Many film actors would never have considered it, but Gary Burghoff “jumped” at the opportunity to bring Radar O’Reilly, his role in the 1970 film M*A*S*H, to the small screen. “I wanted that character to be more than just a nickname,” Gary tells Closer.
M*A*S*H, the comedy-drama TV series set in a Korean War Army medical unit, wasn’t a ratings juggernaut when it premiered on September 17, 1972. But its thoughtful blend of humor, drama and characters that viewers cared about turned it into one of the highest-rated shows in TV history.
“Half the fan mail I get says things like, ‘I became a nurse because of you,'” Loretta Swit, a.k.a. Margaret Houlihan, tells Closer. “So, I’m really thrilled.”
Even the show’s most humorous characters, like Jamie Farr’s crossdressing Max Klinger, had depth, dignity and honor. “No matter what, he was always a good soldier,” notes Jamie to Closer. “He would never jeopardize his comrades.”
Back when M*A*S*H began putting human faces on an unwinnable war, America still had troops in Vietnam. The show wasn’t political, but it didn’t shy away from showing the realities of armed conflict. “We didn’t gloss over it and make the show about how funny things were in the mess tent,” says Alan Alda, who signed on to play Hawkeye Pierce under the condition that M*A*S*H would not be “McHale’s Navy in Korea.”
M*A*S*H also never preached. “We provided entertainment first, but our underlying theme was always pro-humanity,” says Gary, who notes that M*A*S*H was popular around the world and translated into “at least 29 languages.”
In the fourth season, the show introduced Mike Farrell as B.J. Hunnicutt, a replacement for Wayne Rogers’ Trapper John. “It was terrifying,” Mike confesses to Closer. “I thought maybe they’d all resent me for replacing their buddy.”
But on his first day on set, Mike encountered a “welcoming committee” of his new castmates waiting to greet him. This atmosphere of unity, shared purpose and mutual respect allowed the cast to work closely with one another and with the writers.
“They had a special area on set where we could sit and run lines back and forth,” says Jamie, who calls the gang “the perfect dream cast.” It wasn’t all serious business, either. Pranks were an occupational hazard. After Alan told Mike about receiving a call from a phone scammer, Mike enlisted friends to call, write and contact Alan pretending to be the same con artist. Alan caught on when a singing telegram WHERE ARE THEY NOW? arrived.
“I had a person come in and do a whole song and dance about this scam,” says Mike. “Alan looked at me and said, ‘You son of a b—.’ It had gone on for weeks!”
Over 11 seasons, M*A*S*H entertained, enlightened and broke hearts. Cast members came and went, and the show outlasted the war it was set in by eight years. The surviving cast remain close today. “We lost so many of our family — Wayne, McLean [Stevenson], Larry [Linville], David [Ogden Stiers], Bill [Christopher], Harry [Morgan]. Every one was a body blow, but it’s still forever,” says Loretta. “We loved each other, and we still do.”