MAS*H was a groundbreaking show in more than one regard. Based on a film that was based on a book by H. Richard Hornberger’s experiences, the show became a definitive statement on the ugly side of war when Vietnam was settling down. It lasted for 11 years, and the finale became a cultural event that’s still discussed to this day. However, had the original show kept Corporal Klinger’s original character, it would have been ahead of its time in another way, too.
What is M*A*S*H?
M*A*S*H followed the 4077 unit during the Korean War. The 4077 was a military hospital that was meant to be off the beaten path of battle. It had a large cast of characters coming in and out of its doors as it tackled not only the militaristic side of the military often seen in Hollywood productions but the uglier, more complicated side, as well.
Through memorable characters like Hawkeye Pierce, Major Margaret J “Hot Lips” Houlihan, and Maxwell Klinger, audiences fell in love with the show, which lasted over a decade. During its time on air, MAS*H went in and out of standard sit-com fare by adding a sense of drama and humanity to the war. This was no mistake. The American audience had different views on war after Vietnam, and the show helped echo this.
Despite this shift from standard military-based shows and movies, the show was a hit unlike anything that anyone had ever seen. By the end of its 11-year run, it had an audience of over 100 million people, and despite some pitfalls along the way, it remains one of the most important pieces of television to this day. For a show to be that successful, however, it had to be willing to take some risks. However, one risk that it wanted was a little bit too much for a 1970s audience to handle.
Who is Corporal Klinger?
One of the most popular characters in the series, Klinger, began as a recurring character that quickly evolved into one of the most beloved characters on the show. An original creation with no real-life counterpart, Klinger was not happy to be in wartime Korea. In fact, he was often seen trying to get discharged by dressing in drag and trying to escape the service.
Although this character was often played for laughs, he was also showing a different side of life in deployment. While some people want to be soldiers, some people immediately regret doing so. War is still war, and as a corporal at a military hospital, Klinger would have seen horrendous things that he would never recover from.
As the show moved along, Klinger became a more significant part. He saw many of the biggest crises ever to plague the 4077, and while the show was a comedy at heart, his story, one of Lebanese heritage, was actually a heartbreaking look at what it was like for someone deemed different in America. However, in early drafts, he was also a gay man who was grappling with being on the margins there, too.
Klinger comes out
Klinger was initially supposed to be a one-off character who came and went in a single episode. His penchant for trying to get discharged was played for laughs, but deep down inside, it was meant to be an early example of gay characters in entertainment. While Klinger’s sexuality could be up for debate even now, the show never explicitly stated whether he was gay or not.
The show’s creator, Gene Reynolds, even told Farr to play the character as gay, according to Hollywood Reporter. However, they eventually did away with the subplot in favor of making him seem crazy. Whether this was going to be a progressive look at a gay character before that was acceptable to a mainstream audience or a problematic look playing everything for laughs, Klinger would have been one of the first openly gay characters in history. Regardless, he is still an icon, and when many people think about MAS*H today, he is one of the reasons why.