Some of M*A*S*H’s best ad-lib moments were a byproduct of trust between cast and crew
'There are very few series that had ad-lib shows, most of them were always written, but they trusted the actors in it.'
There is no denying the amount of chemistry the highly-acclaimed actors of M*A*S*H portrayed throughout the show’s 11 seasons. Alan Alda, Loretta Swit, Gary Burghoff, Jamie Farr, William Christopher, Larry Linville, Wayne Rogers, Mike Farrell and others who played critical roles on the show are the ones who made it all come together.
Every hit show needs a strong group of writers, producers and directors too. M*A*S*H had no shortage in any category, as lead writer and co-creator Larry Gelbart gave plenty of creative freedom to the other writers and the cast members themselves.
Within the series we know Alan Alda as Hawkeye Pierce, but he went beyond the lead role as well. Alda has 32 directing and 18 writing credits to his name for his behind-the-scenes work on M*A*S*H. Several members of the crew were also credited with directing episodes, to go along with various writing credits.
M*A*S*H took chemistry to a different level and it’s evident in some of the best episodes from the series. A good script combined with actors who were seemingly always on the same page is what made the show the hit that it was in the Seventies, and is why so many still watch regularly five decades later.
Sometimes, however, the best scenes from the show resulted in ad-libbed lines and improv from the actors. Plenty of classic TV shows have left a few ad-libbed lines in an episode here and there, but M*A*S*H went a few steps further on a few occasions.
Maxwell Klinger actor Jamie Farr shared his favorite episodes with MeTV and told us a little about why he considers them the best.
He says “The Interview” is one of the most well-remembered episodes of the show for a few reasons: The interview-style format (hence the name), it was shot in black and white and parts of it didn’t come from a direct script.
“I picked ‘The Interview’ because that was an episode where Larry Gelbart, our head writer, interviewed us and then took the interview and put it on paper. It was really an ad-libbed show, which incidentally won the Peabody award.”
The season five episode “Movie Tonight” is also a Best by Farr selection for the same reason.
“There are very few series that had ad-lib shows, most of them were always written, but they trusted the actors in it,” Farr told MeTV.
In the classic scene where Klinger can’t get the projector to work during a movie night, everyone begins entertaining the room. The best part: the scene came directly from the actors, right in that moment.
“Everybody had to get up and do something,” Farr said. “Loretta got up and sang, I think Harry Morgan got up and sang. Gary Burghoff as Radar got up and did imitations… Father Mulcahy, Bill Christopher, was at the piano. He did Dennis Day and I did Rochester… and we imitated Father Mulcahy.”
While few shows had the cast-crew chemistry M*A*S*H did, even fewer had the ability to let the actors completely take the reigns in some cases, and have the results turn out as good as they did.
When thinking back to that level of camaraderie, Farr can’t help but be grateful to have been a part of such a unique cast, one with so many freedoms.
“It was remarkable because it wasn’t written, it was just a spontaneous thing that we did. That’s how much that the writers and the actors trusted one another and the director did. It was a great show. [I’m] proud to be on it.”