30 surprising facts about ‘M*A*S*H’
We’ve all heard the saying, “It’ll make you laugh until you cry,” but few shows embody this cliché as well as “M*A*S*H.” Throughout its 11 seasons, audiences were treated to a variety of colorful characters, hilarious gags, and poignant social commentary. But how much do you really know about the iconic dramedy?
The real-life Hawkeye hated the show
Hawkeye’s character was loosely based on the exploits of a real person. Richard Hornberger served as a surgeon in the Korean War at the 8055 Mobile Army Surgical Hospital unit. He was well known for his heroic prowess as a surgeon as well as his razor-sharp sense of humor. He is widely believed to be the first Army surgeon to perform the arterial repair (it was prohibited back then).
When he returned from the war, he began penning MASH: A Novel About Three Army Doctors, under the pseudonym Richard Hooker. He made royalties on the show, though not much — only about $500 an episode. But the real reason he despised the show was because of Alda’s portrayal of Hawkeye’s anti-war sentiments, which Hornberger did not share. He went as far as to say the show “trampled on his memories.” Ouch.
The story behind the theme song
The show borrowed its theme song from the 1970 film — with a notable change. The lyrics of “Suicide Is Painless” were removed for the theme played on the intro of M*A*S*H. You should be able to glean exactly why from the song title.
Interestingly, director Robert Altman enlisted the help of his 14-year-old son Michael to write the lyrics to the song — not because he thought his son was talented, but because he wanted the lyrics to be childish and stupid. “I’ve got a son who’s a total idiot,” he told the song’s composer Johnny Mandel. However, young Mike got the last laugh — he ended up earning over a million dollars in royalties after a version of the song topped the UK charts.
Wayne Rogers escaped his contract by never signing it
After three seasons of playing Trapper McIntyre, Wayne Rogers decided he’d had enough. He was sick of playing second fiddle to Hawkeye (played by Alan Alda) and felt his own character was never given the chance to be explored in-depth.
CBS scoffed at the decision — after all, you can’t just up and decide to leave a show. Well, apparently you can when you never signed the contract you were supposed to sign. Writers and producers had little choice but to grin and bear it — they had no legal recourse but to write him out of the show. That’s why Trapper never gets a proper farewell.
Robert Klein was originally offered the main role
Wayne Rogers wasn’t the first choice for the role of Trapper John. Originally, producers offered the role to comedian Robert Klein. They felt that having a popular comedian as one of the leads would be exactly what the show needed to gain popularity.
As fate would have it, Klein turned down the role. Many speculated that Klein regretted his decision, but he’s always maintained it wasn’t right for him. It’s hard to imagine someone else as Trapper. How would the show have changed if Klein had accepted the role? Would he too have wanted to leave the show after only three seasons?
The crew hated the laugh track
It’s a staple of most, but not all sitcoms. Some people can’t stand it, while others tolerate it. I’m speaking, of course, about the dreaded laugh track. Apparently, the cast of M*A*S*H weren’t fans and begged CBS not to add it in.
CBS ignored their protests and included a laugh track, only because all other comedies had one back then. But M*A*S*H isn’t like all other comedies. For one, it’s set during a war. Fortunately, CBS had the good sense not to include the canned laughter at inappropriate moments — and never during operation room scenes. If you buy the latest DVD versions, you can choose to watch the entire show sans laugh track.
An imaginary character was given acting credits
Captain Tuttle was a figment of Hawkeye’s imagination. In the episode titled “Tuttle,” Hawkeye and Trapper pretend the imaginary captain died tragically so they could donate his salary to an orphanage. Eventually their deception grows so detailed that others become convinced they knew the man.
Perhaps the deception even extended to the producers of the show, who included Captain Tuttle in the episode credits (it says he played himself). More likely, the crew decided to add him to the credits as an Easter egg to see who would be paying attention enough to notice. It wouldn’t be the first or last time the crew would have some fun off-camera.
Fans didn’t react well to Henry’s death
CBS had to have anticipated this. Henry Blake was one of the most popular characters on the show, and when it came time for him to go, he was sent off in the most heart-wrenching way possible. Understandably, fans were distraught.
