MASH TV show: Meet the stars who made the war comedy/drama show M*A*S*H a huge hit (1972-1983)

Looking back at the classic TV show MASH

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Energized by the success of the M*A*S*H feature film in 1970, M*A*S*H — the TV version — debuted on the airwaves in 1972. The comedy show (with plenty of drama) centered around the lives and work of a team of doctors stationed in Korea during the Korean War in the early ’50s.

The initial cast of M*A*S*H (which means “Mobile Army Surgical Hospital”) included Alan Alda (as “Hawkeye” Pierce), Wayne Rogers (Trapper John McIntyre), McLean Stevenson (Henry Blake), Larry Linville (Frank Burns), Gary Burghoff (“Radar” O’Reilly), Loretta Swit (Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan) and Jamie Farr (Maxwell Q. Klinger).

M*A*S*H lasted for 11 seasons, and went out on a very high note. The show’s final episode — which aired on February 28, 1983 as a two-hour TV movie called “Goodbye, Farewell and Amen” — was a double record breaker. At the time, it was both the most-watched and highest-rated TV episode in TV history.

Here’s a look back at the show, through vintage newspaper stories and cast interviews!

No matter what TV rates it, MASH’S cast is enthusiastic (1973)

From the Messenger-Inquirer (Owensboro, Kentucky) July 13, 1973

Whether or not M*A*S*H becomes a big hit is still in the lap of the ratings, but it already occupies a unique spot in TV history. I doubt that any previous television show has a cast with as much enthusiasm as this one.

A visit to the M*A*S*H set is enough to substantiate that claim. Just look around, on the soundstage at Fox, and what do you see? All the cast between shots is working on the script. With other shows, the cast members are off, reading or knitting or doing crossword puzzles.

Not here. In one corner of the stage, Alan Alda and Loretta Swit are running over their lines. There’s another huddle between Larry Linville and Wayne Rogers. And a third with Gary Burghoff and McLean Stevenson.

Alda says the cast is so enthusiastic that they often rehearse on their own for hours after the day’s shooting is wrapped up. They have even been known to get together at somebody’s house, over the weekend, to rehearse some more. This is unheard of in television. Generally, TV show casts have the enthusiasm of a sleepy sloth.

Alda attributes the MASH experience to two factors — one, they’re all stage-trained actors and, two, they all love the show.

MASH cast members - TV show

This enthusiasm has taken a curious twist. Many of them are trying to write show episodes. Stevenson and Alda already have, and Burghoff is working on a script. He was writing his, in longhand, when he wasn’t rehearsing.

All this doesn’t preclude the usual on-set fun and games, however. A Hollywood set without pranks would be like a hamburger without meat.

On the M*A*S*H set, for example, it’s interesting to read the actors’ chairs. Generally on the back of a canvas chair is the actor’s name. Here, however, there is more.
Burghoff’s chair reads: “DANGER! This chair was last used in San Quentin. Sit in it and get the shock of your life.” And Stevenson’s chair says: “If your name isn’t McLean Stevenson, you’re sitting on him.”

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There is also a sign posted on the operating room set. This is a permanent set, roped off because it wasn’t in use. The set designer didn’t want anyone moving things around, however, and had posted this sign on the ropes: “Keep away. This set is protected by a gypsy curse.”

The script they were shooting was the one Alan Alda had written. Of all the actors on the show, Alda had the reputation of being the toughest on writers. He’s the one who always questions words and asks for rewrites.

MASH TV show in Dynamite Magazine - 1981 (2)

This time, however, the script was on the other foot. As the writer, he was defending his words. At one point, director Bill Wiard decided to change one of the lines. “Do you mind, Alan?” Wiard asked him. “No,” said Alda. “I don’t think I mind.” But you could tell he did, at least a little bit.

The soundstage at Fox where they shoot has one intriguing feature. The set is the hospital compound, seven or eight tents, trees on a plain dirt floor. But the dirt floor isn’t a dirt floor at all. It’s rubber, molded to look like dirt.

“This could be a very popular floor covering,” one of the crew said. “Think how it would go over with hippies — they could have wall-to-wall dirt.”

