M*A*S*H: Amazing Facts From The Hugely Popular TV Show

MASH was a beloved series that ran for 11 seasons on CBS. Based on Roger Altman’s film about the Korean War – and thinly veiled critique of the Vietnam War – the television show would go on to break viewership records and win numerous awards during its historic run. It still has quite a large fan base today.

But you probably know all about that. What you might not realize is the fascinating history of the show during and after its broadcast run.

From behind-the-scenes creative frustrations to life after MASH, here are some really interesting facts about the show that generations of Americans have come to love.

Radar Is Now A Wildlife Painter

Image Source: Anonymous
Image Source: Anonymous

Gary Burghoff, the actor behind the Radar O’Reilly character in both the MASH film and TV show, is now a self-taught wildlife painter. Burghoff took his childhood love of animals and lifelong commitment to wildlife as a basis for his art. “I’m hoping to make the viewer see the beauty and soul of the animal,” he told The New York Times in 2004.

But He Used To Be in a Band with Wonder Woman…

Image Source: Decades
Image Source: Decades

In 1968, prior to his big break on MASH, Burghoff became the drummer for a band called The Relatives. The lead singer for this band just happened to be one Lynda Carter who would later don a patriotic a red, white, and blue costume with a golden lasso to become Wonder Woman! The pair remained friends over the years, and Carter helped Burghoff get a part in the “The Man Who Wouldn’t Tell” episode in 1978. We guess it really is all relative…

MASH Star Alan Alda Is A Veteran Who Served In Korea

Image: Public Domain
Image: Public Domain

Alan Alda played Captain Hawkeye Pierce in a fictionalized account of the Korean War, but he also served in Korea post-war as part of the Army Reserve. Alda joined up after his graduation from Fordham University in New York and served as a gunnery officer. Jamie Farr, who portrayed Corporal Klinger, also served in the U.S. Army and acted in training films.

Corporal Klinger Was Originally A One-Off Character on MASH

Image: Public Domain
Image: Public Domain

Speaking of Farr’s Corporal Klinger, the character was originally supposed to be “an effeminate gay” appearing in an early episode (“Chief Surgeon Who?”) as a cross-dresser. Instead, the writers decided to change Klinger to a heterosexual soldier who wore dresses in a bid to be kicked out of Korea on a psychological discharge. He proved to be a hit and stuck around. His plots would persist throughout the series, including frequent get-rich-quick schemes as well as his cross-dressing.

Real Baseball Players’ Names Were Used For Characters

Image Source: Tequask
Image Source: Tequask

Writer Ken Levine said that in Seasons 6 and 7, the 4077th included several patients named after California-based ballplayers. Those included the Angels infield in Season 6 and the 1978 Los Angeles Dodgers team (the entire roster and even the owner Walter O’Malley, and legendary announcer Vin Scully). Levine also used names of his former girlfriends (“Patty Haven” and “Linda Nugent”) for the objects of Radar’s affection.

The Finale’s ‘Most-Watched’ Record Hasn’t Been Beaten By Another Series

Image Source: Evert F. Baumgardner (public domain)
Image Source: Evert F. Baumgardner (public domain)

The series finale on Monday, February 28, 1983, was watched by about 106 million people, over three-quarters of the United States’ television watching population, that night. It’s a record that still has not been beaten by a non-Super Bowl telecast. The show ran for eleven seasons on CBS, and was followed by a short-lived spin-off series called AfterMASH. The original was consistently in TV’s top 20 most-watched programs for the majority of its run after a shaky first season. “Goodbye, Farewell and Amen,” the finale, ran for two-and-a-half hours.

MASH Was Almost Canceled In 1973

Image Source: CBS Television (Public Domain)
Image Source: CBS Television (Public Domain)

While it set a viewership record in 1983, things were a bit different a decade earlier. MASH’s first season was such a ratings bomb (it finished in 46th place in the Nielsen ratings) the network considered canceling the series. But the next season CBS moved the show to a different time slot – between All In The Family and The Mary Tyler Moore Show on Saturday nights. It would finish the season 4th in the ratings and spend the next decade as a reliable hit.