Viewers were prepared for Henry’s departure — he was heading home, after all. But the writers had other plans. After Henry says his goodbyes, it’s revealed that his plane was shot down over Japan. CBS offices were flooded with thousands of angry letters from fans of the show. On at least one occasion, CBS relented, showing the episode without its final scene. In retrospect, however, the emotional end of “Abyssinia, Henry” is one of the show’s defining moments. Side note: Alan Alda was the only actor who knew Henry’s fate until moments before they shot the scene.
Radar’s teddy bear went missing for years
The teddy bear Radar traveled with for years and Hawkeye eventually placed in a time capsule was meant to “symbolize all the boys who came over here that left as men.” When the show ended, no one seemed to know what happened to the stuffed animal.
22 years later, it turned up at an auction. It sold to a medical student for $11,500 — quite the expensive bear! Eventually, he decided to sell it back to Gary Burghoff, who played Radar in the series. It must have held a lot of sentimental value for the actor for him to fork over that kind of cash. Then again, Burghoff does have an extra-special connection to his character …
Only one actor appeared in both the movie and the show
M*A*S*H was based on both the book, MASH: A Novel About Three Army Doctors by Richard Hooker, and the successful 1970 film, M*A*S*H, directed by Robert Altman. Fans of the movie that tuned in to the show surely would have noticed a familiar face.
Gary Burghoff, who played “Radar” O’Reilly, was the only actor to appear in both the film and the show. It’s a good thing, too. Can you imagine any other actor filling that role? Though he didn’t appear in every episode of the series, Radar O’Reilly is one of the best-loved characters from M*A*S*H, and the show wouldn’t be the same without Burghoff portraying him.
Maxwell Klinger was only supposed to appear in one episode
Sometimes an actor can leave such a powerful first impression that it leads the writers of a show to restructure the whole plot. Such was the case with Jamie Farr, who first appeared on M*A*S*H in the episode “Chief Surgeon Who?” The inspiration for Klinger came from comedian Lenny Bruce, who said he’d attempted a cross-dressing ruse to get himself discharged.
The writers asked Farr back for a dozen episodes on the second season, and soon after, Klinger became a series regular. As the show continued to evolve, so did Klinger’s character. Where in the beginning he was mostly seen as a visual gag, his character became increasingly thoughtful and substantive.
The cast and crew were full of vets
Larry Gelbart wasn’t the only one who served. Alan Alda (Hawkeye Pierce) actually served in the Korean War as a junior officer. No wonder he was able to play the character so well. Jamie Farr, who played Maxwell Klinger, also served in the Korean War. In fact, Farr wears his own dog tags in the show. He left the Army in 1959.
It does not end there; Wayne Rogers (Trapper) was an officer in the Naval Reserve, and Mike Farrell served in the U.S. Marine Corps. This could explain why so many viewers found themselves attracted to the realism of the show.
Multiple Purple Hearts
Despite many of the crew being veterans, some mistakes in regards to military protocol still crept in. One such mistake was in the way Purple Hearts were presented to injured soldiers. Several characters on the show were injured multiple times and granted Purple Hearts for each injury.
A veteran that has been injured more than once in combat will tell you that the Purple Heart is only given to a soldier the first time she or he is injured. Anytime that soldier is injured again they are given an oak leaf cluster or 5/16 inch star to wear in lieu of another medal.
The show walked a fine line thematically
M*A*S*H first aired in 1972, while the controversial Vietnam War still raged. Because CBS did not want to be accused of harboring resentment toward the U.S. military, the writers, producers, and actors often had to make compromises in certain situations.
For example, CBS cut an entire episode where soldiers stood outside in the cold in a deliberate attempt to get themselves sick to be sent home. Although the episode was based on a real practice during the Korean War, it was deemed too controversial to air. What do you think, should CBS have let it slide, or did the writers push it too far?
There was only one Korean actor
Today, this would probably cause quite a stir. As it turns out, if you make a show about the Korean War, you may need some Koreans. Unfortunately, most of the time these roles didn’t go to Korean actors. The only actor of Korean descent was Soon-Tek Oh (shown here), who played several different characters on both sides of the 38th parallel.
