M*A*S*H

updated 03/07/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/07/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

There was a death in the American family last week. After 11 years and 251 installments, M*A*S*H came to the end of its remarkable life as the most intelligent, passionate, imaginative and fiercely funny comedy series in the history of U.S. television. As might be expected, the show went out in style. Last rites—a scheduled two-and-a-half-hour finale written and directed by star Alan Alda—were expected to draw one of the largest audiences ever to tune in a TV show. And for the privilege of fishing in that ocean of consumers a clutch of major corporations paid the highest rate ever for a 30-second commercial: $450,000.

Telegrams of encomium arrived from President Reagan, former Presidents Carter and Ford, and Henry Kissinger. Detailed and respectful, the obituaries in the press reported that M*A*S*H had lasted about three times as long as the Korean War that served as its setting. It had been nominated for 99 Emmy awards and won 14 of those flashy statuettes. Even in its 11th year it ranked as the third most popular show of the 1982-83 season, trailing only 60 Minutes and Dallas. And, counting reruns, which are shown up to three times daily (for a rental fee that can reach $50,000 an installment) on 194 stations nationwide, the series in recent years has been watched by 224 million viewers every week and already has grossed about $200 million.

What will America do without Hawkeye Pierce and his madcap crew of surgeons and nurses, marooned out there on the crumbling edge of reality, acting crazy in order to stay sane as they mop up the blood shed by greed, stupidity, cruelty and indifference? With bawdy cheek and gallows humor, with a rage that was nourished by tenderness, they showed us how to care for ourselves and for each other in a world that all too often couldn't care less. For millions, the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital became a fascinating theater of the absurd in which good and evil, life and death, humor and horror were clothed as characters in an electronic morality play.

Heavy topics for a sitcom—but then M*A*S*H was a child of heavy times. In 1972, when the series premiered, American boys were still dying in Vietnam and American voters were thoroughly sick of the war. In this climate of anger and frustration, 20th Century-Fox asked producer Gene Reynolds and writer Larry Gelbart to develop a weekly series based on director Robert Altman's 1970 movie version of Dr. Richard Hornberger's 1968 novel. The movie had played the war for fun-and-gaminess, but Reynolds and Gelbart scrupulously refused to jest at scars without also acknowledging the wounds of war. So they structured a passionately compassionate satirical allegory: a war within a war between the Good Guys and the Bad Guys.

The Good Guys were a couple of army surgeons, Capt. Benjamin Franklin "Hawkeye" Pierce (Alan Alda) and Capt. John "Trapper John" McIntyre (Wayne Rogers). Appalled by the brutality and wastefulness of war, they tried to forget about it by gleefully tormenting the Bad Guys. Their target of choice was brown-nosing, blame-dodging Maj. Frank Burns (Larry Linville). They also liked to torture Maj. Margaret "Hot Lips" Houlihan (Loretta Swit), the butch bitch of a head nurse who called Major Burns a "lipless wonder" but still gave him a cot to kiss in.

Bumbling Authority was represented in Lt. Col. Henry Blake (McLean Stevenson), Incorrigible Innocence by Cpl. Walter "Radar" O'Reilly (Gary Burghoff), The Rock of Ages by Father John Francis Patrick Mulcahy (William Christopher) and The Utter Madness of It All was expressed in Cpl. Max Klinger (Jamie Farr). A hairy malingerer with a nose that (as one reporter put it) "gives as much shade as your average elm," Klinger pranced around the unit gussied up like a girl, openly bucking for a psychiatric discharge.

In some early episodes, M*A*S*H seemed to be making the usual sitcom statement that war is Hellzapoppin, but year by year the show grew better. To make the show authentic, Reynolds and Gelbart visited MASH units in Korea and interviewed about 150 doctors who had served in front-line hospitals. Stories these men told formed the basis of many M*A*S*H episodes, but fact was laboriously crafted into fiction. Scripts were rewritten at least four times, then submitted to the actors, who often disagreed fiercely with the treatment of their characters. When their ideas seemed valid, they were accepted, and the script was again rewritten.

Before long the whole company was fiercely involved in the creation of the series. Actors began to write scripts and direct episodes—Alda directed at least 40 and wrote more episodes than he directed. Synergy began to flow and kept on flowing as long as the series lasted.

