How Alan Alda’s Military Career Shaped His Time on M*A*S*H*

“MAS*H” star Alan Alda had a personal connection to the hit TV show. He actually served in the military during the Korean War. Alda was just one of several veterans that formed the crew of the popular show.

Set during the Korean War, “M*A*S*H” starred Alda as surgeon Hawkeye Pierce. The doctors on the show often used humor and hijinks to distract themselves from the war. But the show also wasn’t afraid to explore the darkness and horror of being in a combat zone. There was always intensity and sadness bubbling under the surface that spewed out at certain moments.

Alda enlisted after college and spent six months in Korea as part of the Army Reserves. He had a brief tour compared to the thousands that fought and died in the War

“They had designs of making me into an officer but, uh … it didn’t go so well,” he told an audience in 2013. “I was in charge of a mess tent. Some of that made it into the show.”

During his time, he would serve 200 soldiers their meals. He also observed how shell-shocked some of them looked that they barely even touched their meals. It became a day to day ritual. His observations helped him incorporate both a weird sense of normalcy and the ever-present danger into the show.

Thanks to his service, Alda worked behind the scenes to make sure the show reflected the War and honored the people that served. He didn’t want to turn it into some wacky comedy.

Alan Alda Was Worried of Starring in A Sitcom

Alda was worried about starring in the show and doing his fellow soldiers a disservice. He didn’t want the show to devolve into broad comedy. But he wasn’t the only veteran on the show. Costars Jamie Farr and Larry Gelbart also served in the Navy. Likewise, creators Gene Reynolds and Larry Gelbart were veterans themselves.

“I was worried that it would become a high jinks at the front and that the war would just sort of exist as a pretext for silly stories,” Alda told NPR in 2019. 

He decided to star after the creators explained their vision for the show.

“I understood just from doing that that when you’re in a war, it’s real. It’s the real thing. People are going to get killed or lose their arms and legs,” Alda said. “And when we did ‘M*A*S*H,’ I wanted to make sure that at least that understanding that I had came out — that that’s what we dealt with, and that we didn’t gloss over that and make the show about how funny things were in the mess tent.”

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