• Television

M*A*S*H Turns 50

The pilot episode of M*A*S*H aired on CBS on September 17, 1972, chronicling a team of doctors and nurses who staffed the 4077th mobile army surgical hospital (M.A.S.H) in Uijeongbu, South Korea, during the Korean War from 1950 to 1953.  Ironically, the sitcom that highlighted the lunacy of war was so successful that it lasted 11 seasons – four times the length of the actual Korean War.

The popularity of M*A*S*H, with both critics and audiences, cannot be overstated. It arrived a year after Norman Lear’s All in the Family had opened the door to provocative  commentary in primetime television, and inspired creator Larry Gelbart to take the leap from the battlefield of marriage in Lear’s comedy show to a literal battlefield.

Robert Altman had already directed the film version of M*A*S*H in 1970, based on Richard Hooker’s 1968 book, “MASH: A Novel about Three Army Doctors,” with a cast including Donald Sutherland, Elliott Gould, Robert Duvall, Sally Kellerman and Tom Skerritt. The film’s now-legendary theme song, “Suicide is Painless,” was adapted into an instrumental version for the TV series, that kept the recognizable music but dropped the original lyrics penned by Altman’s own 14-year-old son, Michael.

The TV series starred Alan Alda, Gary Burghoff, Loretta Swit and Larry Linville, and switched out two other cast members at the end of the third season, when Mike Farrell replaced the departing Wayne Rogers and Harry Morgan joined the cast after McLean Stevenson’s character, the amiable Lt. Col. Henry Blake, was shockingly killed when his plane was shot down over the Sea of Japan. Long before shows like The Sopranos, Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead were credited with the bold “trend” of killing off major characters, M*A*S*H had seen and done it all.

The series earned a whopping 109 Emmy nominations and 14 wins, and also garnered 22 Golden Globe nominations, including six wins for star Alan Alda alone (Best Actor 1975, 1976,1980, 1981, 1982, 1983). It also earned a Golden Globe for 1982 Best Musical/Comedy Series and 1974 Best Supporting Actor for McLean Stevenson.

Then there were the record-breaking viewership numbers. The 1983 series finale drew 106 million viewers, a number unlikely ever to be equaled again, especially as the sheer number of networks has since divided viewing audiences. But in a 2014 TV interview, Alan Alda reflected on how the show was so much more than just numbers to that cast.

“One of the things that made this show good was that to us it was a personal experience,” he said. “We weren’t getting up to be self-aggrandizing. We weren’t thinking of it as making an appearance in this big show. We were going in every day trying to be those people who had lived 25 years earlier in this terrifying situation in Korea. So, it truly came as a surprise to us that so many people were watching and were aware of us and were stopping us in airports all the time.”

One of the most colorful characters in the show was Corporal Maxwell Q. Klinger (Jamie Farr), an Arab-American orderly so desperate to get out of the army that he hit upon the idea of dressing in women’s clothing to prove he was mentally unfit and be discharged.


According to Farr in one interview, M*A*S*H creator Larry Gelbart had based the character on comedian Lenny Bruce, who was discharged from the navy at the end of World War II for, among other things, wearing a woman’s WAVE (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) uniform. Most of the dresses that Farr wore on the show came from Fox Studios’ wardrobe department, and in a recent interview, he says he’d discovered tags on many outfits revealing the actress who had previously loaned out the costume, including those on a pink beaded wool coat worn by Betty Grable and a gold lamé gown worn by Ginger Rogers. “I ran into Ginger Rogers one day at the Fox commissary,” he recalled, “and she pulled me aside and said, ‘I recognized my dress when I was watching your show – and you wore it better than me!’”

Over the course of its 11-year run, the show juxtaposed alcohol-fueled high jinks with graphic surgical sequences and portrayals of grief. No other show on television could claim to blend comedy and drama in such a uniquely powerful way, and Alda said this was always the goal from the day they began filming.

“With All in the Family, I think the door was open to doing stories about things that really mattered,” he was quoted in one interview. “The night before we started rehearsing the pilot, I wanted us all to agree that we wouldn’t just have high jinks at the front; that it would take seriously what these people were going through with the wounded and the dead, and you can’t just say it’s all a party.”

In an interview to highlight the 50th anniversary, Alda recently told the New York Times that the ongoing popularity of the show, still in reruns, astonishes him.

“I remember when I got the script submitted to me and I called my wife and said, ‘This is a terrific script, but I don’t see how I can do it because we live in New Jersey, and it has to be shot in L.A. and who knows; it could run a whole year!’

“To go from that to 50 years later, it’s still getting – not only attention, but it’s still getting an audience, is a surprise.”

Alda and Farrell, whose characters were close friends for the eight seasons they shared the screen as Hawkeye and B.J. Hunnicutt, recently celebrated the 50th anniversary with a reunion.


“Mike Farrell and I today toasting the 50th anniversary of the show that changed our lives – and our brilliant pals who made it what it was. MASH was a great gift to us,” tweeted Alda, who also wrote and directed dozens of episodes and co-wrote the two-hour series finale. The photo posted features the two actors reunited, toasting the occasion with a glass of red wine. And somehow, just for a moment, time seems to stand still.


All episodes of M*A*S*H are now available to stream on hulu