In the fall of 1972, CBS had high hopes for a new sitcom based on a hit movie: Anna and the King of Siam. But Yul Brynner’s The King and I spinoff ran for only one season, while another new series inspired by a film, M*A*S*H, lasted 11 years — eight more than the Korean War, where it was set at a mobile hospital.
“CBS had no confidence in us,” remembers Alan Alda, 83, who starred as sardonic surgeon Hawkeye Pierce. “They gave us the smallest soundstage, and we stayed there. I think that was good, because it made us work harder,” he remembered.
All that hard work paid off: M*A*S*H became a beloved classic, and its 1983 finale remains the highest-rated scripted telecast of all time. More than 35 years later, the five surviving stars — Alan, Mike Farrell (Dr. B.J. Hunnicutt), Loretta Swit (nurse “Hot Lips” Houlihan), Gary Burghoff (Cpl. “Radar” O’Reilly) and Jamie Farr (Pvt. Max Klinger) — recently reunited for a special episode of Alan’s podcast Clear + Vivid.
Their memories are just that. “The show was a dream come true,” Mike, 80, tells Closer. “I am the luckiest actor in the world to have had the experience of being part of it.”
The cast members quickly conjured the same kind of easy camaraderie that fueled the series. “We can still sit around and laugh the way we’re doing just by talking to one another,” says Gary, 75, on the podcast. “That’s very similar to the way it was in between shots.”
Sometimes the laughter got out of control on the set. “We would all get the giggles at 5 o’clock in the afternoon from shooting in the same tight space all day,” says Alan. “And if you tried to stop giggling, that was the worst thing.” Agrees Loretta, 81, “It got worse.”
Cast members often played pranks on each other to break up the long days. “I could never cross the soundstage without Mike walking behind me and trying to trip me,” Alan says.
“Is that why you took up bicycling around the stage?” Loretta asks.
“I’ve taken up boxing now,” cracks Alan, who uses the exercise as therapy to treat his Parkinson’s disease. “So watch your step.”
Still, the actors were stone-cold serious when it came time to deliver their lines. “There wasn’t one of us who wasn’t totally committed to it,” says Alan. Adds Loretta, “The support was amazing, how we loved each other without thinking. And we were able to, while it was happening, appreciate how special and wonderful it was.”
The actors rarely changed a word in the scripts, which were written by comic legends and Jamie’s cross-dressing grunt were fleshed out into three-dimensional figures. Others, like Wayne Rogers’ randy Trapper John McIntyre, McLean Stevenson’s goofy Henry Blake and Larry Linville’s craven Frank Burns, left the show and were followed by Mike’s family man B.J., Harry Morgan’s no-B.S. Henry Potter, and David Ogden Stiers’ haughty Charles Emerson Winchester III, respectively.
“When characters left the show, we didn’t try to replace them with similar characters,” Alan explains. “We had the chance to search for new ideas, new relationships.”
In some cases, the actors were very different from their characters. “Larry was extremely well-read and could discuss any subject,” says Gary. “He once built an entire airplane in his LA apartment and then reassembled it in the desert and flew it. Without flight training!”
The show proved so popular that the cast was visited on the set by everyone from Lucille Ball and Jean Simmons to Gerald Ford and Prince Charles. “I walked up to him and said, ‘What advice would you give young people thinking of getting into your profession?’” one of the show’s writers, Ken Levine, recalls asking the royal. “People were horrified, but he laughed.”
There was rarely a dry eye in America when M*A*S*H signed off, though. “It was bittersweet and painful,” says Loretta. Echoes Mike, “It was heartbreaking yet thrilling because we knew we were wrapping up something we loved and were proud of and was extra special.”
The cast has stayed in tight touch ever since. “We fused a close bond that continues today, spanning all those years and weathering all our painful losses,” says Loretta. The deaths of McLean, Larry, Harry, Wayne, David and William Christopher (aka kindly Father Mulcahy) have only brought the M*A*S*H clan closer together, says Loretta, “because you realize how fragile that thread is we’re hanging on to.”
Keepsakes from the set are among the actors’ most cherished possessions — Army boots, dog tags Alan made for his costars one Christmas, even some of Klinger’s flamboyant wardrobe. “I still have my fuzzy pink slippers,” Jamie reports. Other costumes, like a gold lamé number, have ended up in the Smithsonian Institution. That dress had been worn by Ginger Rogers in a film with Fred Astaire.
“The day after that episode aired, Ginger was doing The Love Boat, and I ran into her in the commissary,” Jamie says. “She said, ‘That dress looked a hell of a lot better on you than it did on me!’”
The greatest gift the stars took away from M*A*S*H was friendship. “It was a miracle, the synchronicity of these people brought together,” Loretta says. “What a blessing to have been part of that family.”
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