This column follows on from my previous column on M*A*S*H
"If it was going to be just hi-jinks on the battlefield I wanted no part of it" Alan Alda to People Magazine
M*A*S*H as a television show had unheralded success over it’s twelve year run, and whereas many great shows have come close to cancellation before they achieved success, it seems amazing that a show that drew an incredible 60.2 Neilsen rating for it’s final episode (a 77% share of the viewing audience, around 106 million viewers and a record that stood for 27 years) very nearly ended after a struggling first series.
After 20th Century FOX attained great success with the motion picture M*A*S*H in 1970, earning $36 million at the Box Office and 5 Academy Award Nominations, executives immediately began looking for a way to build on this success and with the set of the movie still standing in the hills above the Studios in Los Angeles, the potential for a TV spinoff was too good an opportunity to pass up.
Fox pitched the idea of the adaptation to CBS, who had since the late 1960s moved away from their traditional stylings towards programming more likely to capitalise on social issues of the time. As with when the movie was made, the ongoing war in Vietnam was the cause of much social debate, with the merits of war being seriously questioned by the general populace for the first time, and so the obvious parallels between that situation and the issues raised in M*A*S*H’s presentation of the earlier Korean war meant the series appeared to be bespoke for the network. The idea accepted, plans for a pilot were underway and Gene Reynolds was appointed to oversee it. Reynolds in turned approached Larry Gelbart to help him pen the script, thus forming a major part of the core of the M*A*S*H creative team.
Adapting the movie characters and premise into a show suitable for prime time television provided a fair number of obstacles. For one, much of the film was quite explicit in it’s sexual language, and so effort had to be made to sanitise things without losing the punch that M*A*S*H was supposed to have. The work went into maintaining the show’s entertainment value, while not sacrificing the subtext, which as Reynolds put it “dealt with these guys who are heroes, healers, saving life in the middle of a war”.
With the script complete, casting was underway. First in was Gary Burghoff who had also played Radar O’Reilly in the film, followed by McLean Stevenson. Stevenson initially auditioned for the part of Hawkeye, but was persuaded to take the role of Henry Blake. Remembered at the 30th Annivesary Reunion show in 2002, the remaining cast spoke of Stevenson’s natural comedic abilities, he was apparently at times not too far removed from Henry’s loveable confusion. On top of that, he and Burghoff had tremendous chemistry in their scenes as Henry turned into Radar’s father figure, and he was unrivaled in his ability to pull off the ‘double talk’ when he would speak a word behind the intuitive Company Clerk.
Wayne Rogers too auditioned initially as Hawkeye, but told producers he felt he was much closer to Trapper John McIntyre and so was given that role. For the role of Margaret ‘Hotlips’ Houlihan some 200 actresses had already read for the part when Loretta Swit was approached. Swit had been offered a role in a movie that clashed with the pilot episode’s filming dates, but when she and her agent went to inform the studio, they immediately offered her the role of Hotlips.
A role that proved somewhat more troublesome to fill was that of Frank Burns as Burns was forever the butt of the joke with very few ‘winning’ lines of his own. After exploring several avenues, Larry Linville was given the role. Linville was described by Burt Medcalf (who oversaw the casting) as an unsung, underappreciated actor, as the character he embodied in Burns couldn’t have been more diametrically opposed to Linville himself, who Gene Reynolds described as ‘a pussycat’.
Reynolds and Gelbart had held out for Alan Alda in the role of Hawkeye after not seeing anybody who fit the part in initial auditions, but he was initially reluctant to play a womaniser, feeling uncomfortable with that being such a major part of Hawkeye. With filming looming though, both Reynolds and Gelbart met Alda to discuss the role. A chemistry in creative direction was immediately discovered, as they discussed what their intentions would be for the series. Keeping it away from ‘hijinks at the front’ was key in all three men’s vision and Alda signed on immediately, his concerns about the concept allayed and the character of Hawkeye growing on him. The aspect that initially made him reluctant would eventually become a character flaw he enjoyed employing.
