come to an end after over 250 episodes.”

The length of the episode, he points out, is a primary reason that the finale has rarely been seen on television as it was never broken down into half-hour segments. “The infrequent nature of seeing the episode makes its airing on MeTV somewhat unique,” says Dale. “Yet, it should be mentioned that there is a great sense of displacement in the episode that may throw frequent viewers of the program, thanks to the finale’s length, its storylines and even the locale used.”

MAS*H had experimented with the format over the years, such as the first-person narrative “Point of View” in season 7, and the well-remembered “The Interview” from 1976, which was filmed as if it was a black-and-white documentary, to the finale, which began with Hawkeye Pierce suffering a nervous breakdown and in a psychiatric hospital.

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“That must have been shocking to audiences on the night it originally aired back on February, 28, 1983,” muses Dale. “Although the storyline — based on a real-life event — is one that Alan Alda had wanted to pursue for quite some time, to shift the series away from the 4077 for much of the first hour’s running time to deal with Hawkeye’s story, especially one that ultimately is rather dark, was a vastly unusual move, particularly for what was to be the final episode of the series.”

“Compound that with things appearing in the episode uncommon for the series — such as POWs being penned within the camp, or everyone from the camp enjoying themselves on a beach near the beginning of the episode — can easily rattle viewers who may be wondering if the show was coming from an alternate universe,” he continued. “Sharing with that sense of being out-of-sorts is something that had to be done due to a fire hitting the standing set in California at the time. Suddenly everything about the series seems a little weird. Yet, in a way, that nearly dreamlike ‘not quite right’ look to the finale helps reinforce the ending of the series as well.”

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20th Century Fox/Kobal/Shutterstock

“Just as we in our everyday lives find comfort in the norms of the world around us, when we find ourselves moving on from one aspect of our lives — be it our jobs or home life — the world around us quickly takes on an appearance that seems otherworldly. We notice things we never saw before; find relationships suddenly changing as the dynamics we built around us shift; wonder what we’ll see or do next. And such rapid changes to our world plays into the finale, as it does in the last pages of the M*A*S*H novel by H. Richard Hornberger, on which the series is based, which also saw major characters slowly leaving the war behind to return to their previous lives.”

Please scroll down for more.

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The Korean War

An intriguing element of Dale Sherman’s MASH FAQ is that before going into detail on the film or TV series, it takes the time to look back at the Korean War itself. “By doing so,” he says, “the main thing I got from researching the book was a better understanding about both North and South Korea. About why it happened and where it’s going. I mean, there are issues going on with Korea right now.

“I think if anything can come out of MASH, besides watching an entertaining show, it’s that maybe it might cause some people to research that history and understand why these people were there and what they were trying to do. And it wasn’t just somebody trying to be macho; ‘Hey, we’re the USA and we’re going to win!’ There really was something they were trying to prove there; something they were trying to do. If anything, hopefully the MASH series, or even my book, might bring people to go back and look at the reality of what happened and try to understand it better.”

The photo above shows MASH units in action, the top from the war itself and the bottom from the TV series.    

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The ‘MASH’ Novels

What’s been fairly well known is the fact that the movie and TV versions of MASH have their roots in the novel by Richard Hooker, but what may come as a surprise to many is the sheer quantity of novels that there have been. “But you really have to think of the novels as a completely different universe from the filmed versions,” says Dale. “There’s no way you can read or watch these things together and think that these are the same characters. That’s my approach when I tell people about them. It’s, like, ‘Don’t go into these books expecting to see something like the TV show.” The novels, especially the later ones, were satires. Complete satires. They were set in the present day and are just making fun of celebrities. They have nothing to do with the characters we grew up on.”

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‘MASH’ Goes to …

For an in-depth look at the novels, check out Dale’s The MASH F.A.Q., but here’s a quick list of what’s been published. Credited to Richard Hooker are MASH: A Novel About Three Army Doctors (1968), MASH Goes to Maine (1972), MASH Mania (1977). These are credited to Richard Hooker and William E. Butterworth: MASH Goes to New Orleans (1975), MASH Goes to Paris (1975), MASH Goes to London (1975), MASH Goes to Morocco (1976), MASH Goes to Las Vegas (1976), MASH Goes to Hollywood (1976), MASH Goes to Vienna (1976), MASH Goes to Miami (1976), MASH Goes to San Francisco (1976), MASH Goes to Texas (1977), MASH Goes to Montreal (1977), and MASH Goes to Moscow (1977).