Other Asian actors frequently appeared on the show, but none were Korean. For example, Rosalind Chao, who played Maxwell Klinger’s love interest Soon-Lee, is actually Chinese-American. South Korean Army captain Sam Pak was played by Pat Morita, who is Japanese-American.
A lot of famous guest stars appeared on the show
During the 11 seasons the show ran, many famous actors would appear as guest stars — though they may not have been household names at the time. Patrick Swayze played an injured soldier with leukemia on the episode “Blood Brothers.” The episode aired in 1981, two years before his breakout role in The Outsiders.
Ron Howard appeared on the show as well, playing Marine Private Walter Peterson, an underage soldier who enlisted illegally in the episode “Sometimes You Hear the Bullet.” Laurence Fishburne, John Ritter, Pat Morita, and Rita Wilson also appear in episodes of M*A*S*H. A role on M*A*S*H was a great start for an up-and-coming actor.
Actors and writers were a thorn in each other’s sides
Actors began making more demands as the series stretched on. It was common for the stars of the show to complain about their lines and demand rewrites. From time to time, writers became fed up with the actors and devised new ways to torture them.
One way was to create winter episodes. In one such episode, the freezing soldiers have to huddle together around a fire barrel to conserve warmth, wearing thick, matching parkas. It doesn’t sound so bad until you realize they weren’t filming in cold, Korean winter, but in the blazing Malibu heat. After this, the actors learned their lesson and kept their complaints to themselves.
Radar’s left hand
Fans will be familiar with this urban legend. It goes like this: Gary Burghoff (Radar O’Reilly) hid his misshapen left hand for the entire length of the series. So, is there any truth to the rumor? The answer is … kind of.
Gary Burghoff was born with a birth defect that left him with three misshapen fingers on his left hand. He did hide it in most scenes on M*A*S*H, and it’s never addressed in the show. However, there are some rare moments where they didn’t bother hiding it. Perhaps most notably, the very first time he appears on the show, his left-hand does as well. Gary Burghoff never let his left hand hold him back — he’s a virtuoso on the drums.
The M*A*S*H finale broke viewership records
Approximately 125 million viewers tuned in on Feb. 28, 1983, to watch the M*A*S*H series finale “Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen.” This means 77% of the United States watched the 2.5-hour episode. Even real Army troops stationed in Korea were glued to the screen. At the time, this was the most-watched television event of all time.
While the record for the largest audience watching a television event has been broken since then, the finale remains the most-watched episode of any TV show in history. It speaks to the show’s cultural significance that 36 years later, the record has yet to be broken.
Ad space was expensive
One of the few events to rival the number of viewers of the series finale is the Super Bowl. Therefore, it makes sense a lot of companies would want their ads shown during the time slot. Predictably, with such a high demand for ad space, prices skyrocketed.
A time slot during M*A*S*H had always been expensive. However, the series finale pushed these prices to dizzying heights. A 30-second ad spot during an average episode cost $300,000. For “Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen,” the same ad cost $450,000. Wow, that’s a 50% increase! Though with 125 million people tuning in, that’s a steal.
The series finale was responsible for New York’s plumbing system breaking down (allegedly)
This one sounds more like an urban legend than verified fact. However, it did make national news. The story goes like this: People were so enthralled with the 2.5-hour episode that they didn’t want to turn away — even to use the restroom. Keep in mind this was well before the invention of DVR.
When the episode finally ended, many people rushed to the bathroom, knocking over bar stools to form long queues. So many people flushed their toilets simultaneously that the New York plumbing system couldn’t handle it. In truth, the plumbing system never “broke down.” However, plumbing engineers did notice an increase of 6.7 million gallons of water flowing into the city’s sewers in the half hour after the episode ended.
It didn’t take long for the time capsule to be uncovered
Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan had the idea to bury a time capsule in the episode “As Time Goes By.” The cast liked the idea, and decided to leave the capsule as they had filmed it. However, it didn’t stay buried for too long.
How excited would you be if you uncovered a time capsule? The answer likely depends upon how long ago it was buried. Two months, it turns out, was not long enough to impress a construction worker who came across the M*A*S*H time capsule. Alan Alda told the worker to hold onto it, but the guy wasn’t interested.
Patients’ names had a familiar ring to them
Avid baseball fans paying close attention may have picked this one up. The crew had fun naming the various patients that the Army doctors had to treat — often sticking with a very specific theme over the course of an episode.