"I wanted to show that the war was a bad place to be. People got hurt in the war and it was not the occasion of hilarity. The way people reacted to it might be hilarious" Alan Alda interviewed in 1980
Despite the meticulous preperations, FOX had surprisingly low expectations for the series, and relegated it to Stage 9, their smallest available studio, with only the set on the FOX ranch in the hills given as additional space. Filming in the hills caused it’s own problems as recalled by Alda, Rogers and Loretta Swit at the reunion. Temperatures in the morning and evening hit lows of 19°F which made the shooting scenes in the trademark Hawaiian shirts difficult, before rising to a scorching 108°F in the heat of the afternoon, creating health concerns given heavy workload.
Despite the obstacles the pilot was filmed and the ball began rolling for what would later become an award winning hit show. CBS executives were certainly convinced and immediately ordered the first series to be filmed, but the honeymoon period was short as the M*A*S*H production team often faced opposition from the Network as to the content of the show. According to Larry Gelbart, CBS frowned upon blasphemy and any overtly sexual remarks. A ‘morality officer’ was appointed by CBS who put a halt on the use of blood in the pilot. Additionally there was uproar over the scenes in surgery which executives felt made the show too heavy.
Another insistence from CBS was the inclusion of a laugh track on the show. The producers didn’t want that to compromise their presentation, but were pushed into having a ‘giggle track’ on the show, with the understanding no canned laughter was to be used in the scenes in the Operating Room. The final production standards agreed on, M*A*S*H was scheduled for Sunday nights at 8PM in CBS’ 1972 Fall Lineup, but the ratings were not encouraging for The Pilot, nor were they for the majority of the first series. As the show struggled to find an audience, behind the scenes there were also difficulties agreeing on what the prevailing tone of M*A*S*H should be. Slapstick moments were more common, and the style jumped around a fair amount as the whole team struggled to keep their initial vision clear. They felt they owed it to the viewers to be more than just a standard “service comedy”.
The crew felt, and in retrospect it’s generally seen as the turning point for M*A*S*H, that the episode Sometimes You Hear The Bullet was when the show hit it’s stride. In the episode, Hawkeye meets an old friend, Tommy, who is a soldier at the front line writing a book about his experiences and the fact death can come suddenly with no fanfare. Tommy is wounded in battle, fatally as it turns out, with Hawkeye unable to save him. It marked the first time that a character had been majorly effected by a death, as Hawk cried over his fallen friend. CBS was actually quite critical of the plot as it broke their attempted mandate to keep the show light, but it was lauded by Alan Alda as exactly the type of television he wanted to make, blending the light of the interaction in the first half of the episode, and the dark side of the tragedy at it’s close. Larry Linville described it as the finest example of what the show could accomplish.
Despite this, M*A*S*H still hadn’t captured the public’s imagination and it finished it’s season ranked #46, having dropped as low as #53 and was on the verge of cancellation before an unlikely saviour stepped in. Larry Gelbart tells us;
"Mrs Payley [The wife of a CBS Executive]... was enamoured with the show, and y'know you can't beat a good pillow talk! I think she went to bat for us a lot"
Her persuasion was enough to convince her husband to recommission the show, this time on a Saturday evening at 8.30PM between All in the Family and The Mary Tyler Moore Show, two big ratings winners. With this encouraging news, Reynolds and Gelbart continued to try and refine the show, reducing the number of minor characters (leading to the end of Spearchucker Jones and Ugly John among others). Other characters were developed further, such as Corporal Max Klinger and Father Mulcahy played by Jamie Farr and William Christopher respectively (Christopher having taken over the role after the pilot in which Mulcahy was portrayed by George Morgan).
The Producer’s changes and the new timeslot combined to turn M*A*S*H around, and ratings started to grow massively through the second season. Awards followed, as did CBS using the show to bolster others with further moves around the schedule, all of which and more will be covered in the future editions of this series of articles!
Next time we will be looking at the first ‘era’ of M*A*S*H, Series 1-3, it’s characters, episodes and style. Thanks for reading, as always, send any feedback to email@example.com or in the comments below!