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‘MASH’: The Movie

Released in 1970 and directed by Robert Altman, the film version is described as a satirical black comedy, and while taking place during the Korean War is really seen as an allegory for Vietnam (which was still raging on at that point). Among the film’s stars are Donald Sutherland as Hawkeye Pierce, Elliott Gould as Trapper John, Sally Kellerman as Major Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan, Robert Duvall as Frank Burns, Roger Bowen as Henry Blake, Rene Auberjonois as Father Mulcahy, and Gary Burghoff as Cpl. “Radar” O’Reilly (the only actor to make the transition over to the television series). Naturally, the focus is on the doctors and nurses stationed at a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (MASH) in South Korea.

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More on the Film

Muses Dale, “The novel was definitely written for an audience of adults, and it has some things in it that, had you come to it after watching the TV show, you’d be, like, ‘Who are these people? These people don’t act like the characters from the TV show.’ It’s obvious that when they took the novel and tried to make a movie, they were thinking, ‘Well, we’ve got to tone down some of the things that happened in the book.’ The book had some things in it that you couldn’t get away with in a movie back in the late ’60s. Same thing with the TV show. The TV creators were going, ‘Well, we can’t get away with some of the things that are in the movie,’ so they kept toning it down a little bit more as it went along.”

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‘MASH’: The Series

In the 1970s, the idea of movies spawning TV shows based on them was becoming more popular. Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple and Barefoot in the Park were based on films and Broadway shows of the same name, Planet of the Apes came from the beloved sc-fi film series, while the feature Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore spawned Alice. And then there was MASH, inspired by the 1970 film.  And let’s face it, the idea of a “sitcom” focusing on doctors stationed at the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital in Uijeongbu, South Korea didn’t exactly scream TV hit. But that’s exactly what it became.

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Part of a Classic TV Lineup

The show made its debut in 1972 on CBS, and (not surprisingly) struggled in the ratings. But in its second year it shifted time slots and that changed everything. In fact, it was a part of CBS’ (then) sterling Saturday line-up, which consisted of All in the Family at 8, MASH at 8:30, The Mary Tyler Moore Show at 9, The Bob Newhart Show at 9:30, and The Carol Burnett Show at 10. That was impressive in itself, but even more is that the show would run until 1983 and a total of 11 years (much longer than the Korean War was actually fought). Along the way it also introduced audiences to some of the most memorable characters ever presented on the small screen, many of whom will be discussed shortly.

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Elements of the Film Carry Over to the Show

“I recently started rewatching some of the early episodes on Hulu,” explains Dale. “I can see where they were trying to make it look like the movie, even including a couple or characters from the movie that they eventually got rid of, because they couldn’t figure out what to do with them. And they definitely tried to make it look like the movie; 20th Century Fox kept the MASH set pretty much on their ranch, so they used the same setting.”

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Series Longevity

As to why the show lasted as long as it did — winning 14 Emmys (though being nominated for 100 of them in total) — along the way, he offers “I really think it had to do with the writing and acting more than anything else. I don’t think anybody was really wanting to just watch a show about surgeons in the Korean War for 11 years. It really had to do with people wanting to see a quality comedy show —or comedy drama show, as it went on to become.”

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Cast Changes

Another element that separated MASH from a lot of other shows, particularly from that time, is the fact that there were a lot of cast changes over the years. And we’re not just talking about actors playing small roles on the show, but some major players. And yet M*A*S*H not only survived, it positively thrived, each cast defection resulting in someone even stronger taking their place. We’re losing Henry Blake? Make way for Sherman Potter. Trapper John (or real-life alter ego Wayne Rogers) has had enough? Welcome, BJ Hunnicut. And it went on from there.

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Unique Situation

“This was the first show that could get rid of several members of the cast,” says Dale. “I mean, on most shows if you get rid of one, the series falls apart. This one had at least three major actors leave and it still went on for several years. I think it’s a good example of one of the few cases where they were able to do that and keep going.”

That likely wouldn’t have been the case, he muses, if Alan Alda had decided to leave. “Hawkeye really was the cornerstone of the whole thing,” he offers. “There were times where you felt it got preachy with him — I’ll admit that — but I don’t think it would have survived without him. He really was the beginning and end of the show, which is what you get in the final episode: The last thing you see in the episode is him. Truthfully, a lot of his own creative and political leanings came into the show, he also directed and wrote many of the episodes. He was that important to it.”