…And Again In 1980

Image Source: Bridget Laudien MASH star Alan Alda told the Chicago Tribune’s Gene Siskel in 1979 that the show might not make it past the conclusion of its eighth season in 1980. “It depends on whether we think we can think up more stories,” he said. “By the end of next year, we will have done 200 stories. If we develop a staff that feels like it has the energy to go on, then maybe we’ll decide to go on. We don’t want to run it into the ground. A couple of times lately, we’ve felt as though we were repeating ourselves, and we don’t want to do that.”

The Cast May Not Have Liked Gary Burghoff

Image Source: CBS Television (public domain)
Image Source: CBS Television (public domain)

There was apparently no love lost when Radar actor Gary Burghoff left the series in 1979. TV columnist Mike Drew wrote in 1983 that, “No castmates cried much over the departure of Burghoff.” The actor personally wrote to Drew, saying “While there may not not have been tears shed by my cast members over my leaving the show, they did know – and still do – of my contribution.” The other cast members rebutted the accusation, which also appeared in TV Guide, in a telegram that closed by saying “When Gary left the show, he left in friendship and with our warm wishes for a happy and successful life.”

MASH Spawned Three Spin-Offs

Image Source: CBS (fair use)
Image Source: CBS (fair use)

The first spin-off was the most successful. Trapper John, M.D. focused on the post-Korea life of the title character, now portrayed by Pernell Roberts and serving as Chief of Surgery at a San Francisco hospital in the late 1970s. Roberts would go on to spend more time in the role than Wayne Rogers did on MASH, as the series lasted for seven seasons. The other two series were not as well-received, with AfterMASH being canceled after two seasons and “W*A*L*T*E*R” airing only once. The former followed several characters in their immediate post-Korea lives while the latter starred Burghoff as Walter “Radar” O’Reilly after the war. Interestingly, the series finale episode of AfterMASH has never been aired on television.

Col. Potter Was Charged With Battery In 1997

Image Source: CBS Television (public domain)
Image Source: CBS Television (public domain)

Not the character who commended the 4077th for the last eight seasons, but the actor who played him. Harry Morgan, who found a second career in television movies after MASH ended, was charged with misdemeanor spousal battery in July 1997. He went into counseling for six months and the charges were dropped. Morgan passed away in 2011 at the age of 96.

William Christopher (Father Mulcahy) Is An Autism Advocate

Image Source: Leoni2 (fair use)
Image Source: Leoni2 (fair use)

The actor who portrayed the 4077th’s chaplain, Father Mulcahy, is an advocate for those with autism. William Christopher’s son, Ned, is autistic and the elder Christopher works with the National Autistic Society to bring greater awareness through public service announcements. Along with his wife Barbara, Christopher wrote a book in the 1980s about their son Ned, titled Mixed Blessings.

Alan Alda Directed The Series Finale

Image Source: CBS Television (public domain)
Image Source: CBS Television (public domain)

Alan Alda directed the series finale, “Goodbye, Farewell and Amen,” and also had a writing credit on the episode. He had a hand in writing 13 episodes altogether and directed 30 before the record-breaking finale. Thanks to his multitasking, Alda won Emmy Awards for acting, directing and writing during his time on MASH. That was the first time someone had done so much on the same series.

CBS Rejected One Episode As ‘Unpatriotic’

Image Source: CBS Television (public domain)
Image Source: CBS Television (public domain)

The network rejected one episode during MASH’s long run: a story about the soldiers standing outside in a bid to get sick and sent home to the States. “Such an anti-military event was deemed too unpatriotic for mass audiences,” wrote author James Wittebols in Watching MASH, Watching America, in a perfect example of the tensions creators faced between telling a story about the realities of war but needing to cater to commercial realities of television at the same time.

