Alan Alda on 50 Years of ‘M*A*S*H’: We Never ‘Realized How Successful the Show Was’
Alan Alda shares the many ways 'M*A*S*H' changed his life.
Native New Yorker Alan Alda was in the Army Reserves at Fort Benning, Georgia, shortly after the Korean War. As irreverent surgeon Capt. Benjamin Franklin “Hawkeye” Pierce on M*A*S*H, he was the heart and soul of the series—and racked up 25 Emmy nominations for acting, writing and directing in the process. Alda, 86, has since become a prolific actor (The West Wing, Ray Donovan) and author, and he currently hosts the podcast Clear+Vivid. (He’s also been married to his wife, Arlene, since 1957!)
How did you get to M*A*S*H?
I was shooting a movie [The Glass House] in the Utah State Prison, and one day a script came in for me at my hotel. It was written by Larry Gelbart and it was the best comedy writing I’d ever seen in a half-hour script. It certainly brightened up my day in cell block 9. Right away, I knew I wanted to play in it.
When did you realize the show had become a major hit?
I don’t know if we ever really realized how successful the show was. We started out at the bottom of the ratings, and we just got used to concentrating on the work every day. For most of the first year, I’d proudly say, “We’re in the Top 72!”
The cast—and not just the characters—always seemed to genuinely like each other. True?
I think we all knew that to play these characters, we had to have the closeness of people who spent their lives eating together, tending wounded together and sleeping, if not together, then at least nearby. So we worked at it. For the first season, every Friday night we’d stay late and eat pizza and drink beer and end many Fridays in a circle airing our complaints to one another. During the shooting day, we’d hang out together in our circle of chairs and tell stories and play games and rib each other. We’d make real contact that was open and free so that when we’d be called to the set, the connection was still happening underneath the dialogue of the scene. We’re all still in touch by email, and before COVID, we’d try to get together for dinner at least once a year.
What were you doing when the last episode aired?
Loretta and I were in a car on the way to a restaurant to celebrate with the rest of the cast, and we realized with a jolt that the streets were empty. Almost no cars. Then it hit us that people were home watching our last show.
M*A*S*H mixed humor with the realities of war. How did you approach that tricky combination?
I think a lot of what attracted people to the whole series was that even though it was mainly a comedy, we never tried to forget that real people had lived and suffered through stories like the ones we were telling. We wanted to honor that as much as we could.
How did the show change your life?
I became a better actor, better writer and learned how to direct. But more than that, it thrust all of us into something that was more important than we were. I think we all feel gratitude for that and feel lucky that we got to experience it together. But 50 years is a long time ago. It almost feels like it happened to someone else. It’s nice, though, that he still lets me live in his house.