For example, one episode on the sixth season featured four patients named from the 1977 California Angels roster. Players’ names from the 1978 Dodgers team were recycled in another episode. An interesting piece of trivia: Radar’s love interests were all named after one of the writer’s ex-girlfriends. Obviously, unless you were friends with the writer, this would be hard to notice.
Only two actors lasted throughout the whole series
Alan Alda (Hawkeye) and Loretta Swit (Hot Lips) are the only two actors who lasted from the pilot to the series finale. A few characters also appear throughout, but they’re played by more than one actor. For example, Father John Mulcahy was portrayed by two actors. He was played by George Morgan on the pilot, but by William Christopher for the rest of the series.
Many characters were written off the show as the series went on. Other iconic characters, such as Radar (played by Gary Burghoff), Maxwell Klinger (portrayed by Jamie Farr), and Col. Potter (played by Harry Morgan) left early or came later on.
‘Hot Lips’ is in nearly every episode
One of the few characters that lasted the entire length of the series, Loretta Swit, who played Margaret “Hot Lips” Hoolihan worked especially hard on the show. She and Alda are the only two cast members credited in every single one of the 256 episodes of M*A*S*H. That’s a lot of screen time!
Of these 256 episodes, she appears on camera in all but 11. After M*A*S*H ended, she landed many small roles in various television shows and TV movies. A self-confessed Pac-Man fanatic, Swit owns a Pac-Man arcade machine in her home, and her instructional Needlepoint book features a Pac-Man design.
Larry Gelbart drafted the pilot in only 2 days
M*A*S*H is praised for its accurate and often heartbreaking portrayal of war. There’s a good reason it came off so realistic — screenwriter Larry Gelbart served in World War II and worked in the Armed Forces Radio Service. The writing must have come naturally to him.
Basing the characters and plot on the 1970 film by Robert Altman and on Richard Hooker’s novel, Gelbart completed the draft in just two days. He was awarded an impressive $25,000 for the script. For the record, Robert Altman wasn’t a fan of the show either — though for the exact opposite reason of Richard Hooker/Hornberger. Altman felt the show “softened the anti-war and anti-authoritarian spirit of the movie.” Writers and directors sure are hard to please!
Klinger’s wedding dress got lots of use
Maxwell Klinger wanted out of the war, badly. To accomplish this, he’d routinely pull crazy stunts to try and convince his superior officers he was insane. Most famously, Klinger would routinely don women’s clothing. But one article of clothing was especially popular.
The wedding dress Klinger was quite fond of was used several different times throughout the series, worn by several characters. First, by Klinger, when he married Laverne Esposito. Next, by Margaret Houlihan, when she married Lt. Col. Donald Penobscott. Finally, Soon-Lee wore the dress when Klinger himself remarried. It’s unclear why the dress was used so often, but it’s likely it was just another gag by the cast.
The story behind B.J. Hunnicutt’s daughter’s name
It’s a sweet story: When Trapper left the show unceremoniously, Mike Farrell was called in to play the part of the new captain. In the script, B.J. Hunnicutt’s daughter was named Melissa, but Mike Farrell asked the writers to change her name to Erin. The writers complied with the request.
The reason for the name change? Erin is the name of Farrell’s real daughter. Also, in the scene where Hunnicutt speaks to his wife, Peg Hayden, Farrell’s actually speaking to his daughter on the other end. It’s a nice gesture, and it was sweet of the writers and producers to be so accommodating.
The cast hardly wore boots
You’d never notice because the actors’ feet are seldom shown, but most of the time, the cast went without one important aspect of the Army uniform — their boots. While the cast was probably relieved not to wear the thick, stiff boots on the hot set, there’s another reason they went without.
It’s simple: Boots are loud, and the loud clunking footsteps would ruin the sound recordings. Instead, the cast donned sneakers, and cameramen were careful to shoot the characters from the waist up. In certain scenes where they had to show the actors’ full bodies, there was no getting around it — boots were necessary.
The show never performed well in the UK
Many shows that are hugely successful in the United States translate well to the United Kingdom, and vice versa. However, this wasn’t the case for Hawkeye and the gang. Perhaps British viewers were put off by how American-centric the show was.