Wayne Rogers Never Signed A Contract

Image Source: CBS Television (public domain)
Image Source: CBS Television (public domain)

The star who played Trapper John for the first three seasons made a notorious break with the show after becoming “Alan Alda’s second banana.” He had originally expected a fairly equal role to Alda’s Hawkeye, as in the film version, but over time that changed. When he decided to leave the show, the producers sued him for breach-of-contract. But it turned out that he had never signed his contract in the first place and there was actually nothing to breach.

The Pilot Took Only Two Days To Write

Image Source: Music Theatre International
Image Source: Music Theatre International

Show creator and producer Larry Gelbart penned the pilot episode in just two days in November 1971, for $25,000. At the time, he was living in London, disillusioned with the Hollywood scene. But he jumped at the chance to adapt Robert Altman’s MASH film into a television sitcom and actually found it quite easy. A decade later, the show would probably be even more influential and beloved than the movie.

CBS Forced The Producers To Use A Laugh Track

According to series creator Larry Gelbart, “the laugh track was always a thorn in my side.” CBS forced the use of the laugh track since it was a de facto part of sitcoms back then. But in some cases – operating room scenes and the black-and-white documentary style episode “The Interview,” for example – the producers were able to omit it. “By and large, the network got their way,” Gelbart said. “They were paying for the dinner.” When the show aired in England, however, the laugh track was cut.

Wayne Rogers Was Not The First Choice For Trapper John

Image Source: Phil Konstantin
Image Source: Phil Konstantin

Actor Wayne Rogers is known for his three seasons on the show as Trapper John, but he actually was not the producers’ first choice for the character. Comedian Robert Klein was offered the role but turned it down, something he allegedly regretted afterward. His manager, Larry Brezner, said that Klein told him later “You should have made me take it.” But Klein denies he ever felt that way.

McLean Stevenson Originally Auditioned For Hawkeye

Image Source: CBS Television (public domain)
Image Source: CBS Television (public domain)

McLean Stevenson auditioned for the role of Hawkeye Pierce, the lead character who would be memorably portrayed by Alan Alda. But the producers liked Stevenson for a different role altogether: the bucket hat-adorned Lt. Colonel Henry Blake. Blake became a much-loved character in his own right. When he finally left the 4077th in “Abyssinia, Henry,” viewers were shocked by the news, delivered at the end of the episode by Radar, that Blake’s plane home had been shot down over the Sea of Japan.

Wayne Rogers And McLean Stevenson Left Out Of Frustration

Image Source: CBS Television (public domain)
Image Source: CBS Television (public domain)

Both Wayne Rogers (Trapper John) and McLean Stevenson (Henry Blake) left the series out of frustration at their supporting roles. Rogers joined MASH assuming that Trapper John would be equal in status to Hawkeye Pierce, as in the film, but Alan Alda soon became an audience favorite. Stevenson, meanwhile, wanted a starring role and left when his contract ended after the third season. Writer Ken Levine disputes that Stevenson or Rogers were really unhappy with the show or crew. They were just seeking more prominent roles. Levine quotes Rogers as saying he “probably would have kept [his] mouth shut and stayed put” if he knew the show would have the success it did.

Like His Character, McLean Stevenson Was From Bloomington, Illinois

Image Source: Paul Sableman
Image Source: Paul Sableman

Actor McLean Stevenson didn’t just portray a character who was from the central Illinois city of Bloomington, he actually was from the city. In fact, Stevenson was a cousin of another famous Bloomingtonian: Adlai Stevenson. Yes, that one, who was the one-term governor of Illinois, two-time Democratic presidential nominee, and U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations. McLean brought more than just the hometown to his character. He said about Henry Blake: “I played my dad. My father was a country doctor, and he was 80 years old when he passed away.” Sadly, Blake would not make it back to Bloomington after the war.