Alda was the star of the show but he refused all star prerogatives. "M*A*S*H," says Loretta Swit, "was the star of M*A*S*H." Alda agrees: "I put the show first, not my career. We all did. There was no pettiness. We
shared everything. We ate a lot of pizza together. We played chess with beer cans. We filled rubber gloves with water and threw them at each other. We huddled around bonfires on the old Fox ranch in Malibu in 14-degree weather, hugging each other. And because we were close off-camera, it was only natural to feel close on-camera, and that showed on the screen and helped the show."

Intimacy had another effect on the series: The characters in M*A*S*H evolved far more vigorously than those on any other weekly show. As the writers got to know the actors, they wrote their personal problems and qualities into their roles. As Hawkeye became more like Alda, he began to drink less and think more. As Hot Lips became more like Swit, she began to dismantle her armor and reach out for relationships. Characters evolved at high speed when a new actor joined the cast. When McLean Stevenson's character died in an airplane crash in 1975, he was replaced by Harry Morgan, a veteran performer with a foghorn voice. The writers noticed that both Burghoff and Swit began to treat Morgan like a long-lost daddy, and soon their characters displayed the same sort of filial devotion to Morgan's Col. Sherman Potter. As for Klinger, he knew his days in drag were numbered when the new colonel brusquely took the starch out of his tutu. "Soldier," he said, "I've seen every dodge in the book. We had a man who thought he was a daisy and insisted on being watered every day. Get out of that froufrou and back into uniform!"

When Wayne Rogers was replaced by Mike Farrell, Trapper John the skirt chaser evolved into Capt. B.J. Hunnicutt the family man, and as a result the central character of Hawkeye made a subtle shift in style. Since B.J. was more receptive than Trapper John to direct statements of strong feeling, Hawkeye began to express more openly the wisdom behind his wisecracks and the solid man behind the charming maniac.

M*A*S*H, in short, developed from a satiric sitcom into an ironic comedy of character. Probably the most powerful of all M*A*S*H episodes was 1976's The Interview, the last of the 97 shows Gelbart wrote. The episode was in fact a series of interviews, conducted by former CBS correspondent Clete Roberts, with all the main characters in M*A*S*H. Gelbart prepared the questions. Each actor thought out his own answers. And what they had to say added up to a hellish illumination of war as doctors see it. When a doctor operates in a thin canvas tent in subzero weather, Father Mulcahy explains with a mildness that somehow makes his words more horrifying, "The steam rises from the body he is operating on, and so that he can continue operating, the doctor will warm his hands over the open wound...can anyone look on that and not be changed?"

Some devotees feel that as M*A*S*H acquired heart it lost bite—and Gelbart is one of them. "I'm not a big fan of commercial heart," he said recently. "In a comedy you also have to kick the character with heart in the ass. If you don't, you lose crispness, friction, conflict, drama—and comedy too."

Burt Metcalfe, the gifted producer who has guided M*A*S*H since Reynolds left to produce Lou Grant, begs to differ. "Larry," he says, "is a comic genius. When he left, we knew we couldn't maintain the comic quality at the level he'd set. But we felt there was room for emotional growth in the characters. I think what we did kept the show fresh."

But for M*A*S*H, time had begun to run out. "There were strong reasons for stopping now," says Metcalfe. "We had exhausted our research and it was getting harder to come up with good ideas for shows. The whole company took a vote and decided to quit while we were still proud of our work and could still decide when and how we wanted to say goodbye."

Suicide was not painless, however. "I feel an overwhelming sadness," said Harry Morgan. Jamie Farr says he is "really shot—depressed." Alda feels bad too: "It's rough. Like breaking up a family. There may never be anything like it again." But all agree that making M*A*S*H was one of the great personal and creative experiences of their lives. "I'm a richer person," said Farreli, "for having been in that place, with those wonderful people."

And yet there are consolations. For viewers there are the reruns. For M*A*S*H regulars there are stacks of choice job offers to choose from. Swit is swamped with stage, screen and TV offers—including a proposal to start her own series. Farrell is about to direct his first picture and Alda is committed to direct two more pictures for Universal. For three members of the cast (Morgan, Farr and Christopher) there is Aftermash, a new series, set in a veterans' hospital, that Metcalfe and Gelbart have sold to CBS. But there are ironies too. "I have no illusions that we persuaded many people that war just isn't worth it," says Metcalfe. "But I think we did show what TV can do if it gives good people and good ideas a chance."

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