TV’s M*A*S*H based on the book, not the movie (1973)

From the Messenger-Inquirer (Owensboro, Kentucky) July 13, 1973

A number of television series have been derived from movies, but “M*A*S*H” may be the first to ignore the movie and go back to the original book for its inspiration. The CBS series draws only its physical look and the use of the camp loudspeaker from the movie.

The film was, of course, a hit, but whether its attitudes could have been sustained on television is problematical. Those who put the series together thought not and made some basic changes. “There are three major differences between the series and the movie,” said McLean Stevenson, the tall, lean Illinoisian who plays the chief surgeon, Lt. Col. Henry Blake.

“First, the surgeons are highly skilled in the book and in the series,” said Stevenson. “They are not in the movie. Second, in the series, any joke in the operating room is strictly between the doctors. In the movie, some of the jokes were directed at the patients. Third, we all wanted to be drafted, as everyone in the book was. In the movie, they made Col. Blake a Regular Army Man.”The cast of MASH in 1973

These changes made the series reflect different attitudes and provided a more believable foundation for the off-duty antics of the surgeons of the Mobile Army Surgical Hospital. If you could show they were highly skilled, worked long hours and were dedicated to saving lives, then the foolishness grew naturally as a relief from the tensions.

Stevenson came to “M*A*S*H” with a background on the stage and improvisational acting and two years on the Doris Day Show. Still, he is a latecomer to acting.

By the time he turned to acting at 31, he had been a salesman of hospital supplies and worked on the presidential campaigns of his cousin and neighbor in Bloomington, Ill., Adlai Stevenson. He said, “I work very hard at acting. Sometimes so hard that it takes the fun out of it for other people.”

In another area, “M*A*S*H” also sets a precedent. It is the first TV military comedy to be fully aware of the horrors of war. In “M*A*S*H,” soldiers are wounded and occasionally die on the operating table despite the effort of surgeons.

Report from a soundstage: The Merry MASH crew (1976)

By Dick Kleiner – Panama City News-Herald (Panama City, Florida) Feb 5, 1976

If you’re a reporter covering movie and TV people and productions, you eventually get used to hearing the same old lines time after weary time.

Some of the most common are (1) “I know this is a small part, but it’s a challenge”; (2) “I might do a series but only if it’s a part I can live with”; (3) “Sure, it’s a cop series, but with a difference”; and (4) This is the happiest company I’ve ever worked with.”

That last one deserves a bit of amplification. I have never yet been on a set and heard one actor say, about another, “I detest his miserable guts.”

Instead, with a reporter present, actors invariably say nice things about other actors. You may know, from inside tips, that the two can’t stand each other, but they pay lip-service to Good Buddyship. Sweetness and light reigns supreme.

I had heard reports that the M-A-S-H company really did get along, and I decided that was worth checking out. So I spent a few hours, just sitting there, watching and listening and observing. Not once did anybody say, “This is the happiest company I’ve ever worked with,” but they did seem to get along swimmingly.

MASH TV show mashup from 1974

It was a Monday when I reported to my observation post. Monday, on the MASH show set, is the time when they all sit around, waiting for Alan Alda to show up. Alda still lives back east, in New Jersey. After work on Friday evening, he flies home and returns on Monday. Sometimes, if he gets a day or two off in mid-week, he’ll zip home for that day or two.

“Every Friday,” Gary Burghoff said, “he takes the 4:30 plane and he always sits in the same seat — they save the first seat in coach for him. They know him, and they try to keep the seats next to him unsold, so he can take out the armrests, can stretch out and sleep.”

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While they were waiting for him to show up, the whole bunch sat around. Gene Reynolds, the producer, was there, too. He was talking proudly of the fact that “The Confetti Man,” the book written by his wife, Bonnie Jones Reynolds, was creeping up on the best-seller list. “That has a better shot at a movie sale than her first book.”

I said, “because it is more photogenic.” “You’re right,” Reynolds said. “And there is interest from some studios already. We’ve got our fingers crossed.”

They all sat around and talked about the book for a while. Bonnie often does bits on the show, playing a nurse, so it was as though one of their own had written the book.

MASH TV show cast scene

Mike Farrell, who moved in this season to replace Wayne Rogers, was nibbling on his lunch. It was still an hour or so before the break, but he was hungry.