Many Of The Plotlines Were Based On Real Events

Image Source: Mubi
Image Source: Mubi

Many of the storylines featured in the first few seasons were based on real events that were relayed to the production team by real MASH surgeons, nurses, and patients who lived through the Korean War. Screenwriter Ken Levine even claims that some of the true stories they heard were so shocking that they had to be toned down by the writers for the series.

There Was A Creepy Coincidence With Both Actors That Played Lt. Colonel Henry Blake

Image Source: Pinterest
Image Source: Pinterest

While MacLean Stevenson portrayed Lt. Colonel Henry Blake on the television show, Roger Bowen originated the role in the 1970 feature film that the show was based on. In 1996 both men would die from heart attacks, and only one day apart from each other. Stevenson died on February 15 and Bowen on February 16. Cue the goosebumps.

The Cast Buried A Time Capsule…But It Didn’t Stay Buried For Long

Image Source: Observer
Image Source: Observer

In the last episode filmed for the series, “As Time Goes By,” the character of Major Margaret Houlihan decides to build a time capsule to commemorate their time together during the war. Rumor has it that Alan Alda loved this idea so much that he decided to create one for the cast and crew in real life. Unfortunately, the capsule was discoverd and dug up a mere two months later when construction was begun for a new office building on the site. At least they’ll always have their memories!

Real Phone Calls And Names

Mike Farrell asked producers to name his character’s daughter Erin, after his real-life daughter. In fact, when he was filming scenes in which he talked on the phone, it was often his then-wife Judy or his real-life daughter who spoke on the other side of the line.

Gary Burghoff Hid His Deformed Hand

You might not realize that Burghoff has a deformed left hand. It’s only a slight deformity but he felt the need to hide it while filming. He is often seen hiding his hand with a clipboard or various other objects. In other cases, he simply put his hand in his pocket.

Nurse Names – A Common Theme

A lot of nurses only lasted a short time on the show and they were given very few lines. They were typically given very generic names such as “Nurse Able,” “Nurse Baker,” and “Nurse Charlie.” The names were chosen based on the phonetic alphabet used by the military and HAM operators at the time.

No Army Boots During Filming

Army boots were not typically worn during filming because they were loud on the show’s soundstage. Actors also claimed that they were too uncomfortable to wear for an entire day of shooting. It was easy to avoid the boots because most of the actors were filmed from the waist up. Most actors wore sneakers while filming.

The Wrong Wife In The Photo

If you look at Potter’s desk you will notice that a photo of his wife Mildred is prominently displayed. That photo was actually a real life photo of Harry Morgan’s wife, at the time, Eilenn Detchon. Producers and the cast loved to bring in little personal touches as much as possible.

Punishing An Annoying Cast

In 1972, writer Ken Levine was approached with so many script change requests from the cast that he decided to punish them in a pretty funny way. He wrote a “cold show” that would show off the freezing conditions of the Korean winter. The cast was forced to stand around barrel fires in parkas in temperatures that reached about 100 degrees Fahrenheit. “This happened maybe twice and we never got a ticky tack note again,” Levine explained.

The Loss Of A Joke Over Time

Klinger’s recurring joke of wearing women’s clothing was eventually phased out by Jamie Farr. He didn’t want his children to be teased by friends who realized their dad was wearing women’s clothing on the show. After he accepted the role of company clerk from Radar, Klinger stopped the gag altogether.

A 15-Year-Old Soldier

Colonel Potter fought in World War I, World War II, and the Korean War. He lied about his age when he was 15 so he could join the cavalry. His mother-in-law moved in with him and his wife one day before World War II started. That’s an impressive track record.

The Recycled Wedding Dress

Klinger’s wedding dress was used three times by three different people. Klinger wore the dress when he married Laverne Esposito, Margaret Houlihan donned the dress when she married Lt. Col. Donald Penobscott, and Soon Lee wore it when she married Klinger.

Tony Packo’s Is Real

Klinger is a big fan of a Toledo, Ohio restaurant called Tony Packo’s. He mentioned the restaurant at various times throughout filming. It turns out that Tony Packo’s is a real place located on Toledo’s east side. It’s a favorite among locals and people who live within a decent driving distance of the area.

