M*A*S*H is, from the start, rooted strictly in the real world. It has to be. Only by highlighting real-world details can the creators truly display the surreality of war. The series works because of that contrast. M*A*S*H is believable characters that are forced to do unbelievable things. They are humans witnessing a historically inhumane event. The characters must, then, be tethered to a world that viewers can feel and relate to. In the case of Gary Burghoff’s character Radar O’Reilly, that world is small-town America.
Radar, a fictional character, is from the very real Ottumwa, Iowa. There is a softness to Radar that only comes from growing up far away from the big city. He has a rare kindness hardly found outside of towns where everyone knows each other. Sure, these characteristics are attributable to Burghoff’s skills as an actor. But really, they’re thanks to the writing, which pays care and attention to making each character as authentic as possible. Burghoff is able to imbue Radar with that small-town feeling because the writing indicates that Radar is from Ottumwa, Iowa. The creators were able to use “Ottumwa” as shorthand for those midwest, rural values and traits they wanted Radar to embody.
So, surely Ottumwa was able to take advantage of its new small-screen fame, right? Well, no, or at least not at first. The town was proud of its newfound notoriety, but the situation was more complicated than it may seem. According to the Associated Press, Ottumwa citizens fought for years to attain permission to use Radar’s likeness to promote the town. A 1986 news piece details the struggle Ottumwa went through, battling it out with 20th Century Fox to use its most famous (fictional) resident for promotional purposes.
“People all over the country know Ottumwa as Radar’s hometown, so we’re trying to capitalize on that exposure,” said Dennis Butler, then-executive vice president of the Ottumwa Chamber of Commerce. It wasn’t until three years after M*A*S*H went off the air that Ottumwa, Iowa, was finally permitted to use Radar’s name.
However, all was not in vain, as Ottumwa now displays several M*A*S*H artifacts in its Wapello County Historical Museum. To visitors worldwide, Ottumwa, Iowa, is now proudly able to promote that it is the hometown of TV’s Radar O’Reilly.