History lessons typically aren’t entertaining, let alone funny. But how about this one? A surgeon named H. Richard Hornberger wrote the 1968 book MASH: A Novel About Three Army Doctors (under the pseudonym Richard Hooker), based on his experiences in the Korean War. Director Robert Altman adapted it into a classic 1970 movie. Then, on Sept. 17, 1972, M*A*S*H premiered on TV, in between Anna and the King and The Sandy Duncan Show on CBS. With an eclectic ensemble led by Alan Alda, Loretta Swit and Jamie Farr, it focused on the doctors and staff stationed at the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital in the early 1950s who resorted to jocular hijinks and petty rivalries to get through the traumas of the war.
The show didn’t initially catch on with viewers, but it was an acclaimed critical success from the start, winning its first four Emmys—including one for Outstanding Comedy Series—in 1974. (In all, it received 109 Emmy nominations and 14 wins.)
“It was a brilliant mash-up of comedy and drama with a wonderful cast and great characters,” says Television Academy senior vice president of awards John Leverence. “But it also included this emotional detachment from these real-life horrors that was, and still is, part of American culture.” Though the Korean War lasted three years, one month and two days, M*A*S*H aired for 11 seasons, and its 1983 finale remains the most-watched TV series episode in history. In honor of its 50th anniversary, Parade gives this prime-time classic a proper salute with a cast catch-up, our favorite episodes and 10 things you didn’t know about the beloved show.
10 Things You Didn’t Know About M*A*S*H
How much did writer Larry Gelbart earn?
Executive producer and writer Larry Gelbart (who later co-wrote the movie Tootsie) was paid $25,000 for the pilot script. Gelbart had served in World War II, working in the Armed Forces Radio Service. He completed his draft in two days.
Who wrote the M*A*S*H theme song?
The TV show kept the movie’s original theme song for the opening credits, except the lyrics to “Suicide Is Painless” were excised and the instrumentation changed. Interestingly, film director Robert Altman enlisted his then-teen son Michael to help composer Johnny Mandel with the words to give its dark subject a childish quality—which netted the kid more than $1 million in royalties.
Why did CBS use a laugh track on serious subject?
The M*A*S*H producers begged CBS executives to not include a laugh track that played over all the jokes—but it was to no avail, as canned laughter was a staple of every other 30-minute program on the network. Still, CBS didn’t include it during operating room scenes, and the DVD versions of M*A*S*H offer a laugh-free option.
How did CBS avoid Vietnam War controversy
Because M*A*S*H premiered while the controversial Vietnam War was still raging, CBS made a concerted effort to not stir up any resentment toward the U.S. military. Executives rejected an episode in which soldiers stood outside in the cold in a deliberate attempt to get sick and go home, because it was deemed too controversial.
Why didn’t the cast wear Army boots?
Most of the time, the cast went without an important part of the Army uniform—thick combat boots. The reason? The loud clunking footsteps would ruin the on-set audio. Instead, the cast donned sneakers and cameramen made a point to shoot the characters from the waist up.
The scoop on Klinger’s wedding dresses
Jamie Farr’s Klinger could sometimes be seen in a wedding dress, including the episode when he married Laverne Esposito. When he remarried in the series finale, his bride, Soon-Lee (Rosalind Chao), wore it. He gave “Hot Lips” another wedding gown in his collection when she tied the knot with Lt. Col. Donald Penobscott (Mike Henry).
The most famous guest stars
Many future stars got head starts in Hollywood by appearing on the show, usually as patients. A young Patrick Swayze portrayed an injured soldier with leukemia. Seasoned actor Leslie Nielsen was a colonel. John Ritter, Laurence Fishburne, Rita Wilson, George Wendt, Shelley Long, Blythe Danner and Teri Garr also guest-starred. And a teen Ron Howard played an underage soldier posing as his older brother to impress a girl.
What happened to Radar’s beloved teddy?
Radar O’Reilly’s stuffed bear—which Hawkeye eventually placed in a time capsule—was meant to symbolize all the boys who came overseas and then left as men. But when the show ended, the stuffed animal was lost. That is, until it turned up at an auction in 2005. It sold to a medical student for $11,800. The student later sold it to Radar actor Gary Burghoff, who sold it at auction for $14,307.50 in 2014.
Where was M*A*S*H filmed?
A corner of the Fox Ranch (later Malibu Creek State Park) in California stood in for Korea. That’s where characters in the penultimate episode, “As Time Goes By,” buried a time capsule. The cast buried one of their own, hoping it would be discovered many years later. Just two months after the episode aired, a construction worker found it.
Who did producers want for Trapper?
Wayne Rogers wasn’t the first choice for the role of Capt. “Trapper” John McIntyre. Originally, producers offered it to comedian Robert Klein in hopes that a known name would help bolster the show’s popularity. But Klein turned it down, maintaining that it wasn’t right for him. In other words, he de-Kleined.
The best M*A*S*H episodes
M*A*S*H provided viewers with 251 witty and warm episodes over its 11 seasons, and a handful remain iconic to this day. Here are five must-sees, all of which are streaming on Hulu.
- “Sometimes You Hear the Bullet” (season one, episode 17): Though Hawkeye is usually all punchlines, the surgeon shows a more serious side of his personality as he desperately tries to save the life of a friend. And yes, that is a young Ron Howard.
- “Abyssinia, Henry” (season three, episode 24): Not only did viewers say goodbye to the honorably discharged Lt. Col. Henry Blake (McLean Stevenson), they learned in the final scene that his plane had been shot down with no survivors. (Among the cast, only Alda knew about the twist.) “It felt like you were marching in a parade and then hit a brick wall,” Leverence says of the episode.
- “The Interview” (season four, episode 25): A war correspondent (Clete Roberts) talks to the 4077 members in a black-and-white documentary-style installment based on journalist Edward R. Murrow’s interviews with Marines in 1952. “It was largely improvised,” Alda says. “And whenever we did a show with a different approach, the cast and crew felt a sense of adventure.”
- “Point of View” (season seven, episode 11): Viewers felt a bit more connected to the plight of war via a story told entirely through the eyes of a wounded solider. All the scenes were shot in one take. “I was drawn to the story because it was told in an unusual way,” Alda says of the episode, which was nominated for two Emmys.
- “Goodbye, Farewell and Amen” (season 11, episode 16): That’s a wrap! More than 120 million viewers tuned in to see the finale (directed and co-written by Alda), in which the war ends and the staff goes their separate ways. “It had so much substance,” Leverence says. “And it had a really strong emotional component, which was necessary.”