It’s been theorized that Brits couldn’t get past the canned laughter, but this doesn’t make too much sense — plenty of British shows have a laugh track. We may never know the reason M*A*S*H didn’t do well outside the States. Oh well, one thing is for sure — domestic viewership more than made up for a lack of international audiences.
Everyone had a say
When producers and writers started floating the idea of the show ending, the actors were given the opportunity to weigh in. In fact, a majority vote made the decision to end the show after the 11th season. It seems they made the right decision.
Where tons of television shows overstay their welcome, getting more and more ridiculous plotlines and turning our favorite characters into parodies of themselves, M*A*S*H did not fall into this trap. Ratings never dropped, and the series was able to end on a high note. M*A*S*H proved that a democratic approach to making a television show can work.
The show lasted longer than the war it was based on
M*A*S*H ran for 11 seasons over the course of 11 years. American involvement in the Korean War lasted only three years, one month, and two days. The United States joined the conflict months after North Korea invaded South Korea as part of its policy of containment, an effort to halt the spread of communism.
Of course, when M*A*S*H started, this war had been over for nearly two decades. However, the unpopular Vietnam War raged and clearly provided an important subtext to both the 1970 film and the CBS television show. This gave the show a dark undertone that set it apart from other comedies.
Hawkeye wrote and directed a bunch of episodes
Alan Alda had a vital role in the show. Not only did he play Hawkeye, the show’s wisecracking, iconic lead, but he also did a lot of important work behind the camera as well. That takes a special talent for entertainment.
All in all, Alda wrote 13 episodes and directed 31 episodes of M*A*S*H. Among the writing and directing credits attributed to Alda is the critically acclaimed episode “Dreams” from season eight — a daring, surreal, and dark episode that gives us a rare glimpse into the nightmares of each main character. It’s one of the most haunting episodes in the series.
Time difference goofs
For some reason, the show couldn’t seem to get the time difference between the United States and Korea right. Routinely, characters on the show comment that the US is 18 hours behind Korea (usually when they need to contact someone in the US via a very long distance phone call).
In reality, the US is only 12-14 hours behind Korea, depending on the time zone and whether or not it’s daylight saving time. Perhaps we can forgive the crew this small mistake — it doesn’t impact the story too much and they didn’t have the internet in 1972 to tell them the time across the globe.
Actors switched roles
Hardly anyone noticed, but a keen eye will notice that certain roles were filled by different actors over the course of the show’s 11 seasons. What’s more, several actors play several different characters. Bobbi Mitchell actually played a total of 10 different characters! Nine of them were nurses.
In fact, the roles of nurses were routinely shifted between actresses. Five different actresses played Nurse Baker — though you could argue these were five different characters with the same last name and profession. Fun fact: Each nurse was named from the old military phonetic alphabet — Able for A, Baker for B, and Charlie for C.
M*A*S*H had a few spinoffs
None of the spinoffs approached the popularity of the original, but they’re worth mentioning. The shows lacked the magic of the original M*A*S*H, largely because they were set in the United States after the end of the Korean conflict. Without the looming war, the show didn’t have the same edge. Technically, there were three M*A*S*H-inspired series following the original series, though one never aired.
The most successful of them was Trapper John, M.D., though the writers always maintained the show was a spinoff of the 1970 film and not the show (and thus won a lawsuit filed over royalties). AfterMASH was the most faithful to the original. It followed several members of the old gang working at a veteran’s hospital in Missouri. Hawkeye was notably absent, and the show only ran for two seasons. W*A*L*T*E*R, which followed Radar’s career post-Korea, never even got past the pilot episode.
The cast reprised their roles in a series of IBM commercials
When you think of the cast of M*A*S*H, it’s hard to imagine them anywhere else besides military tents in Korea. But a series of ‘80s commercials saw them reprise their roles in a very unlikely setting. Instead of saving lives in the middle of a warzone, they were rushing to meetings and watering office plants.
Each cast member seems to have the same personality and similar roles to their positions on the show — it’s like a parallel universe where everyone ended up in accounting or sales instead of as military doctors. If you’ve ever wondered what M*A*S*H would have been like as a workplace sitcom, take a look.