Behind the Scenes of M*A*S*H, the Greatest Show in TV History
We all remember the beloved 70's TV sitcom M*A*S*H, a show that had viewers everywhere rolling on the floor laughing long before ROFL was a thing. Simply the mention of the show revives some nostalgic memories for fans who still remember asking friends, "Can you dig it?"
But every great show has its secrets. How well do you really know this crowd-pleasing series? Let’s take a look at 30 of the most surprising behind-the-scenes facts about M*A*S*H, the greatest show in TV history.
Hawkeye's Real-Life Counterpart Wasn't Much of a Fan
The character of Hawkeye was modeled after the real-life Dr. Richard Hornberger. Hornberger was a surgeon during the Korean War, who was widely known for his surgical skills along with his cutting sense of humor. He wrote a book detailing his experiences called MASH: A Novel About Three Army Doctors, which inspired the popular TV show.
The Million Dollar Theme Song
M*A*S*H's theme song was taken from the 1970 movie of the same name but was altered so the original lyrics to "Suicide Is Painless" didn't accompany the instrumental music. Given the song title, it's not much of a mystery why they decided to change it. Humor was a key point of the show.
Trapper Left Because Wayne Rogers Failed to Sign His Contract
Wayne Rogers (pictured far right) spent three seasons playing Trapper McIntyre, sidekick to main character Hawkeye, before growing tired of the formula. He wanted to see more exploration of his character and a little more attention paid to Trapper, but the show’s producers didn’t agree. At that point, he decided to leave.
Robert Klein Was Offered Trapper First
Producers didn't have Wayne Rogers in mind as their first pick for Trapper. Originally, they wanted Robert Klein, who was already established as a popular comedian, to take the part. They believed a popular name would attract more viewers and increase the show’s popularity.
The Actors Never Liked the Laugh Track
Plenty of sitcoms use laugh tracks — and plenty of actors hate it. Use of this artificial laughter was especially popular at the time M*A*S*H was filmed, and it was added to the show, despite the cast's feelings about it. Apparently, they absolutely begged CBS to leave it out.
They Gave Acting Credits to a Fake Character
In an episode called "Tuttle," Hawkeye and Trapper invent a Captain Tuttle, who died tragically. This false story starts as a way to get Captain Tuttle's salary donated to an orphanage. As happens when people invent stories, the lies snowball throughout the episode until Hawkeye and Trapper are struggling to make it believable that they knew the imaginary man personally.
Henry's Death Outraged Viewers
If you're a fan of M*A*S*H, you already know what happened to Lieutenant Colonel Henry Blake. Viewers were stunned when one of the most popular characters was written off the show in such a heartbreaking way. Producers had already announced the actor was leaving, and the episode was all about the character going home. No one knew the twist that was coming.
The Teddy Bear That Disappeared
The character "Radar" O'Reilly carried a teddy bear with him that Hawkeye eventually placed in a time capsule. The teddy bear symbolized the boys that went to war and "left as men." Strangely, the teddy bear's whereabouts were unknown when the show ended.
Several Actors Appeared in Both the Movie and the Show
Speaking of Gary Burghoff (Radar O'Reilly), he was one of three actors who played a role in the movie as well as the TV show. The others were G. Wood, who played General Hammond in both the movie and the series, and Timothy Brown, who played Spearchucker Jones in the show and Corporal Judson in the film.
Maxwell Klinger Wasn't Supposed to Stay on the Show
Occasionally, an actor plays a temporary part so well that the writers decide to incorporate the character into the ongoing plot on a full-time basis. That is what happened with Jamie Farr, who was originally only supposed to appear in the episode "Chief Surgeon Who?" Oddly enough, comedian Lenny Bruce inspired Farr's character of Maxwell Klinger when he told a story during a stand-up routine about cross-dressing to get discharged from the military.
Many people are aware that Larry Gelbart served in the military in the past, but he's not the only one. Alan Alda, who played Hawkeye, was also a junior officer in the Korean War, and Jamie Farr wore his own dog tags from his time in the Korean War. That's not the end of the list, either.
Purple Heart Mistakes
Even though there were several veterans playing roles in M*A*S*H, that doesn't mean there were never mistakes in terms of military protocol. For example, they slipped up on the process of awarding Purple Hearts to soldiers, and some viewers called them out for it.
Walk the Line
When M*A*S*H first aired in 1972, the Vietnam War was still going on, and it was a controversial war, as you will remember. That meant CBS had to take extra care not to appear to support protesters and be seen as anti-military. In several cases, writers and producers made sacrifices to ensure this didn’t happen.
The Show Only Actually Employed One Korean Actor
It's hard to believe M*A*S*H didn't get criticized more for this one. These days, the weird injustice of it is glaring. Despite focusing on the Korean War and having some Korean characters, the show only employed one actor who was actually Korean. Soon-Tek Oh (pictured in East of Eden) played several different characters throughout the run of the show.
