originally published January 26, 2014
Up until the recent spate of Platinum-Age television brilliance forced me to redefine the parameters of small-screen excellence, I had always placed M*A*S*H upon a mighty khaki pedestal. The show wasn’t perfect, but it blended riotous comedy with deeply human drama and did so often within the same scene. As recently as last week I found myself reminiscing with someone about the most unforgettable episodes – “Point of View”, “Dreams”, “The Interview” – and I realized I have yet to pen a piece in tribute to this eleven-season masterpiece.
Hell, I’ve already written about Golden Girls; how have I not written about this show yet? I’m going with the ‘things I didn’t know’ format, since there’s simply too much interesting trivia to cram into a proper narrative kilograph. Also, I’ve got an extremely tight deadline.
Some of these I did know before today, but I learned them after the show’s initial run (which wrapped up when I was 8 – thank goodness for syndication).
- The TV show was based on MASH, an elegantly twisted 1970 film by Robert Altman. The film was based on MASH: A Novel About Three Army Doctors, which was written by Richard Hooker.
- Richard Hooker doesn’t exist. He’s an amalgam of writer W.C. Heinz and former US Army doctor H. Richard Hornberger, who served as a military surgeon in the 8055 Mobile Army Surgical Hospital.
- Many of the stories in the first few seasons of the show were based on actual tales from former army doctors. Hornberger’s quarters in Korea were actually nicknamed ‘The Swamp.’
- During the football game in the film, one player warns another his “fucking head is coming right off”, one of the first uses of the word ‘fuck’ in an American studio film. Altman claims it’s the first – he could be right.
- Rene Auberjonois, who played Odo on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, portrayed Father Francis Mulcahey in the movie. The role was played by William Christopher in the series… except for the first episode. For that one broadcast, Mulcahey was played by George Morgan. Morgan has one other minor entry on his IMDb page, then dropped off the entertainment radar.
- Gary Burghoff (who was the only principle actor to appear in both the film and TV series) has a deformed left hand, which he keeps mostly hidden via clipboards or his pockets.
- Burghoff is also a jazz drummer (his Krupa-esque solo in that talent show episode was no fluke). In 1968 he drummed in a band called The Relatives. The lead singer was future Wonder Woman star Lynda Carter, with whom Gary has remained friends.
- Both Maclean Stevenson (Henry) and Wayne Rogers (Trapper John) allegedly regretted leaving the show after season 3 (Stevenson felt he’d go on to bigger and better things and Rogers wasn’t happy with his contract). Larry Linville (Frank Burns) had no regrets about taking off after season 5, believing he’d taken his character as far as he could.
- Spearchucker Jones (yes, that was an actual character name for a black guy in season 1) disappeared and was never mentioned again. The writers had discovered that there was actually no record of a black doctor serving in the Korean War.
- Henry Blake was supposed to be sent home after season 3. In the final scene of “Abyssinia, Henry”, when Radar enters the O.R. and announces Henry’s death, the actors’ reactions were genuine – no one had been told this was coming. This is probably the most well-known piece of M*A*S*H trivia, but it’s too brilliant not to mention.
- There were two spin-offs from the show, not counting Trapper John M.D., which takes place decades afterwards and has no narrative tie to M*A*S*H outside of that one character. AfterMASH lasted for two seasons, and the curiously dark W*A*L*T*E*R made it only through one episode. I mentioned this one before.
- In England, the show was broadcast with no laugh track, just as creator Larry Gelbart had wanted. CBS wasn’t sure we North Americans would know when to laugh, so they insisted upon canned laughter everywhere except for during scenes in the O.R.
- The show was taped in a Century City studio, and also in the current location of Malibu Creek State Park. An abandoned jeep and ambulance from the show mark the spot in Malibu today, as well as a restored version of the iconic sign.
- The writers had to come up with so many new character names, they ran out of ideas. The seventh season saw many ancillary characters named after the 1978 Los Angeles Dodgers roster.
- Jamie Farr and Alan Alda both served in Korea, though after the war had ended. Klinger’s dogtags are in fact Farr’s from his service.
- The guy who wanted plastic surgery in the season two episode “Operation Noselift”? That was Todd Susman, who went on to be the faceless voice over the PA system for most of the run of the series.
- That guy on the right who appeared only in the pilot episode is actually Bruno Kirby, star of When Harry Met Sally, City Slickers, and The Godfather, Part II.
- Other notable guest stars include George Wendt, Shelly Long, Leslie Nielsen, Ed Begley Jr., Pat Morita, Laurence Fishburne, Joe Pantoliano, Alex Karras, Patrick Swayze, Ron Howard, Joan Van Ark, Ned Beatty, Andrew Dice Clay, James Cromwell, Teri Garr and Jeffrey Tambor. Most of those actors were virtually unknown when they appeared on the show.
- B.J. Hunnicutt’s daughter was named Erin at Mike Farrell’s request – it was his actual daughter’s name.
- Nearly 100 days ago I wrote about the Friday Night Curse, in which shows are moved from their regular night to Friday nights, thus leading to their premature demise. M*A*S*H was moved from Tuesdays to Fridays for the first chunk of the 1975-76 season. It survived. In fact, it eventually took a turn on every night of the broadcast schedule except for Wednesdays and Thursdays.
- The show ended because four of the series’ eleventh-season regulars – Alan Alda, Mike Farrell, Loretta Swit and David Ogden Stiers – had felt it was time. The other three kept their grip on the brass ring for two seasons of AfterMASH.
- Most shows pull the plug when the ratings dip; M*A*S*H never had to. It was ranked #46 during its first season, but climbed into the top ten the following year. Season 4 found it at #15, but for every other season it was a top ten show, peaking at #3 during its eleventh and final year. Much like Seinfeld, the show went out on top.
- The show won 14 Emmys, 7 Directors Guild awards, 7 Golden Globes (Alan Alda won six alone), and even a Peabody Award.
For serving as a modern-era allegory for the Vietnam War when that war’s popularity was at an all-time low, M*A*S*H held for its generation of viewers a special significance that even I missed out on. There hasn’t been a show like it before or sense., and while it might not get the same level of DVD airplay as my Arrested Development collection, I’ll still pop it on from time to time.
With the damn laugh track turned off, of course.