“We try to play par surgery on this course. Par is a live patient.”
Fifty years ago tonight, an odd, seemingly out-of-place TV series made its rather quiet, almost overlooked premiere on CBS. It would struggle through its first season and even face cancellation, but would soon find its audience. Carrying on for ten subsequent seasons, it eventually would go on to become one of the most influential series in the history of television.
M*A*S*H, the TVseries, was based on Robert Altman’s 1970 film MASH, as well as the novel of the same name (actually MASH: A Novel About Three Army Doctors), which was written by “Richard Hooker” (a pen name for Dr. Richard Hornberger and W.C. Heinz). Developed by the late, great Larry Gelbart, the series began as something of a hybrid. It didn’t so much adapt or continue events from either the film or the book as it used both works for inspiration and points of departure. Certain scenes or lines of dialogue from the novel or the movie were the basis for plot points and even entire episodes during the show’s early seasons.
As another part of their research, Gelbart along with writer/producer Gene Reynolds and other members of the writing staff interviewed doctors and other servicemembers who had served (or were serving at that time) in real MASH units overseas. The transcripts of those interviews along with other stories, anecdotes, little asides and other details as conveyed to them by the men and women for whom this was or had been real life served as inspiration throughout the life of the series.
Several of the characters, already re-interpreted to one degree or another for the movie, were given still new spins for their television incarnations. Most notable in that regard is the character around which the series would center, Captain Benjamin Franklin “Hawkeye” Pierce as played by Alan Alda. Though Hawkeye bore a decent resemblance to his film and novel namesakes at the start, Alda’s influence not just in his own portrayal but also the writing (and later directing and producing) of the series would see Hawkeye, the rest of the characters, and indeed the entire series evolve in numerous ways as the show progressed.
From the beginning, Gelbart and his crew wanted M*A*S*H to be something more than a simple situation comedy (according to interviews over the years, the cast and crew have said that they never referred to the show as a “sitcom”). In their minds, the setting, a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital during the Korean War, demanded that attention and respect. Even the earliest scripts, played largely for laughs, featured the occasional drift into more dramatic subject matter.
It wasn’t until late in the first season that Gelbart and the writing staff seemed to find the perfect balance between comedy and drama, with the pivotal episode “Sometimes You Hear the Bullet,” in which Hawkeye is reunited with an old friend who later dies on the operating table. By all accounts, this was the episode when the producers realized the true potential of what they could do with the series and its format, provided they had the proper front-office support. Once that support was demonstrated with the show’s renewal for a second season, all bets were off, and M*A*S*H never looked back.
The series would continue unabated for ten more years, earning more than 100 Primetime Emmy nominations (winning 14) and over 20 Golden Globe nominations (snagging 8). It also earned seven Director’s Guild of America, including three for Alan Alda himself, as well as 28 Writers Guild of America Award nominations, of which it took home seven. Its movie-length series finale episode, “Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen,” still ranks as one of the most-watched programs in television history nearly 40 years after its original broadcast.
After the series concluded in 1983, there was an attempt to continue on with some of the characters and leftover storylines. This took the form of AfterMASH, with Colonel Potter, Corporal Klinger and Father Mulcahy working together at a stateside VA hospital after the war. The show actually did pretty well during its first season (despite there being a noticeable lack of, well, M*A*S*H), and was notable for attempting to bring attention to the ongoing post-war treatment and care of soldiers.
Its second year would be its last after CBS unwisely chose to move it to Tuesday nights, opposite a show you might remember called The A-Team. Whoops. AfterMASH was spanked in the ratings, and was cancelled part way through its second year. I’ve not seen the show since its original airing, and then only part of its first season. It’s not yet been released on any home video format, but I remain hopeful, as I’d like to revisit it with fresh eyes. There also was another spin-off attempt, W*A*L*T*E*R with Gary Burghoff reprising his Radar character, but the pilot was rejected. It aired once on television, but I’ve never seen it.
As for M*A*S*H itself, I came to it rather late in its broadcast run. I think I started watching it around the seventh or eighth season, as I recall. By then, reruns of the earlier seasons were airing on local UHF stations, so I started watching them over and over. I remember wondering why the book and film were so different from the show, but once I figured out that I had it backwards, I came to love them on their own merits, and the novel is something I still reread from time to time when the mood strikes. I own the entire series on DVD, and it’s one of those shows for which I’ll stop channel-surfing if I happen across an episode. I’ve read all of the Richard Hooker sequel novels (their continuity feeds off the original novel, not the film or the series), and I even own a copy of the stage play script.
I know there are people who prefer the first three years–before the first of the various cast changes–to anything which came later. There also are folks who don’t watch the latter three or four seasons, because they feel the show began to lose steam at that point. While I agree to an extent with that second stance, for me, I can and do enjoy the entire run, and there are definitely gems and favorites even in those later seasons. The eighth season episode “Old Soldiers,” in which Colonel Potter comes to terms with knowing that the last of his friends from his youth have died, remains one of my absolute favorite episodes, as much for Harry Morgan’s performance as the subject matter.
Other favorites? Wow. How much time do you have? We could be here a while. Suffice it to say I have a lot of favorites, and I’m thinking I’ll be checking out some of them later today.
Happy Anniversary, M*A*S*H.
“Attention, all personnel: Due to conditions beyond our control, we regret to announce that lunch is now being served.”