Hawkeye actor Alan Alda never lost sight of how special “M*A*S*H” was.
In a Television Academy Foundation interview from 2000, Alda spoke to what made the show so successful and how it overcame early obstacles.
“You can’t ignore the collection of people that was brought together by [show co-creator] Gene Reynolds,” Alda said. “You know, the writing and the acting and the directing talent was terrific. We also had, at a certain point we had achieved enough popularity, that the network put us on in a prominent place. That had something to do with it. You know, a prominent place in the schedule.”
‘M*A*S*H’ Persevered Despite Low Ratings
“M*A*S*H” drew its inspiration from Robert Altman’s 1970 movie by the same title. The show began in 1972 during the Vietnam War and had a strong anti-war undercurrent. It would ultimately last for 11 seasons.
Reynolds directed episodes of “Hogan’s Heroes,” “Leave It to Beaver” and “The Andy Griffith Show” before he came up with the idea for “M*A*S*H.” He died last year at age 96, per USA Today.
In the Television Academy Foundation interview, Alda also described how the show hung on despite its early low ratings. He said that “M*A*S*H” never would have made it in today’s environment. But luckily for the cast and crew, network executives had faith in them and waited it out.
“But even before [we achieved popularity], the network liked the show enough, people at the network liked the show enough, to keep it on the air even though it was not doing well in the ratings,” Alda said. “Today, they cancel shows like during the first commercial. I mean, they don’t stick with them. They stuck with us for a whole season. And we were at the bottom of the list.”
The ‘Essential’ Thing
“M*A*S*H” dealt with difficult subject matter, from the effects of war on soldiers to the loss of one of the doctors, even as it balanced the sober realities with moments of humor. Alda said that subject matter was one of the show’s strengths.
“I think one of the most important reasons that the show worked… was that we were dealing with a unique situation,” Alda explained. “There never was a situation like that on television before. People in this horrifying place, this war. I don’t mean Korea, I mean the war. They were away from home… they had to make their own family there. And they were people thrown together who under these harrowing conditions got on each other’s nerves.”
And the show’s creators and cast never lost sight of the reality they were dramatizing, Alda said.
“The thing that was essential… was that we knew we were telling the story of real people,” he stressed. “The producers, you know, Larry and Gene, went to Korea… They saw what the conditions were like. They interviewed the real doctors and nurses. And all of us who did it knew we were playing real people.”
“We had a kind of a loyalty to the reality of it,” Alda added. “And I think the audience got that and appreciated it.”