He brings his own lunch to the studio, because he is a health food type. He sipped on a cup of health food vegetable soup. Later, during the lunch break, he would finish the soup, eat health food salad and drink a bottle of his health food drink (celery, parsley, spinach, pineapple and mint juices).

“That must be what makes your feet grow so big,” one of the others kidded him about his oversized feet. The conversation was wide-ranging, as they played their Monday game of Waiting For Alan.

Burghoff had been toying with a comic strip idea. He wanted to know how much comic strip artists made and all about the ins and outs of the syndicate business. Mostly, though, the crew talked about ratings. M-A-S-H is moving to a new night on CBS ( Tuesday ) and they were all happy about that.

Vintage cast of MASH - Alda Farrell Morgan

“We’ll be opposite a couple of crime shows,” Loretta Swit said. “So people who want to watch a comedy will have only us to watch. As it is now, we’re opposite Chico and the Man, and that’s tough.”

“But we’re surviving,”said Reynolds. “We’ve been on every night in the week. Right now, we’re on Fridays and that’s always been CBS’ weak spot, somehow. So we were thrown in to hold the fort against Chico, and we did it.”

It was Loretta Swit’s birthday, but there wasn’t going to be a party. Instead, they would have a party a few days hence, on her last day. She was leaving for New York to go into a hit play, “Same Time Next Year,” with Ted Bessell. They said they had shot many scenes with Loretta ahead, to insert into subsequent shows, so she’ll always be there.

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Everybody was chipping in eight dollars for cake and champagne for her. “I think we should make that nine dollars,” Burghoff said. “That way, there’ll be enough to go around.”

Jamie Farr came by, in his dress, beads, earrings. He has made the part of Klinger, the soldier bucking for a discharge, one of the funniest characters on TV. “The part has made me a star,” he said, after the others paid him their usual wolf-whistle compliments. “Now the public knows the name, Jamie Farr.”

MASH TV show in Dynamite Magazine - 1981 (4)

He told a funny story, about real names, vs. show names. He says he was on tour and somebody asked him what the real name was of the guy who plays Alan Alda on M-A-S-H. That started them all telling stories about the fickle public and its knowledge — or lack of knowledge — of the real names of performers.

“I’m always busy these days,” Farr said. “This show has been great for me. Last year, I went right from this to other things — Barnaby Jones, The Night Stalker — and I expect this year will be just as good.”

Harry Morgan, who has succeeded McLean Stevenson as the M-A-S-H commanding officer, says that stepping in for Stevenson wasn’t too hard.

“Sure, Mac was one of the most popular men in the history of TV,” he said, “but I’m not playing the same character. It might have been a problem, intellectually, but it wasn’t anything I couldn’t handle.”

It was getting on toward noon. And then Alda arrived, striding in through the soundstage door with his shirttails flapping.

“Gang,” he said. They all jumped up and ran over to him, as though he were just back from the moon. It looked like a happy company, darn it.

Mad Magazine cover wtih MASH

M*A*S*H opening credits & theme music (“Suicide is Painless”)

The song “Suicide Is Painless” was written by Michael Altman (lyrics) and Johnny Mandel (music). The instrumental version of the song is used for the MASH opening titles.

YouTube video

Happy 10th birthday, M*A*S*H! (1981)

By Chip Lovitt – Dynamite magazine (December 1981)

Break out the party hats and noisemakers, gang, Dynamite is celebrating the best birthday of the year! M*A*S*H has been a hit television show for ten terrific years!

When Dynamite called up the M*A*S*H gang to wish them many happy returns, we were lucky enough to talk with one of the maddest M*A*S*Hers of all, Jamie “Corporal Max Klinger” Farr! Since he is one of the original stars of the show, he had lots to tell about the show’s past, present, and future!

MASH TV show in Dynamite Magazine - 1981 (3)

Looking back

When it began ten years ago, no one knew if the TV show M*A*S*H would be as big a hit as M*A*S*H, the movie.

“I had no idea at all,” said Farr, “but I think Alan Alda felt it would. My wife, Joy, and Alan talked during the first few episodes of the second season. They both asked each other whether the show would last ten years, and they both said yes.”

