It may surprise you to learn that it wasn’t Alan Alda who pulled the stellar songwriter Loudon Wainwright III into MAS*H. At that point in his life, Alda was a bigger fan of the chamber music concerts that his wife put on in their home than he was of the folk songs that made Wainwright an American music legend.
However, it definitely doesn’t matter to fans what Alda thought of Wainwright, who featured in three episodes on MASH as the singing captain Calvin Spalding. For the rest of Wainwright’s life, he said MASH fans chased him down after concerts to get the answer to this most-asked question: “What is Alan Alda really like?”
If you want to know the truth, it was actually MASH creator Larry Gelbart who was Wainwright’s bigger fan. “Loved Loudon Wainwright’s songs, so we gave him a shot,” Gelbert is quoted as saying in the essential TV’s MASH: The Ultimate Guide Book.
In fact, Gelbart was such a big fan of Wainwright — who was sometimes called “the new Bob Dylan” and once hailed by Elton John as the “best songwriter on the planet” — he wanted to use the musician even more on the show.
“I wish we had done more episodes with him as Captain Spalding,” Gelbart said, revealing that the character is a Groucho Marx reference.
However, this wasn’t to be, because MAS*H’s famously “tight shooting schedules made it impossible.”
For MAS*H, Wainwright wrote and performed original songs only during the third season, starting with his songs “North Korea Blues” in the episode “Rainbow Bridge” and “Unrequited to the Nth Degree” and “I Wonder if They Miss Us” for “There Is Nothing Like a Nurse.” His final appearance is in the episode “Big Mac,” in which he performs “Five Gold Stars” and “Big Mac Is Coming.”
Though brief, this short stint on MAS*H would kick off a sparse and selective range of TV and movie appearances that Wainwright has made since his onscreen debut in the 4077th. Among these roles, in 2004, he reunited with Alda as they both appeared in the movie The Aviator.
As a songwriter, Wainwright is known for being playful, mocking himself and infusing lyrics with wit, all characteristics any MAS*H fan would see reflected in Hawkeye. This certainly helped Wainwright fit right in on the show, whether the songs he sang were about appreciating nurses or the famous General MacArthur. It’s also likely why fans associate him so strongly with the show’s star.
In an interview with Short and Sweet NYC, Wainwright explained what inspired his writing process for folk songs like the ones we love from MAS*H:
“The parallel I use is fishing,” Wainwright said. “I mean, you’ve got a line in the water and a bait on a hook I suppose and you know you have some skills as a fisherman. In my case, I’ve been writing songs for forty years or thereabouts so there’s also mystery: why do you get a bite? Or a strike? Or why does the fish take the hook? I mean I don’t quite understand how it all works, the inspiration part, but you know you’re out there trolling around looking for stuff and then all of a sudden you pull up and you’ve got something. That’s the best way I can describe it.”