The actors gained ownership by participating in table reads and contributing ideas.
Farrell: Gene would take us through the script, page by page, to see if anyone had any questions or suggestions. I thought, these people want to hear from the actors about the script? Oh, my God, I’m in heaven.
Swit: I was becoming increasingly uncomfortable with Margaret and Frank. She was a bright, ambitious and talented nurse. She couldn’t continue to justify the relationship with the lipless wonder. So, I suggested sending her to Japan for some R&R and letting her fall in love with someone in the military she could be proud of. I said, “Can you imagine Frank’s reaction? He’d probably tear off the doors to the mess tent.” That’s exactly what he did. He also stabbed me with a scalpel in the OR.
Burghoff: Larry and I worked out how to make Radar innocent in contrast to the sophisticated doctors. That innocence became a special kind of sounding board for the insanity and horror of war.
Farr: They had Klinger falling asleep on guard duty and I didn’t like that. I said Klinger does all kinds of crazy things, but he wouldn’t jeopardize somebody’s life. They agreed with me.
Pollock: This surgeon told us a story about a field commander with a high casualty rate visiting their MASH unit. The doctors put a Mickey in his food, told him he had appendicitis and then operated on him to keep him from the front. Mike had a problem with doing that.
Farrell: I said B.J. wouldn’t cut into the healthy body of someone. It’s against the Hippocratic oath. We debated over it a long time.
Metcalfe: Mike expressed some very good points. We decided B.J. should express everything Mike’s saying. Hawkeye ended up doing the operation alone.
Isaacs: Ken and I rewrote it with Alan. We ended the show with Radar telling them there are choppers with more wounded on their way in. In other words, Hawkeye accomplished nothing.The dedication to storytelling and narrative, eventually took their toll on Gelbart and Reynolds. They left after the fourth year.Metcalfe: Larry had just given his all. Sometimes when there was pressure to have a script on the table at 9 a.m. for a table reading, he would stay all night and work on polishing it and then take it to Mimeo at 6 in the morning. He used to sleep on the couch in his office quite often. Gene and Larry got to a point where they’d done as much as they could do. We were devastated to lose them but could see their point of view. They loved it and thrived on it, but just felt enough was enough. They wanted to go off and do something new and fresh.
THE BIG EPISODES
Over the course of 11 seasons, M*A*S*H consistently touched the full spectrum of human emotions. A few shows in particular stand out with cast members for what they represent, the envelopes they pushed and the emotions that surfaced from cast and audience. At the end of season four, CBS asked for a last-minute additional episode. Reynolds and Gelbart came up with “The Interview,” a black-and-white episode in which a real news reporter, Clete Roberts, interviews the members of the 4077.
Reynolds: There was an old Ed Murrow CBS documentary called “See It Now,” in which he went to Korea and interviewed soldiers fighting in the field. Larry kept reminding me, “We have to do that.” We knew we’d use it at some point.
Burghoff: Larry knew at that point that no one knew the characters better than the actors playing them. It was a supremely divine matter of artistic trust. To my way of thinking, that episode should be in a museum. It’s my favorite. Groundbreaking.
Farrell: I remember thinking how flattering that these geniuses wanted us to contribute our own take on who these people were. It was typical of these wonderful people to try and figure out how to do something unusual, new and exciting. I think it’s the best episode in the series.
Alda: We were given recorders and a list of questions. Larry took the best of that and punched it up with better lines. Then, while the camera was still rolling, Clete asked us questions we hadn’t heard before, forcing us to improvise on the spot. Some of the best stuff came out that way.
Metcalfe: One of mine and Larry’s favorite lines in the entire series came when each character gets asked if the experience has changed them in any way. When it gets to Father Mulcahy, he explains: “When the doctors cut into a patient, and it’s cold, the way it is now today … steam rises from the body … and the doctor will warm his hands over the open wound. How could anybody look upon that and not feel changed?”
Metcalfe: It still gets me today.
Col. Blake gets discharged and plans for his return home. Like many soldiers, he never makes it there, leaving the actors and viewers heartbroken during the season-three finale, “Abyssinia, Henry.”
Burghoff: I was shocked when I learned that [Stevenson, who went by “Mac”] had decided to leave [after three seasons]. He was such a tenderhearted, kind man.