For Farr, he was just glad to be working. “I was, very simply, an out-of-work actor who had gotten himself a job. I’d been in the business for many years, and I had worked on so many shows where they said it would be wonderful and terrific. It never was. I knew when I got to M*A*S*H that these were nice and talented people. But I just wanted to do the best possible job so the show would stay on the air, so I would be called back to work for another season.”

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Farr’s character, Max Klinger, wasn’t in the original movie. It was created for the TV show. Farr told us a little about the character. “To begin with, Klinger was a minor character, whose only objective was to get out of the army. His way of doing it was by wearing women’s clothing. But he’s always been a good soldier.”

Lately, Klinger’s role has gotten bigger. He has taken on the duties of the company clerk and become Colonel Potter’s right-hand man. Farr added that “every actor brings part of his own personality to the role he or she plays.” However, he added, “My sense of values are a bit more conservative than Max Klinger’s. I would never try any of the things Klinger does. I would be frightened that I would end up in jail!”

Alan Alda, according to Farr, also brings his personality to the role he plays. Although he often shows a very serious side off-camera, Farr said, “Alan is a lot of fun. There’s a lot of Hawkeye in Alan and vice versa. He laughs it up off camera just as he does when he’s playing Hawkeye.”

MASH TV show in Dynamite Magazine - 1981 (1)

Old soldiers fade away

Every war has its casualties, even a war of wits. Over the years, many of the show’s stars have left the series.

“Each left for a different reason,” Farr said. “Wayne Rogers, from what I gathered, left because he felt his character, Trapper John, wasn’t getting his share of the show. He wanted to be more involved with the stories and not just be an alter-ego to Hawkeye. McLean Stevenson (Colonel Henry Blake) left because he had a better deal financially with another network.”

Stevenson’s departure was the first and, for many viewers, the toughest to take because of the way it was handled on the show. Even the actors didn’t know the final ending of that episode.

“When we shot the show,” Farr recalled, “nobody knew what the final page of the script was. The final page was given to us on the last day of the shooting. We thought we were finished with the episode when we said good-bye to Colonel Blake on the helicopter pad. Then we were each given an envelope with the real final page in it.

“It had been kept a secret. We were all in the operating room when Gary Burghoff, as Radar, delivered the news that Colonel Blake’s plane had been shot down over the Sea of Japan. He had been killed.”

MASH cast in 1979

Stevenson was replaced by Harry Morgan, who plays Colonel Potter. However, other original cast members soon departed.

“Larry Linville left because he was tired of playing Major Frank Burns. He wanted to stretch himself as an actor and do something else. He felt his character wasn’t growing,” Farr said. Linville was replaced by David Odgen Stiers, who plays the pompous Major Winchester.

“Gary Burghoff left the show because he was tired of playing Radar. He wanted to expand as an actor, and not always be the cute guy with glasses and the teddy bear.” It was when Gary left that Farr stepped into the role of company clerk, which meant a bigger and better part for him.

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Still, Burghoff’s departure was the hardest to take for Farr. “Gary’s leaving was the toughest for me,” Farr explained, “because he had been with the show the longest. He told us he was leaving, but the network didn’t believe him.

“I was — and still am — good friends with Gary, and I tried to talk him out of leaving because I thought it would hurt the show. We’d lost so many people, my first concern was how we could keep the show going.”

MASH TV show cast on cover on Dynamite Magazine - 1981

Looking ahead

The men and women of M*A*S*H have weathered the dangers of war and have mixed its sadness with lots of laughter. But for Farr, the saddest day involving the show hasn’t happened yet.

“That day is yet to come,” he told us. “It’s the day when the show finally goes off the air. It may be at the end of this season, so I’m not looking forward to that. We’re not quite sure, but we think this will be the last year. All the actors’ contracts have expired.

Loretta Swit: Meet the actress behind M*A*S*H's Major 'Hot Lips' Houlihan

“Also,” Farr continued, “some of the actors want to go on to do other things. If this is the last year of M*A*S*H, it’s going to be a very difficult experience for all of us.” It will also be a sad day for M*A*S*H fans.

But while the doctors and nurses may finally come home from the war, they’ll live on in the hearts of their fans and in the years and years of reruns!

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