‘M*A*S*H’ Star Explained the Importance of the Korean War to Show: ‘Telling the Story of Real People’
Alan Alda said one of the reasons MAS*H was so popular was because it told the stories of real people. Alda, who played Hawkeye on the popular show, said authenticity was very important to the cast and crew.
Alda, who would go on to write and direct several episodes of MAS*H, spoke with the Television Academy Foundation about the show’s success.
“The thing that was essential to, I think, make the audience connect to it was that we knew we were telling the story of real people,” Alda said. “The producers — and you know Larry (Gelbart) and Gene (Reynolds) — went to Korea. … They saw what the conditions were like. They interviewed the real doctors and nurses. And all of us who did it knew we were playing real people who had lived through real conditions. We weren’t comic characters who were there just to amuse you. I mean, we were also there for that, but we had a kind of loyalty to the reality of it. … The truth. … I think that I think the audience got that and appreciated it.”
Gelbart freely admits to cribbing lines he heard from actual MASH unit surgeons and nurses for the show. One of the most famous lines from MASH came directly from a doctor in Korea.
It’s in “The Interview” episode. Real-life news reporter Clete Roberts asks Father Mulcahy how life in the unit has changed him. And he replies with one of the most famous lines in television history.
“When the doctors cut into a patient and it’s cold, you know the way it is now, today — steam rises from the body, and the doctor will warm himself over the open wound,” he responds. “Could anyone look on that and not feel changed?”
Alda: We Fought ‘Self Censorship’ on ‘M*A*S*H’
Alan Alda said he didn’t worry about being controversial on MAS*H. That wasn’t what scared him, mostly because they were able to avoid the politics.
“I didn’t worry about controversy,” he told the Television Academy Foundation, “I didn’t know controversy was something I had to worry about. I was probably my Eve in that regard, but we weren’t in danger of we weren’t ever in danger of political censorship we were you know subjected to other kinds of censorship all the time every day.”
But that didn’t mean they were above reprieve. They had to fight CBS’ Office of Standards and Practices to get what they believed in on the air. But there was a more insidious for of censorship that came from this give and take with the network.
In fact, Alda worried constantly about self-censorship.
“I think self-censorship is the worst kind, but the network not only would censor you,” he said. “They would get you to collaborate. They would get the artists to collaborate. The writers and directors to collaborate in that self-censorship.”