Trivial Pursuit Is A Big Fat Liar

In the popular game Trivial Pursuit there is a claim that Hawkeye only saluted one time during the entire series. He actually saluted Radar on two different occasions, saluted Frank without thinking about it, and then also saluted on several other occasions. That’s a pretty big oversight for a board game that prides itself on accuracy.

A Fiery Goodbye

When the final episode, titled, “Goodbye, Farewell and Amen,” was in the middle of filming, a fire ravaged the area and the show’s set was burned to the ground. They decided not to rebuild the sets and instead finished filming the series indoor. That explains why most of the final scenes are set at night and mostly take place inside buildings.

Alan Alda Was The Only Actor To Appear In Every Episode

Alan Alda was the only star on MASH* who appeared in every single episode. He was nearly joined by Loretta Swit, who was contracted for all 11 seasons but missed a few episodes. She was not shown in the “Hawkeye” episode and she missed several other episodes before and after that episode.

The Significance Of Jamie Farr’s Dog Tags

Jamie Farr wore dog tags throughout the series and they were his personal tags from his time served in the military. The tags show his actual personal military info, including his name, serial number, and his religion. That fact wasn’t revealed until the DVD boxset for the series was released and interviews with the cast were featured.

A Technology-Focused Cast

While the show was filmed in a desolate location the show’s actors were actually well-connected to the technology community. Many actors from the show appeared in IBM Personal Computer commercials and Alan Alda took on a personal endorsement for the Atari personal computer. Technology and MASH* – who would have pictured that connection.

Actress Kellye Nakahara Passes Away

Actress Loretta Swit and Kellye Nakahara Wallet of
Chris Polk/FilmMagic
Chris Polk/FilmMagic

On February 16, 2020, actress Kellye Nakahara passed away after battling cancer. She was 72 years old. In a statement, her son said that “[s]he died in her home peacefully with her family and her closest friends.”

On M*A*S*H, Nakahara played a number of nurses including Nurse Kellye, Nurse Yamato, Nurse Charlie, and Nurse Able. Here, she’s pictured with Loretta Swit at the 7th Annual TV Land Awards in 2009.

A John Wayne Quote That Didn’t Even Exist At The Time

Radar was doing impressions in one episode and he performed a John Wayne bit with a line from a movie that hadn’t even been made yet, based on the show’s timeline. The line is “I’m not gonna hit ya” and it would be nearly 10 years after the Korean War that the line would appear in 1963’s McLintock.

The Movie To TV Survival Rate Was Low

Hawkeye, Margaret, and Father Mulcahy appeared in the MASH* movie and the TV series. They were the only three characters that lasted from the original movie all the way through to the end of the series. That’s an impressive run, across two very different forms of entertainment, and it works out great for fans of both.

Actor Soon-Tek Oh Had Five Different Roles

Soon-Tek Oh appeared in five different roles on the show. You can spot them in the episode “The Bus” during the fourth season. Later he appeared in “The Yalu Brick Road” during the eighth season. Check out the full series and see for yourself if you can spot him in three other roles that he took on.

Problems With Your Working Conditions? Time To Kill You Off

Actor McLean Stevenson had several disputes with the producers over the conditions the actors had to work in. McLean left the show when a new contract was offered. To send his character off Lt. Colonel Blake was killed off. A planned death or a warning to other actors on the show? We may never know.

Alan Alda Was One Hell Of A Family Man

Alan Alda was offered the job while living in New Jersey. He didn’t want to uproot his family and move them to California full time. Instead, his wife and young daughters stayed behind and he would fly home to New Jersey every weekend and during other breaks in filming.

The Swamp

The tent that Hawkeye and Trapper John live in is called the Swamp. The nickname was taken straight from the book MASH: A Novel About Three Army Doctors, on which the show was based. The book’s writer said that the name was bestowed on Hawkeye’s dorm room by some of his college buddies, and he took it along with him overseas.

