MASH (Mobile Army Surgical Hospital) is widely regarded as one of the best comedy/dramas of all time, but had it not been for the cast exodus in its first few seasons, it wouldn’t have achieved the level of success that it eventually did. Premiering in 1972 and running for 11 seasons, MASH was the first spin-off show from the 1970 feature film of the same name. Gary Burghoff as Radar O’Reilly is the only movie character who also appeared in the MASH show allowing CBS to build a new ensemble. While the original cast had great chemistry, most of them would eventually leave the show for varying reasons.
Four decades since it ended, the MASH finale remains the most-watched TV episode of all time — proof of how popular the show really was. Praised for its creativity and ability to handle sensitive subject matters and balance them out with comedy, MASH was truly groundbreaking. It’s difficult to think that by season 5, several of its original characters had departed the series, which turned out to be the best thing that happened to the show.
MASH’s Replacement Characters Are More Complex & Interesting
For what it’s worth, the original MASH ensemble was okay. It allowed for great pairings like Alan Alda’s Benjamin “Hawkeye” Pierce and Trapper John McIntyre, as well as, Margaret Houlihan and Frank Burns. That being said, they weren’t exactly great. 4077’s Henry Blake was mostly a tool, Burns was one-dimensional, and Trapper was worse than Hawkeye. When they left, CBS had a chance to bring in fresh faces to the series with a competent commanding officer in Col. Sherm Potter, an upper-class doctor forced to work in the army in Charles Winchester, and a family man in BJ Hunnicut. They all made the show so much more dynamic and interesting.
By bringing in Potter, 4077 had some sense of order. He balanced out Hawkeye’s ridiculous hijinks and Max Klinger’s outrageous antics to get a Section 8. As a war veteran, having served in other wars, Potter also functioned as the father figure of the unit — something that Henry wouldn’t have been able to do. Meanwhile, Charles’ arrival offered MASH a fresh narrative opportunity. He was a competent doctor but was so unwilling to work on 4077 because he thought it was beneath him. Aside from his relationship with the rest of the group, it was also great to see his personal growth.
Arguably the trickiest replacement to nail was BJ. Hawkeye and Trapper were great together, and their friendship was one of the best things from the earlier seasons of MASH. That being said, bringing in a more responsible and straight shooter, BJ became a great juxtaposition for Hawkeye. He mellowed the sarcastic surgeon out and even helped in making sure that Hawkeye got in touch with his feelings. This doesn’t mean that he was boring, however. In fact, he was just as mischievous as Hawkeye was in MASH.
Why Many of MASH’s Original Characters Left Early On
Considering how successful MASH was, it’s curious why many original cast members decided to leave the show in the middle of its run. Most of these departures were actually decided by the actors themselves. Henry Blake actor McLean Stevenson wanted to venture out and try other things for his career. Wayne Rogers had a similar mindset. However, he was also reportedly getting frustrated that the focus of the series was mostly on Hawkeye, hence why Trapper left MASH at the end of season 3. Finally, Larry Linville thought the show had done everything that it could with Burns. However, while their reasons for departure might have seemed strange, it’s clear that they benefited the show in hindsight.