Farr: I heard NBC was trying to sabotage our show. Mac was a guest host on The Tonight Show and they were teasing him with the idea that he could be the replacement for Johnny Carson.
Reynolds: He had people telling him he could be a star. Some of the stuff put forward was quite exaggerated, outrageous promises that people were in no position to fulfill.
Metcalfe: We thought he was making a mistake. The chemistry of a character, a performance — all fellow actors contribute to that success. You can’t just pick up and take that with you.
Swit: A week or two before leaving, Mac said to me, “I know I’ll never be in anything this good again, but I have to leave.” I said, “But Mac, if you know this, then why?” He said, “I want to be No. 1 of six. I’m No. 3.” I said, “Maybe that’s your billing, but you’re not.” We didn’t have numbers; M*A*S*H was the star.
Reynolds: Burt, Larry and I talked it over. We all lamented that death on the show was as impersonal as it was on the news. We thought everyone should feel a personal loss. We wanted to say a lot of boys don’t make it home.
What happened next surprised cast members and audiences alike, redefining loss on television.
Metcalfe: We said we have one more scene to shoot. Everyone got a manila envelope with a page inside. Linville [who played Maj. Frank Burns] looked at it and said, “Fucking brilliant.”
Swit:They didn’t want us to suffer through a week of rehearsal. That was gracious. Of course, Mac was as torn apart as we all were. His character dies and he was that character.
Reynolds: I think it sunk in with him when the character died, he couldn’t go back.
Burghoff: I was devastated by the cruel “finality” of it. I took Mac aside and said, “If you don’t want me to do this scene, I won’t.” I was hoping the shock of it would get him to change his mind. “No, you have to do it!” he said. “Don’t you remember the promise we all made to each other?” He was referring to always showing the reality of war whenever possible.
Swit: We all fell apart. Henry was Mac and Mac was Henry. And to hear a telegram saying he’d just been shot down over the Sea of Japan? You could hear the sobs. It just devastated us.
Metcalfe: We got so much mail. Some people thought it was great and others were very upset. “You made my little kid cry!” “You did it as vengeance!” We got a letter from a 15-year-old girl who said she understood our motives. “I feel that I have joined that all too non-inclusive fraternity of those who have lost a dear one overseas.” I thought that was such an incredible observation by someone so young. That was the response we were hoping for.
Burghoff: Gene and Larry made the right call. It greatly added to the integrity of the show.
Wilcox: A few years later, I was on set of a show Mac was on. In between takes I heard him say, “I thought I was going to be the next host of The Tonight Show. And then fucking Carson didn’t retire.” He was really good at hosting, too. But with Carson still there, he got cast adrift.
Col. Potter is given a bottle of brandy as the sole survivor and told to share it in a meaningful way. Every actor deserves their moment in the sun and after his long career in Hollywood, Morgan earned the right to this one.
Koenig: I think Harry loved being on M*A*S*H more than anybody. He’d been a working actor throughout his life and never had what he had with that show. It was great to give him something, that if I romanticize, was a capstone in his career.
Metcalfe: Harry had a wonderful quality, that when he would get emotional as the character, you could see he was doing his best not to cry. That’s a very wise emotional trick for an actor. It’s like the drunk who tries not to swagger or fall.
Koenig: I remember while they were shooting it, Metcalfe, came from the set to the writers room and said, “Harry’s just killing it down there.”
Farr: Harry was our Grandfather. We all knew that when he did that final scene he was talking to us and in a way, saying goodbye.
Swit: Harry was everything to me — my buddy, colleague, fellow actor, confessor, father figure, compadre, teacher. He represented everything in my life. We were just trashed watching him have this experience.
Farrell: I can’t tell you how many takes it took but it was one of the hardest scenes to get through because Harry was so fucking brilliant and it was so obviously meaningful to him.
Alda: I have very vivid memories of the first show I directed, which happened to include a picnic with 80 extras and a lot of stuff happening. It was very exciting for me. I remember skipping down the sidewalk of the airport terminal on my way home that weekend thinking I can do it.
Swit: I had a running gag with Jamie that if I was at rehearsal in my civvies, he’d come over to me, point a finger at my blouse and say, “Wait a minute, is that one of mine?”
Nakahara: Harry would have craft services put chicken guts into the open wounds so when we open the sheets we’d see guts in a wound that was supposed to be Styrofoam.
