Alan Alda on ‘M-A-S-H’: ‘Everybody had something taken from them’
By Saul Austerlitz
When we think of the default mode of much of contemporary television — mingling the tragic and the offhand, broad comedy and pinpoint sentiment — we are thinking of a precise mixture of styles, emotions and textures first alchemized by “M-A-S-H.”
Created by Larry Gelbart and Gene Reynolds, “M-A-S-H” aired on CBS from 1972-83. (It is currently available to stream on Hulu.) Over the course of its 11-year run, it featured alcohol-fueled high jinks and other shenanigans alongside graphic surgical sequences and portrayals of grief, blending comedy and drama in a fashion rarely seen before on television. Set among the doctors and nurses of a Korean War mobile surgical unit, “M-A-S-H” made use of the mockumentary episode decades before “The Office” ever tried it, featured blood-drenched storylines long before “The Sopranos” and killed off beloved characters without warning well before “Game of Thrones.”
The “M-A-S-H” series finale, titled “Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen,” remains the most-watched non-Super Bowl program ever broadcast on American TV. The heart of the series was Alan Alda, who played acerbic and devoted surgeon Hawkeye Pierce throughout the show’s more than 250 episodes and also wrote and directed dozens of them.
Alda revisited “M-A-S-H” in a video interview before the show’s 50th anniversary, on Saturday. Alda, 86, who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2015, discussed famous scenes, the series’s battles with CBS (“They didn’t even want us to show blood at the beginning”) and why he thinks the audience connected so deeply with “M-A-S-H.” These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
Q: What does it mean to you to know that people are still interested in “M-A-S-H” 50 years later?
A: I got the script submitted to me when I was making a movie in the Utah State Prison. And it was the best script I had seen since I’d been in prison. I called my wife and I 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 LA. 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.
Q: Do you feel there was a shift over the first season away from the booze-fueled humor of the early episodes?
A: Yeah, there was. Partly because people who were submitting storylines thought that that’s what was wanted. Larry Gelbart rewrote most of the shows the first season. Midway through the first season, there was a show called “Sometimes You Hear the Bullet,” and that was a real turning point. Because in that show, a friend of Hawkeye’s shows up among the wounded, and he dies on the operating table. That’s the moment where McLean Stevenson (as Lt. Col. Henry Blake) says: “There’s two rules in war: Young men die, and then Rule 2 is there’s nothing you can do about it.” Something like that.” (The exact quote: “There are certain rules about a war. And rule No. 1 is young men die. And rule No. 2 is doctors can’t change rule No. 1.”)
The network was furious about this. Some guy in charge of programming said, “What is this, a situation tragedy?” Soon after that, we were getting more popular. And the more popular you get, the less they complain.
Q: Was CBS also concerned about the language used to tell these stories?
A: The most striking example to me was early in the series. Radar (played by Gary Burghoff) is explaining to somebody that he’s unfamiliar with something. And he said, “I’m a virgin at that, sir.” With no sexual context. It was just that he’d never done something before. And the CBS censor said: “You can’t say the word ‘virgin.’ That’s forbidden.” So the next week, Gelbart wrote a little scene that had nothing to do with anything. A patient is being carried through on a stretcher. And I say, “Where you from, son?” And he says, “The Virgin Islands, sir.”
Q: The unexpected death of Lt. Col. Blake in the Season 3 finale, “Abyssinia, Henry,” remains one of the biggest surprises in television history. What was it like to shoot that sequence?
A: Gelbart showed me the scene. I think (it was) the morning of the shoot. I knew, but nobody else knew. He wanted to get everybody’s first-time reactions. And it really affected Gary Burghoff on camera. I think everybody was grateful for the shock.
It shocked the audience, too. I had a letter from a man who complained that he had to console his 10-year-old son who was sobbing. But it was one of the ways for the adults in the audience to realize that another aspect of war is that things happen that you don’t expect.
Q: What did it mean to you to have Hawkeye leave Korea scarred by the death of a child in the final episode?
A: You just described exactly what I wanted to do with all the characters on the show. I was looking for stories, each in a different way, that showed how everybody left the war with a wound of some kind. Everybody had something taken from them. And Hawkeye was just one of them.
Q: Why do you think the audience connected so deeply with “M-A-S-H”?
A: Aside from really good writing and good acting and good directing, the element that really sinks in with an audience is that, as frivolous as some of the stories are, underneath it is an awareness that real people lived through these experiences, and that we tried to respect what they went through. I think that seeps into the unconscious of the audience.
They didn’t even want us to show blood at the beginning. In the pilot, the operating room was lit by a red light, so you couldn’t tell what was blood and what wasn’t. Which, once we got picked up, was ditched.
And giving us a feel for the circumstances that the real people had to go through, so that you could see that the crazy behavior wasn’t just to be funny. It was a way of separating yourself for a moment from the nastiness.
You can’t get as harsh as it really was.