MAS*H writers got their ideas for episodes from everywhere, sometimes consulting medical doctors, other times mining their own pasts for stories. But every now and again, an episode was written just because an actor had a special talent that the writers wanted to showcase.
In the case of “Bless You, Hawkeye,” Alan Alda’s special talent was his awesome ability to sneeze dramatically on command. Yes, dramatic sneezing.
In an oral history of MAS*H put together by The Hollywood Reporter, screenwriter Dan Wilcox recalls that the idea came from the great sneezer himself:
“We were working on ideas with Alan and he says, ‘Sometimes people can get a story out of something an actor’s good at. For example, I’m very good at sneezing,'” Wilcox quotes Alda saying at the time.
Wilcox says the writers took this idea and ran with it. “The next day we were in the office saying, ‘Hawkeye sneezes a lot, what are we going to do?'”
What they came up with was “Bless You, Hawkeye,” a story in which the surgeon does not have a cold (as he insists over and over again to everyone in camp). His sneezing is symptomatic of a larger, psychological problem rooted in the suppression of a childhood memory that he must confront by visiting with Dr. Sidney Freedman, played by one of MAS*H fans’ favorite guest stars, Allan Arbus.
Every scene featuring Hawkeye finds Alda doubled over, deeply inhaling before releasing his symphonic sneezes, so powerful they silence rooms. Some viewers have protested that these sneezes may have been a little too dramatized, but the physical comedy is undeniable. Each and every “ACHOO!” is a perfect example of how MAS*H deftly blended the dramatic with the absurd, a formula that absorbed fans for more than a decade.
It’s worth noting that Hawkeye’s sneezing wasn’t just treated as an onscreen gimmick for this one single episode. Instead, it’s an act that triggers his most significant character arc, deepening his transition from a cocky, carefree kind of guy, cracking jokes to avoid his serious fears, to a hero type willing to tamp down his own troubles in order to save others, even by suppressing a memory. This habit comes back to haunt Hawkeye in a notable later episode, the series finale, “Goodbye, Farewell and Amen.”
In the finale, Hawkeye and Dr. Freedman reunite to analyze inaccuracies in Hawkeye’s memories that have led to his current breakdown. It’s the culmination of Hawkeye’s character arc, delivering the ending for the show’s hero that so many sought and tuned in to watch.
The seeds of that moment can be traced back to when this arc started, with a sneeze in season nine. Does this make Alan Alda the most dramatic sneezer of all time? Hand us a handkerchief, because we think so.