Behind the Scenes of M*A*S*H, the Greatest Show in TV History

By Jake SchroederLast Updated Apr 18, 2020 9:30:56 PM ET
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Photo Courtesy: Moviepix/Getty Images

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.

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Photo Courtesy: CBS Television/Wikimedia Commons

The truth is Hornberger hated the show when it came out. Above all, he resented Hawkeye's anti-war sentiments and felt they were contrary to his own views. He even said that M*A*S*H "trampled on his memories." It's too bad he had to endure 11 seasons of the 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.

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Photo Courtesy: Hulton Archives/Getty Images

Interestingly, director Robert Altman (pictured) had gone to his teenage son for help in creating the lyrics for the music when he was making the movie version. Michael Altman was only 14 years old at the time, and Robert Altman thought his young son could better write stupid, funny lyrics. In the end, Michael made more than a million dollars from royalties when a version of the song climbed the charts in the U.K.

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.

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Photo Courtesy: CBS/Getty Images

At first, CBS laughed it off. Normally, actors can't simply decide they want to leave in the middle of a contract — at least not without paying big fines. As it turned out, however, Rogers never actually signed his contract when he started working for the show. Without that signature to bind him, they had no way of keeping him on the show, and they were forced to write him out.

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.

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Photo Courtesy: Phil Constantin/Flickr

Klein turned down the role, a decision that some say he came to regret, although he never confirmed that himself. He claims the character simply wasn't right for him. Who knows how the show would have turned out had Klein played Trapper instead of Rogers? At the very least, fans might have had Trapper McIntyre for more than three seasons.

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.

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The laugh track was at least used appropriately. No laughs are heard during surgery scenes or during other serious moments. It is, after all, a show set in the middle of a war zone. On the most recent DVD set of M*A*S*H, you can even opt to watch the entire series without the canned laughter.

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.

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For viewers with an eye for detail, the producers threw in something of an Easter egg at the end of the episode: Captain Tuttle is included in the end credits as having played himself. It's certainly not the only time producers played around in this manner.

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.

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At the very end of the episode, Radar announced Blake’s plane was shot down over the Sea of Japan. After the episode aired, producers were bombarded with angry letters from fans. After all, it was a cruel thing to do! To express its own displeasure with producers, CBS cut off the very end of the episode when the show played as a rerun.

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.

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Photo Courtesy: Bettmann/Getty Images

However, 22 years later, the bear magically reappeared at an auction. A medical student bought it for $11,500 but ended up selling it to actor Gary Burghoff, who played Radar. It seems like a fitting ending for the bear, considering he owned it originally. It's nice to know the symbolic bear found his way home.

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.

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Given the success of the 1970 M*A*S*H film, these crossovers certainly didn’t go unnoticed by fans. Thankfully, using these actors in both the movie and the show was a good move on the part of the producers.

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.

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Farr played the character so well that he was asked back again and again. Eventually, he became a regular character on the show, even developing deeper character traits and backstory.

Veterans Galore

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.

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Mike Farrell (pictured) served in the U.S. Marine Corps, and Wayne Rogers spent time in the Naval Reserve as an officer. Knowing this, it makes sense these actors were able to offer such authentic portrayals on the show.

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.

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Photo Courtesy: Ed Passi/Flickr

A Purple Heart is only awarded the first time a soldier gets hurt. After the first injury, soldiers are awarded a 5/16-inch star or an oak leaf cluster. On the show, various characters get hurt more than once and are awarded Purple Hearts each time. Apparently, it's hard to get all the details right all the time.

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.

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For example, the decision was made to cut a whole episode that focused on soldiers finding ways to get sent home. In the unaired episode, soldiers attempted to get sick on purpose by staying outside in the cold. This truly happened during the Korean War, but this episode was cut for being too controversial.

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.

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Other Asian actors played other Korean characters. For example, Maxwell Klinger's eventual romantic interest, Soon-Lee, was played by Chinese-American Rosalind Chao, and South Korean Army Captain Sam Pak was played by Japanese-American Pat Morita. If the show were shot today, it’s unlikely this discrepancy would happen again.

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.

