20th Century Fox could not have predicted the massive success of MASH. When the studio began promoting the Korean War comedy in the fall of 1969, it used a few exploitative photographs of the cast without shirts and some of the 4077th doctors watching a woman shower. The press kit even gave a subtle dig at the source material, Richard Hooker’s 1968 book MASH: A Novel About Three Army Doctors. Fox declared the movie was “even faster, funnier and more fantastic than the original.”
But when the studio began screening the film, its outlook quickly changed. Sneak previews in October 1969 generated buzz, which continued to build when Fox screened MASH for the Directors Guild in November. The early praise prompted Fox to move up the release date of the film, two months before its intended March launch.
On January 25, 1970, MASH premiered and began an exclusive run at the Baronet Theater in New York. The blockbuster would go on to become the third-highest-grossing film of 1970 and earn five Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture. (It won Best Adapted Screenplay.)
No wonder the decision was made to turn the hit movie into a television series.
However, when M*A*S*H appeared on the small screen in 1972, just one actor from the original film remained. Gary Burghoff continued to play Radar O’Reilly. Hawkeye (Donald Sutherland), Trapper John (Elliott Gould), Hot Lips (Sally Kellerman) and others were replaced.
One central character entirely disappeared. Tom Skerritt portrayed Capt. Augustus Bedford “Duke” Forrest in MASH, a doctor who shares a tent with Hawkeye, Trapper and Frank Burns in the movie. So what happened to him?
The first answer to that question lies behind the scenes. 20th Century Fox asked Skerritt to join the television series. Skerritt turned down the offer. He reportedly did not believe a half-hour M*A*S*H television show would be successful.
But what happened to the character? The answer to that question can be found in a quick dialogue exchange in season three.
In “Life with Father,” a young Korean woman shows up at the 4077th with a baby in her arms. She is looking for an American soldier, the father of the child. Unfortunately, she does not speak English.
She keeps saying “For-bris” to anyone who will listen. Hawkeye and Trapper attempt to understand her.
“Forbris, Forbris. There was a Lieutenant Forbes,” Hawkeye ponders.
“Tall, thin guy,” Trapper remembers.
“Only dermatologist I ever knew with pimples,” Hawkeye jokes.
“Maybe she’s looking for Captain Forrest,” Trapper suggests.
“Who?” Hawkeye asks.
“The brain surgeon who fell down a lot,” Trapper says.
“No, no. He’s been gone over two years,” Hawkeye says. “He’s got a toy store now.”
So that explains what happened to Duke Forrest! Even in this reference, the writers couldn’t resist poking fun at a former iteration of MASH.