M*A*S*H started as a novel. Then, it became a feature film. Finally, in 1972, the television adaptation of the story hit the airwaves. To this day, the series is the most well-known entry in the franchise. However, some are still surprised that the show rose to popularity the way it did. After all, its humor was at the same time dark and absurd. In fact, if not for a couple of key characters the show may have been too dark to succeed. Among those was Trapper John McIntyre, played by Wayne Rogers.
Many fans see the television show as a sitcom now. However, when it aired, there was a little more weight to it. The Vietnam war was at its height. So, M*A*S*H showrunners had to be careful about what they put in the show. They could interlace commentary about current events into the dialog. However, they couldn’t seem as if they were protesting against the war. So, much of its commentary was handled with comedy. A large portion of that comedy came from co-stars Alan Alda and Wayne Rogers.
Wayne Rogers passed away on New Year’s Eve of 2015. Before he passed Rogers sat down with Pop Goes the Culture to talk about his career. During that interview, he discussed why M*A*S*H was able to succeed.
Wayne Rogers Says All In The Family Paved The Way For M*A*S*H
The interviewer asked Wayne Rogers how unlikely it was for a show to be based on M*A*S*H. After all, it was a show set in a warzone during wartime. So, it could have been a hard show to sell. This is especially true because the series took a darkly comedic look at the war and those serving in it.
Wayne Rogers replied, “You’ve got to remember that All in the Family came before M*A*S*H. That was the first really iconoclastic look…that people didn’t fall into the formula. They went against it. And, I credit Norman Lear (the creator of All in the Family) with that. He was certainly the vanguard of that kind of television.”
Because of the success of All in the Family, Wayne Rogers believed that M*A*S*H wasn’t too unlikely. Something a little dark yet humorous had already been done and it was a hit. So, the wartime drama/comedy wasn’t pushing too many boundaries.
All in the Family pushed those boundaries first. Many people were unsure that the classic series about the Bunker family would ever make it to air. In fact, many actors including Harrison Ford and Richard Dreyfuss turned down the show after reading the script. Norman Lear pitched the role of Archie to Mickey Rooney. Rooney didn’t let him finish his pitch before saying, “Norm, they’re going to kill you, shoot you in the streets.”
The network went so far as to hire operators to take calls from outraged viewers leading up to the premiere of All in the Family. However, audiences loved the show. It was a huge hit.
So, Wayne Rogers was right. M*A*S*H wasn’t really treading any ground that hadn’t been cleared by the classic sitcom.