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Photo Courtesy: FilmMagic/Getty Images

Other big names that guest starred on M*A*S*H include John Ritter, Pat Morita, Laurence Fishburne (pictured) and Rita Wilson. At the time, the heights these individuals would eventually reach were unknown.

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.

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One of the ways the writers got back at them was by writing episodes set in the winter months. To mimic a Korean winter, the actors had to bundle up in the thickest coats possible and huddle around a fire. The caveat was that they weren't actually outside in winter, of course. They were in hot, sunny Malibu.

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.

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Photo Courtesy: CBS/Getty Images

Throughout the seasons, it’s true that Burghoff's left hand is seldom seen by viewers. (It’s not like there were many reasons to show his hand deliberately, after all.) Sometimes, if you look closely, you can spot it. If you’re curious, take a look at the first time he appeared on the show — his hand can be glimpsed while he's playing the drums.

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.

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Photo Courtesy: Ron Galella Collection/Getty Images

It was — and still is — a record number of viewers for a TV series finale. Other TV events have broken the record, but never another TV series finale. Looking back, it's clear just how important the show was to American culture at the time.

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.

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The show’s popularity already meant that advertisements during episodes were expensive for any day and time. For 30 seconds of commercial air time during a regular episode, companies paid $300,000. Once the finale rolled around, the price shot up to a whopping $400,000, which was actually a good deal when you consider how many people saw it.

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.

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In truth, the plumbing system didn't face any major problems. Plumbing engineers did report a 6.7-million-gallon increase in water flow during the half hour after the finale ended, however. Just imagine how many people must have rushed to the bathroom at the same time to make that happen.

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.

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Only two months after being buried, a construction worker found the time capsule left behind by M*A*S*H. He apparently wasn't too impressed, considering he didn't keep the capsule, even after Alan Alda advised him to hold on to it. It looks like the construction worker missed out on that one. Imagine what those keepsakes would be worth today!

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.

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In another episode, they used names from the 1978 Dodgers team. Additionally, all of Radar’s romantic interests were named after one of the writer's ex-girlfriends — although you wouldn't pick up on that one unless you knew the guy!

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).

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Photo Courtesy: The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

The rest of the characters were either written off the show or first appeared in the series after the pilot episode. With the series lasting 11 seasons, it isn't too surprising that most actors weren’t on the show for the entire run.

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.

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Needless to say, she took her job seriously. After the success of M*A*S*H, Swit appeared in many different TV shows and movies made for TV. A fun trivia fact about her is that she's a Pac-Man mega-fan — she even owns her own machine!

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.

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Gelbart won $25,000 for the pilot script based on the 1970 film directed by Robert Altman. Unfortunately, Altman didn't like the show for the opposite reason as the original Hawkeye, Richard Hornberger. Altman thought the show wasn't anti-war enough in its portrayal.

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.

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His most-used piece of clothing was a big white wedding dress. Not only did Klinger wear it when he married Laverne Esposito, but Hot Lips wore it when she married Lieutenant Colonel Donald Penobscott, and Soon-Lee wore it when she married Klinger (ironic, right?). The dress was yet another way the crew of M*A*S*H left behind Easter eggs for fans.

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.

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At one point in the series, Hunnicutt appeared to be speaking on the phone with wife Peg. In real life, he was actually speaking with his daughter! This small act probably meant a lot to his daughter, and it was a nice gesture on the part of the writers and producers.

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.

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Recording sound for TV isn't as simple as it may seem, and having a bunch of actors clunking around in boots made the job even harder. As a result, the actors usually wore tennis shoes, and the cameramen simply avoided capturing their feet. If full-body shots were necessary, then the actors wore boots for the scene.

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.

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On the other hand, plenty of U.K. shows have used laugh tracks, so that argument doesn't seem logical. Whatever the reason, the show never gained momentum across the pond. Not that it mattered, considering the U.S. success of M*A*S*H more than made up for it.

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.

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This democratic decision seemed to pay off. Unlike many other long-running shows, M*A*S*H didn’t overstay its welcome. Ratings didn't drop, and the series managed to go out with a bang. It's a lesson other TV series could learn from when they sense their time on the air should come to an end.