Margaret in a bloody wedding gown. Mulcahy as Pope discovers a soldier hung from a crucifix. Hawkeye floating in a sea of detached limbs.
The M*A*S*H episode “Dreams” was a nightmare to watch in all the best ways. It was written by Alan Alda, who often calls it his favorite episode. It won a Humanitas Prize, and the Writers Guild of America liked it so much, it became the show’s first episode to get nominated as both best drama and comedy.
For Alda, dreams have much more significance than for many of us.
Later diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, he said it was an unusual dream that led him to be diagnosed with the neurological disorder. “I asked for a scan because I thought I might have it,” Alda told CBS News in 2018. “I read an article by Jane Brody in The New York Times that indicated that if you have — if you act out your dreams, there’s a good chance that might be a very early symptom, where nothing else shows.”
“By acting out your dreams, I mean I was having a dream where someone was attacking me and I threw a sack of potatoes at them, and what I was really doing was throwing a pillow at my wife,” Alda said.
On M*A*S*H, Alda literally acted out his dreams, and the inspiration for “Dreams” came likely in part because, at home, he and his wife Arlene were always discussing their dreams. She said in her 2015 memoir Just Kids from the Bronx that at one point she had a picture-perfect memory of her dreams.
“I used to be able to remember my dreams,” Arlene recalled. “I always loved this.” Alda shared this vivid memory for his dreams, too, and in his 2005 memoir Never Have Your Dog Stuffed he recalled a particularly troubling nightmare he had while making M*A*S*H:
“I’m walking in Atlantic City. I turn a corner and out on the ocean I see two large cruise ships lying on their sides. I have a feeling of dread. I walk quickly, anxiously, until I find an entrance to a tunnel. Underground, I open a door and there are twelve people around a table. We eat and drink some wine. We’re all strangers, but there’s a feeling of fellowship, all of us having made it to safety. We introduce ourselves around the table. The last person to introduce himself is a man with a bald head. ‘Well,’ he says. ‘I’m known by many names.’ Instantly, I pitch forward, my head thudding the table in death.”
Later in his life, Alda’s intense dreams would evoke nightmares from being an actor on set.
He had a recurring dream where he’d be making a movie with a different famous actor and inevitably, at some point in the dream, Alda would request to stop shooting so he could run an errand far from the studio. In each of these dreams, the stress of being delayed returning to set got worse and worse. This, too, felt ominous, like an approaching ending. “I kept getting drawn farther and farther away from my obligations,” Alda wrote.
On M*A*S*H, Alda’s obligations kept multiplying, as he went from the show’s star to one of its key directors and writers. Although his vivid dreams have haunted his whole life, how he describes his time on set proves they aren’t the only vivid images rattling around in his head. There are happy ones, too.
“I have very vivid memories of the first show I directed, which happened to include a picnic with 80 extras and a lot of stuff happening,” Alda told The Hollywood Reporter. “It was very exciting for me. I remember skipping down the sidewalk of the airport terminal on my way home that weekend thinking I can do it.”