One of the reasons that M*A*S*H has been beloved by fans for decades now is because of how much everyone loves the cast, but behind the scenes, things didn’t always run so smoothly. Alan Alda and Mike Farrell are the culprits in this particular scenario, two of the show’s lead performers who were best friends on and off-screen. They were equally fond of their characters, “Hawkeye” Pierce and B.J. Hunnicutt, so much so that Alda and Farrell injected themselves into the writer’s room to correct any decisions being made that might portray their fictional counterparts in the wrong light. One of these moments became so divisive that it created a momentary rift between Alda and Farrell — a conflict so serious that it seeped its way into the show.
M*A*S*H has one of the most iconic ensembles in TV history. Throughout its 1972-1983 run, new characters were regularly introduced and written off. This gave the show a feeling of freshness every couple of years, hardly ever giving the audience too much room to grow comfortable and attached to anyone. That said, a few characters stayed with the series through its entire run. Jamie Farr appeared as Maxwell Klinger in every season of the series but only became a regular starting in Season 4. The same goes for Father Mulcahy (William Christopher), who also appeared in every season, but became a series regular by Season 5. Of course, there’s Major Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan, played by Loretta Swit from the series premiere until its finale. There’s no M*A*S*H without her! Besides Swit, there’s only one actor who has been a mainstay from the beginning to the end of this show — Alan Alda as Hawkeye Pierce.
Hawkeye and Hunnicutt Were Best Friends On and Off-Screen
While there are multiple different character archetypes at play in M*A*S*H, Hawkeye is the definition of the fun, caring every man. It’s the reason that he leads the show! He’s buddies with everyone at the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital, knows how to give himself and everyone a good time, but also gets serious and reflective when the right time calls for it. If Hawkeye is anything, he’s the show’s emotional North Star. We go where he goes.
Every lead character needs a wingman though, a sounding board for the main protagonist to bounce jokes and ideas off. For the first three seasons, Hawkeye had this relationship with Trapper John McIntyre (Wayne Rogers). McIntyre’s years mark the series’ best run. While M*A*S*H would continue to run strong until the end, its comedic and dramatic peaks were in its early years. Fans mourned McIntyre leaving the show after season three, but this left an open door for Hawkeye to have a new best friend. The man who ended up filling this Wayne Rogers-sized hole would be Mike Farrell as B.J. Hunnicutt, the mustache-rocking buddy to stand by Hawkeye Pierce’s side for the rest of the series.
With Farrell’s arrival came a real-life friendship between him and Alda. This was a close but competitive relationship, one that ended up rubbing off on the series itself. Alda detailed their friendly rivalry in his book Never Have Your Dog Stuffed: And Other Things I’ve Learned, stating, “When Wayne left the show, Farrell took his place in the tent and as someone I confided in. We had a physical rivalry as well, competing to see who could learn to stand on his hands first. He had studied judo in the Army, and as a pastime, every time I was called to set, he would walk behind me and see if he could trip me and make me fall down.” These two clearly had a lot of fun together over the years, but like every friendship, Alda and Farrell’s relationship would hit roadblocks.
A Petty Fight Behind the Scenes of “Preventative Medicine”
This dynamic is best seen in Episode 22 of Season 7, titled “Preventative Medicine.” In this episode, Hawkeye and Hunnicutt have to perform an unnecessary operation on Colonel Bingham Lacy (James Wainwright), a careless, rash commander with a high casualty rate, in order to keep him from the battlefield, ultimately making him lose command and saving the lives of many soldiers in the process. The decision in the script was for both of the characters to go against their typical beliefs that are rooted in the Hippocratic Oath, but this wouldn’t last long. Farrell couldn’t stand the idea of his character going against the Oath that he’s rooted his entire career in and demanded that the script be changed to uphold his character’s code of ethics.
With Alda leading the charge, writers and cast members would try and change his mind, but nothing could sway Farrell on this. He was certain that Hunnicutt would have to end up on the opposite side of Hawkeye’s decision, and wouldn’t move forward with the script as it was written. This point of contention between the two actors might have made things difficult behind the scenes, but ultimately, it benefited their portrayals of their characters. Their real-life intensity only adds to the tension felt in “Preventative Medicine.” Thankfully, Farrell got his way, and the episode ended up with a more interesting character dynamic because of it. Hawkeye moves forward with performing on Lacy, meanwhile, Hunnicutt has nothing to do with it. Both their on-screen and off-screen friendships would heal soon after, but their brief moment of contention makes “Preventative Medicine” all the more interesting of an episode. It’s one of the flagship dramatic episodes of M*A*S*H and is one of the many reasons that this series has lived on as more than just a beloved comedy.
Off-Screen Hardships Positively Affected ‘M*A*S*H’
This wouldn’t be the first time that behind-the-scenes troubles affected and informed performances on M*A*S*H. Gary Burghoff was going through marital problems while filming one of his final scenes as Radar, one in which he describes his future with a woman that he’s fallen in love with. He had a hard time getting through the scene and had to halt the episode’s production momentarily. Then there’s “Abyssinia, Henry,” the final episode for Lt. Colonel Henry Blake (McLean Stevenson) that initially finds him honorably discharged, only to die after his helicopter is shot down. His fate was notoriously tough for fans to accept, but had to also be hard for the cast too. Stevenson had been a major part of the show since the beginning, so saying goodbye to a regular cast member couldn’t have been easy. Also, having a fan-favorite character die this tragically doesn’t help.
M*A*S*H is one of those shows where you know that the cast had to have gotten along well. Not only did the show go on for 11 years, but everyone is having such a good time on screen that you know it had to be the same behind the scenes. Then there are cases like “Preventative Medicine,” which might have been tough to make at the moment, but only end up making M*A*S*H a deeper series in the process. It might not have felt like at the time, but Mike Farrell almost derailing the narrative of the episode was the best possible thing that could have happened to it.
THE BIG PICTURE
- Alan Alda and Mike Farrell, best friends on and off-screen, had a competitive and close relationship that influenced their characters on M*A*S*H.
- In Episode 22 of Season 7, “Preventative Medicine,” Farrell and Alda had a disagreement about their characters’ decision in the script, leading to tension behind the scenes.
- Despite the conflict, their real-life intensity added to the tension in the episode and ultimately improved the character dynamic, making it one of the flagship dramatic episodes of M*A*S*H.