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Alan Alda (1936-) as Hawkeye Pierce

“Hawkeye was written as in the book and the film, which was that of a brilliant, wisecracking surgeon, and that is exactly what Alda gave us in the series at first,” Dale points out. “However, over time and through his influence as a writer and director, he was able to expand Hawkeye to show us a man obsessed with trying to save the world and finding that sometimes we must admit we’re human.  The creator of MASH, H. Richard Hornberger, would later denounce the series due to what had been done to his creation, specifically Hawkeye (who was a glamourized version of himself during the war), but it is Alda’s stamp on Hawkeye that we all remember today rather than the one from the novel or Donald Sutherland’s portrayal from the film.”  

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Wayne Rogers (1933 – 2015) as Trapper John

“At times,” Dale opines, “Trapper seemed to be regulated to that of Hawkeye’s audience, laughing at his jokes, rather than a major character in the show (something Rogers himself was quite aware). However, when given a chance to do something more, Rogers gave us a character that was not simply Hawkeye Jr., but a man who was more aware, and even more adult than Hawkeye. Further, while Hawkeye exhibited his anger through talk, Rogers exhibited a fiery edge to Trapper’s anger that could easily move to the physical. Mike Farrell as BJ would prove to be a fine replacement, but the buddy-buddy atmosphere of the first three season with Hawkeye and Trapper would be gone — to be replaced with one of a group interacting — and so, too, would be what some fans see as the show’s golden era.”

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Loretta Swit (1937-) as Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan

“Playing the only consistent female character on the show, Swit had to deal with being little more than cannon fodder for jokes early on,” muses Dale. “But even within the first season, we saw that Houlihan was more than just a hothead bent on rules and regulations, and it was through Swit’s ability as an actor that we began to slowly sympathize with Houlihan. Swit herself would later dismiss the idea that her character went through the most dramatic changes in the series, but she took what at first could have been a comic cardboard villain and instead showed us a woman struggling with issues of empowerment and becoming her own person in an era where that simply was not the norm.”

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McLean Stevenson (1927 – 1996) as Col. Henry Blake 

“Stevenson wanted the role of Hawkeye, but was left with the role he will be remembered for, the clumsy but well-intentioned Henry Blake,” states Dale. “Stevenson was a writer, who would contribute to two scripts in the series and was known on the set as someone who would defend the cast and crew when needed. His Henry Blake was beloved by many fans, which made the death of the character even more shocking when it occurred at the end of Season Three. Stevenson hated seeing the character be killed off, but he would later admit that it was the right way to show the audience that war kills indiscriminately. It is still remembered as one of the biggest shocks in television series history.”

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Gary Burghoff (1943-), Corp. Walter ‘Radar’ O’Reilly

“Burghoff,” he adds, “was the only main member of the cast from the film to make it to the television series.  Fans will no doubt notice that the early episodes of the program, much like the film, give us a Radar that is rather oily and sneaky (not to mention smoking cigars and drinking alcohol). Burghoff would change the character through the first season to making Radar rather innocent and sweet. For many seasons, along with Klinger, Radar was our only link to the non-coms that served at the M*A*S*H units; he was also the main link to the more innocent days of the series itself, and was such a strong part of the show that once Burghoff left, the series seemed to lose its footing a bit before coming back together in its tenth and eleventh seasons.”

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Larry Linville (1939 – 2000) as Maj. Frank Burns 

Explains Dale, “Robert Duvall played Burns in the film, but Linville took the character of Frank Burns and turned him from the psychotic failure of the film to the weasel of the series. Fascinating as well is that Burns in the series not only could be competent (unlike his film counterpart) but even likable at times. He even gets to save the day in at least an episode or two and Linville — who had started his television career as the villain who got to beat up Mannix and the like each week — would later leave the series where he could see there was nothing left to be done with the role, but his mark on Burns would give us a prototype for such annoying characters in other series.”

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Mike Farrell (1939-) as BJ Hunnicutt 

Points out Dale, “It would have been easy to simply give us a variation of Trapper with BJ, but the writers created a friendly family man who was quick with his wit while boiling in frustration inside. Farrell found a way to bring that difficult conflict together so that we saw him as a comforting force in the show, while not being completely shocked when things did get to him. It was up to Farrell — and soon after Harry Morgan as Potter – to convince the television audience that the show could go on without Trapper, and Farrell and everyone involved easily pulled that off. From his introduction, the show would become more willing to be character-based rather than plot-oriented, and soon nearly all the characters would be given more to do and even whole episodes. Rogers would later state that if he had known such a change was coming, he probably would have stayed on, but if he had, one would wonder if the change would have even occurred.  As an aside, oddly enough, while Rogers’ Trapper will be remembered as being ready to issue a threat in anger, it was Farrell’s BJ that was always the one ready to strike with his fists first.”