Filled with Famous Guest Stars
Eleven seasons is a long time for a show to run, and it was certainly enough time to attract plenty of well-known stars to make guest appearances. Before his rise to fame in the film The Outsiders, Patrick Swayze guest starred as an injured soldier suffering from leukemia. Ron Howard appeared in "Sometimes You Hear the Bullet" as an illegal, underage soldier.
A Writer-Actor Feud
As the actors became comfortable in their roles and enjoyed their success, they attempted to wield more control over the episodes. It became normal for actors to ask for rewrites, complain about their character's lines and push back in general against the ideas pursued by the writers. This resistance, however, only lit a flame under the writers.
Radar's Untold Secret
If you’re a fan of the show, you've heard the rumor about Gary Burghoff's hand. Supposedly, Burghoff (Radar O'Reilly) felt uncomfortable about his misshapen hand, and he kept it off-camera or disguised throughout all 11 seasons. Many never knew the truth to this legend.
The Finale Broke Records
The final episode of the M*A*S*H series was viewed by an astounding number of people: 125 million, to be exact. That's 77% of the population of the U.S. at the time. Troops in Korea even watched it, sticking around to the end of the 2.5-hour episode.
To Place an Ad, You Had to Pay a Pretty Penny
One of the most frequent televised events to break records for viewers is the Super Bowl, and you know how much advertisers have to pay for those coveted commercial slots. The same was true for the M*A*S*H finale.
The Final Episode Caused NYC's Plumbing to Crap Out
This rumor made it to national news. The claim was millions of people avoided using the bathroom during the finale, causing an unprecedented (and huge) number of people to use the bathroom at the same time when the episode ended. It was said that New York City's plumbing system couldn't handle it and malfunctioned.
The Time Capsule Didn't Last Long
In the episode "As Time Goes By," the cast buried a time capsule per Margaret "Hot Lips" Houlihan's idea. After filming, they decided to leave the capsule there for some lucky person to uncover in the future. Turns out, it didn't take too long.
Writers Got Creative with Naming Characters
If you're a fan of baseball, you might have noticed a funny pattern to the names on M*A*S*H. In many cases, writers followed certain "themes" throughout an episode when it came to naming the sick and injured patients being treated. In one episode, four different patients are all named after players on the 1977 California Angels team.
Only Two Actors Were There from Start to Finish
With plenty of actors coming and going on M*A*S*H, only two managed to stick around to the end. Alan Alda and Loretta Swit, who played Hawkeye and Hot Lips, respectively, are the only actors to appear continuously throughout the series. Father John Mulcahy was a character from start to finish, but he was played by two different actors (although the first actor only appeared in the pilot).
Loretta Swit Appears in Almost Every Episode
During those 11 seasons, Loretta Swit (Margaret "Hot Lips" Houlihan) is one of only two actors to be credited at the end of every episode. Alan Alda (Hawkeye) is also credited in every episode. In total, Swit is on screen in 245 out of 256 episodes.
Larry Gelbart Came Up with the Pilot in Two Days
M*A*S*H writer Larry Gelbart was himself a veteran of World War II, which might be why he was able to draft the pilot in such a short amount of time and in such a poignant way. Despite being a comedy, the show doesn't shy away from the difficult truths of war, and that’s part of what made it such a hit with fans.
Maxwell Klinger's Famous Wedding Dress
Jamie Farr's character Maxwell Klinger was always up to hilarious hijinks in his quest to convince his superiors that he was crazy enough to be sent back home. One of his key efforts involved wearing women's clothing — a lot of women's clothing.
B.J. Hunnicutt's Daughter Erin
When Wayne Rogers (Trapper) left the show, producers brought in Mike Farrell to play a new captain: B.J. Hunnicutt. Originally, Hunnicutt's daughter was to be named Melissa on the show, but Farrell asked that her name be changed to Erin. Why? It was the name of Farrell's daughter in real life.
The Uniform Part the Actors Didn't Wear
For the most part, the cast dressed in the appropriate Army uniforms when shooting. There is one article of clothing, however, that they routinely left out: the boots. Not only were big, thick Army boots uncomfortable for the actors to wear on set, but they also made a lot of unwanted noise.
The U.K. Wasn't a Fan
Even though M*A*S*H enjoyed huge success in the States, viewers in the U.K. didn't find it as enthralling. This is somewhat puzzling, considering many popular U.S. shows have managed to translate well overseas. Some theorize that the show's intense Americanism put foreign viewers off. Others believe it was the dreaded laugh track that the U.K. audience couldn't get past.
Decisions Were Made Democratically
When it came time to decide when to end the show, everyone involved had a say in the matter. Surprisingly, producers allowed a vote to make the final decision. Based on the majority, it was decided to end M*A*S*H at 11 seasons.