Farr: To repay Stiers for all his pranks on us, we had his dressing room painted orange and purple over Thanksgiving break. When we came back, we were waiting for him to rant. He said nothing. Finally, one of us asked, “What’s new?”
Farrell: David said, “Oh, I’ve just had my dressing room redecorated. Did you as well?” I responded, “No, how is yours?” He said, “Quite lovely, it’s a fabulous combination of salmon and mauve.” It was his way of letting us know he got it, but no one was going to get him.
Farrell: When Radar goes home, Peg and Erin go down to meet him. Erin sees Radar in uniform and calls him daddy. It so incredibly perfectly captured the heartbreak of being away from your child who was growing up without you. That was as powerful an episode as I was ever given the opportunity to do.
Wilcox: The nakedness of B.J.’s crying at the end. I remember watching it with a woman at Fox [who produced the show] who said she’d never seen a man cry like that on American TV. If you look at the scene, Hawkeye puts his arm around B.J. and holds him tight. At the same time, he’s looking away. He’s trying to give him privacy while comforting him, which made it even more powerful.
Swit: Margaret’s breaking down in “The Nurses” episode. That woman was so lonely and she was trying to do such a good job. And nobody appreciated her. Gene called me the next morning after shooting it and said they’d watched the dailies and my scene was last. When the lights went up everyone was sniffling. He asked the projectionist to run the scene again. The lights go out and they watched it again. The lights go up and everyone’s still crying. He says to everyone, “Is that the best thing you ever saw?”
THE SERIES FINALE
Farrell: During season 10, Alan and I were doing a scene together and I asked him, “How long do you expect this to go?” He said he thought about 10 years. I mentioned that I had concerns about the way the show ends. He said I was right and that maybe we should talk to everyone about whether the show should come to a halt. We didn’t want to ride the horse downhill to get to the point when a studio exec pulls the plug on us. Koenig: A TV series, like a human existence, has a lifespan. Our show was stuck in time in a small space. It was just so hard to find fresh ideas. We’d say, “Burt, listen to this idea.” Two sentences in, he’d tell us we’d done that in season three. Farrell: We decided to end the war, so we could say goodbye and thank you to the audience and each other. A fellow from the studio comes to the set and says we can’t do an “end of the war” episode. When the one-armed man got caught in the finale of The Fugitive, it killed the show in syndication. We all looked at each other. I said, “It might surprise you to know the Korean War ended.” He looked at us and walked out.
Wilcox: All the writers wanted to take part, so Alan wrote a couple scenes with everyone.
Pollock: Alan had a tape recorder. We’d work on a line and then he’d say it into his machine and have someone transcribe it.
Elias: I remember Metcalfe saying, “We’ve got to get this right. I don’t want to go out a punch-drunk fighter staggering around the ring.”
The major plot points, the ones that leave lasting impressions, came again from real-life situations.
Metcalfe: When I went to Korea, a man told me that during the war, a North Korean patrol was crossing across a bridge. Hiding underneath were 40 or 50 South Koreans trying to escape south to avoid being imprisoned or killed by the invading soldiers. A mother’s baby in the group started to cry, and she smothered it to avoid the group’s detection. It became the focal point of the whole opening of the show with Hawkeye in the psychiatric ward under the care of Dr. Sydney.
Alda: I wanted to send everybody home having been wounded in some way by the war. [The finale] emphasized the seriousness of what Hawkeye had been through.
Wilcox: People were coming to MASH units to surrender because they had food. This included a Korean dance band who played Western instruments. Winchester loving classical music, which gave us the idea to have him meet surrendering musicians and try and teach them Mozart. They’re sent away to a POW camp before he can do a concert. In the last triage, Winchester learns they were all killed in an attack. He can’t listen to his passion ever again.
Swit: When Harry and I have to say goodbye, we could hardly rehearse. I had to look at this man whom I adore and say, “You dear sweet man, I’ll never forget you” without getting emotional and I couldn’t. I can’t now even. It wasn’t words on a page. You knew what you were saying was truth.
Farrell: Metcalfe directed the finale and said he’d never been in a situation where he had to ask actors not to cry so much.
Farr: Klinger remaining in Korea with Rosalind Chao was a fabulous idea, a great twist. The man who went to every outrageous extreme to leave Korea and the U.S. Army was the only one to remain. Wow.