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David Ogden Stiers (1942 – 2017) as Maj. Charles Emerson Winchester III 

“Stiers had the most difficult job as a replacement performer on the show — he had to replace Burns, who by that point was more like Daffy Duck than a flesh-and-blood character on the program,” points out the author. “Stiers brought a major change in tone to the show, conflicted at first by being stuck with scripts where the writers were unsure if they wanted to create a romance between Winchester and Houlihan or not (in some cases, it is easy to see that scripts written with Burns in mind, were hastily rewritten for Winchester). With Winchester’s entrance, Hawkeye and BJ were not the only the win-all characters of earlier seasons, and the show would shift even more into stories about the group. Stiers managed to bring an elegance to the role which, over time, was able to make the stick-in-the-mud Winchester likable in his own way.”

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Harry Morgan (1915 – 2011) as Col. Sherman T. Potter 

Dale wonders, “Can any fan say his name without sounding like Klinger doing an impression of Potter? Anyway, Morgan came into the series in a guest role in Season Three as a crazy general in ‘The General Flipped at Dawn,’ and would be asked back the following season to play a somewhat similar, but certainly saner, version of the character. Like Farrell, Morgan had the task of coming in as a replacement for a beloved person on the show and managed to help take things in a new direction. Potter was Army, and did follow the rules, but like his counterparts in the real Korean War, also knew that doctors were not soldiers, and sometimes rules had to be bent in order to make things work. With Morgan as Potter, the series finally began to steer away from the early days of ‘all military are either bad or ignorant’.”

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Jamie Farr (1934-) as Corp. Maxwell Klinger 

According to Dale, “It was supposed to be a one-joke character: a guy in a dress looking to be certified as insane and sent home, and at first the director had Farr play it in a traditional ‘drag’ manner. Producer Gene Reynolds nixed that idea, preferring Farr play it straight and it made the joke work a thousand times better.  It would have been so easy to go for the low gag, but Farr brought such humor and style to the role that Klinger would become a regular character on the program, eventually lose the dresses, and become one of the regulars in the sequel series, AfterMASH. A far cry from what was just a silly visual gag in one episode.”

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William Christopher (1932 – 2016) as Father Francis John Patrick Mulcahy

Dale states, “If you ever seen the first episode, you’ll notice that it isn’t Christopher as Mulcahy (it’s actor George Morgan). Christopher doesn’t appear as Mulcahy until the third episode of the series and only has a handful of lines, but he managed to bring a sweetness to the role that would personify what many would see as a positive role-model for Catholic Priests in the 1970s. Christopher so fit the role that when he developed hepatitis during Season Five, he feared he would be replaced.  Instead, the writers worked around him and even wrote a storyline about Mulcahy developing hepatitis in order to keep him in the show. Christopher, Farr, and Morgan would all go on to co-star in AfterMASH, and yet all were actors that came to MASH after its premiere, proving how valuable all three were to the series in the long-run.”

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“Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen”

Comments Dale, “Back in 1983 when I saw the finale air on CBS, I wasn’t sure if I cared for the ending of the series.  Now, after all these years, I’m finally starting to see that perhaps this is the ending it always needed — with characters unprepared to leave, missing events that shape the lives of friends around them, or as in the case of what happens with Klinger, leading them down a new path in life.  The real world never ends its stories with neat little bows, and in following that pattern in ‘Goodbye, Farewell and Amen,’ the show ended up being somewhat closer to the truth as well.”

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AfterMASH

The only spin-off from MASH, it aired on CBS from 1983-85 and focuses on the post-Korean War lives of Colonel Potter (Harry Morgan), Klinger (Jamie Farr), and Father Mulcahy (William Chistopher). All three, through various circumstances, end up working at River Bend (don’t look for it on the map; it’s a fictional city), Missouri’s  General Pershing Veteran’s Hospital. No one could argue that the series was well made, but the audience that had become such devoted followers to MASH simply didn’t tune in.

“A lot of it had to do with the fact that these were all incidental characters,” opines Dale. “Not to say anything bad about the actors or where they were going with the show, but Potter arrived on MASH five seasons in, Klinger was an addition in the first season, and Father Mulcahy was a character that we only saw off and on in the series. So I don’t think the audience really cared enough about these characters. But that’s not the only problem. Going back to the novel briefly. MASH, the first book, was written and it did alright, but the second and third didn’t do as well, because they were dealing with the characters back in Maine. I don’t think the audience really cared as much anymore. The war made these characters more important, in a sense. There’s an urgency to these characters that isn’t there once you take them out of their element.”

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