You Can Visit The Swamp

Well, not the actual tent used on the show. But there is a replica of the original Swamp at the Museum of the Kansas National Guard and the Holley Museum of Military History in Topeka, Kansas. The museum actually plays episodes of MASH on a television set, you can really pretend you’re there.

A Looooong War

MASH lasted an astonishing eleven seasons. That’s a very long war. But the Korean War only lasted for three years.

The real conflict began on June 25, 1950 and ended July 27, 1953, and led to the modern-day division of Korea into separate northern and southern countries.

MASH On Jeopardy!

There are several instances of MASH being used as a clue on the popular long-running trivia show Jeopardy! A December 2015 episode featured this clue: “It’s what the 4 letters stand for in the title of the TV show that featured Radar & Hot Lips.” Pretty easy one, if you ask us!

More Trivia

Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek, or one of the show’s writers, must be a huge MASH fan. Another 2015 episode asked this question: “Henry Blake was shockingly shot down offscreen on this classic warcom.” One of the contestants answered correctly — phew. It’d be painful to see someone miss this one.

MASH Pajamas

If you’ve ever dreamed of going to bed wearing MASH scrubs, you could have fulfilled that fantasy in 1984. Sears & Roebuck offered sleepytime versions of the scrubs worn on the show. The pajamas were a bargain at just $9.99 a set, but were only available in Boys’ and Teen’s sizes. You might be able to snag a pair on eBay today.

People Talks MASH

People, the same entertainment magazine we read today, covered MASH many times over the years. The March, 1975 issue featured Alan Alda on the cover and said this in the accompanying article: “There is indeed a certain pompous sanctity about Alda that both awes and, in one case anyway, bugs his co-stars.” Ooh, sounds juicy. But Loretta Swit quickly denied that rumor.

After TIME Had Passed

In a 2004 interview with TIME magazine, Alan Alda was asked about the strangest place he’d ever been identified as Hawkeye Pierce. His response? “The White House. I was moving down a reception line and [the Prime Minister of] Singapore grabbed my hand and looked down the line about 30 feet to his wife and yelled, ‘Hey, honey, look, it’s the MASH guy!’ It’s a damn good thing I wasn’t chewing gum.”

Catching Up With Hot Lips

In 2014, Loretta Swit sat down for an interview in which she admitted that she rarely watches reruns of MASH — only because she doesn’t watch much TV at all. But she said, “I saw one this morning, a gem. I nearly know it by heart. It’s called ‘Fracture’ starring Anthony Hopkins. A great psychological mind game about a murderer who is determined to get away with murdering his wife.”

Swit never wrote a book about her time on the series, unlike some of her cast mates.

Heartbreaking

One fan site dedicated to all things MASH polled its audience about whether the long-running show had ever made them cry. The results? 81% reported that they had indeed experienced waterworks while watching MASH (only 19% hadn’t cried). The episode cited as being the most tear-jerking, unsurprisingly, was “Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen.”

What’s My Name?

Everyone knows well that Henry’s wife was named Lorraine. But she initially had a different name — in the first season of MASH his wife was called Mildred. After Henry had left the show, Potter’s wife was called Mildred. Inconsistencies like this are fascinating to die-hard fans of classic shows like MASH.

Hot Lips Houlihan, M*A*S*H Sweetheart

Loretta Swit played Major Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan for the series’ entire 11 episode run. She won two Emmys for the role as the blonde bombshell. During the course of the show, her character evolved from an icy woman who had an affair with a married man to a jovial and friendly pal to her fellow nurses and surgeons.

Forever Fan Mail

Unsurprisingly, Loretta Swit receives fan mail to this day, 45 years after M*A*S*H hit television screens across the country for the first time. She has said that she enjoyed her time on the show immensely. Swit’s favorite episodes are “Margaret’s Engagement,” “Hot Lips & Empty Arms”, and “The Nurses.”