The first time we see Charles Winchester III in the M*A*S*H episode “The Smell of Music,” he is playing a French horn poorly.
Careful and forgiving ears would recognize that the tune he’s playing is the M*A*S*H theme song “Suicide Is Painless,” which audiences, of course, had just reheard when the episode started.
We’ve told you before that this iconic theme music has a sweet father-son backstory. But we’ll recap here just to get you up to speed.
When MAS*H movie director Robert Altman was working on the movie theme with composer Johnny Mandel, he had the song title already, and all he needed were “really stupid” lyrics.
Unable to write the lyrics as stupidly as he wanted them to be, Altman turned to his teenage son Mike, who quickly filled in lyrics that pleased his dear old dad.
Altman was so pleased, in fact, that when his movie was nominated for a bunch of Oscars, he was disappointed that the theme song didn’t also get a nom.
He couldn’t help but wonder what it would’ve been like to share that award-winning experience with his son. Surely, priceless.
“It would have been great to be nominated the same year, together,” Robert told The Vancouver Sun in 1971.
For Mike, there was, perhaps, a greater reward from his songwriting than a trophy. Cash money.
He actually earned a cool million off the song, which was many times more than the $70,000 his dad earned for directing the MAS*H movie.
We know that Michael Altman knew cash made for a great reward, because years prior to co-writing the MAS*H theme song, the boy sent out a message in a bottle with his Cub Scout troop in 1964.
Not convinced the message itself would elicit a response, to entice the finder, the young boy included a cash reward — a shiny quarter.
Remarkably, his ploy worked. Fifteen months after he dropped his Seven-Up bottle in the Willamette River in upstate New York, he received a letter in the mail from another kid across the country.
According to The Albany Democrat-Herald in 1966, his bottle was found in Vancouver, Washington, nearly 3,000 miles away!
“Last Saturday I went shooting along the Columbia River,” the response to Mike’s message in a bottle read. “I was walking down the bank and saw a Seven-Up bottle and picked it up so I could shoot it. When I saw the note, I took it out and read it. I was very surprised. I sat down when I got home and wrote to you. By the way, I’m 14 years old, and I’m giving you my picture.”
You’ll notice his new pen pal didn’t mention the reward, but we hope Mike promptly sent the quarter to the other boy.
Did you ever send a message in a bottle?
Or perhaps better question: Did anyone ever respond to your message in a bottle?
We imagine the experience of getting the response was as priceless for Mike Altman as the experience of being nominated for an Oscar the same year as his dad would’ve been for Robert Altman.