M*A*S*H comes to an end after 11 years in 1983 

M*A*S*H ends its 11-year television odyssey tomorrow night, with Alan Alda and all the other Johnnies marching home in front of what may well be the largest audience ever to watch a TV show in America. By now, enough sentimental and adoring words have been written to suggest this final 2 ½-hour episode (Ch. 2, 8:30 p.m.) is the most significant last act since Socrates swallowed the hemlock.

In a sense that’s a shame since the aura of saintly perfection around “M*A*S*H – and to an extent around star writer Alda – tends to obscure rather than illuminate the show’s real merit.

Someday, when they list television shows which used humor as an element of quality drama, “M*A*S*H” will be included, as will “The Honeymooners,” “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” “The Phil Silvers Show,” the several incarnations of the Lucy show, and perhaps two or three others. That list includes nothing, after tomorrow night, which is presently in production.

“M*A*S*H” was our old friend the service comedy in previously uncharted territory, mixing blood, sweat and tears with the con games, the put-downs and pokes at the brass. But the series was also remarkable for the multidimensional characters it introduced; the writers – Larry Gelbart the most prominent among them – understood that the greater the emotional range of the characters, the greater the emotional range of our response. Hundreds of actors can make us laugh; a Gleason, or a Mary Tyler Moore, can make us cry.

In contrast to, say, “All in the Family,” “M*A*S*H” was not defined by and thus restricted to the quirks of its characters. Yes, everyone on “M*A*S*H” had some personality trait that stuck out like a piece of spinach between their front teeth. But there was always more.

When pompous Charles Winchester broke off an affair with a French woman because he could not accept the fact she once lived with man, he could barely speak. He trembled. He cried. And while he was as pompous as ever the next week, we knew that scene was a permanent part of his character – the same way we knew that even at the peak of a towering fury, Ralph Kramden cared about Alice.

Before we become all misty eyed about the timeless humanity of “M*A*S*H,” however, it’s worth remembering that this is still television we’re talking about, and there was always at the core of “M*A*S*H” a business enterprise, designed far more for profits than prophets.

Twentieth Century Fox, the production company says “M*A*S*H” accounted for a quarter of its revenue last year, and expects future syndication to net $200 million more. CBS stands to take in $25 million from tomorrow’s show alone; 30-second ad spots at $450,000 a piece sold so well the network increased the show’s length from two to 2 ½ hours. (Officially, it was expanded because there was too much good footage not to use…and if you believe that, CBS will sell you some stock in Studebaker.)

New York Daily News covering the end of M*A*S*H in 1983.
New York Daily News covering the end of M*A*S*H in 1983. (New York Daily News)

Alda himself “quit” the show several times over the years, saying its quality would suffer if he continued, and several times Johnny Carson like money coaxed him back. His final salary was reportedly more than $5 million, or some 20 times what the President makes – though one is tempted to recall Babe Ruth’s remark when a similar comparison was made between his and Calvin Coolidge’s earnings in 1923: “I had a better year than Coolidge did.” Anyhow, TV viewers don’t carry grudges; if the show is good, they don’t care who gets rich.

One guy who didn’t get rich, ironically, is the guy who wrote the original “M*A*S*H” book, a series of rough, crude stories which Robert Altman turned into a rough, crude movie in 1970. With the masterful casting of Donald Sutherland as Hawkeye and Elliot Gould as Trapper John, the movie took in $60 million, a fact which, not surprisingly, caught the eye of television – though Gelbart and executive producer Gene Reynolds had to force feed CBS at first, since words like “rough” and “crude” tend to make TV, executives nervous.

Still, the television Hawkeye (Alda) and Trapper (Wayne Rogers) did start off pretty crude and cynical, with stiff, high handed foils (Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan and Frank Burns) to match.

By the second season, however, the rough edges were starting to disappear, which blunted some of the jokes, but seemed quite agreeable to both the Television Academy (“M*A*S*H” won 14 Emmys) and to viewers. After going from 46th place its first season to fourth place its second, “M*A*S*H” never left the top 20 – although it never made number one, trailing first “All in the Family,” then the “Happy Days” “Laverne and Shirley” crowd.

Cast changes eventually hastened the show’s evolution. When Rogers left in 1975, complaining that he had been reduced to Hawkeye’s bartender, he was replaced by Mike Farrell (B.J. Hunnicutt), who was about as cynical as a Golden Retriever. McLean Stevenson left the same year, and his bumbling Col. Blake was replaced by Harry Morgan’s Col. Potter, who was a regular guy (read “wise guy”).

Radar (Gary Burghoff, the only major holdover from the movie) left amidst great weeping in 1979 and was replaced by Klinger (Jamie Farr), who started as a one-time, one-line gag and stayed on. Burns left the same year and was replaced by Winchester (David Ogden Steiers), whose pomposity was amusing rather than offensive.

These changes, coupled with the evolution of Hot Lips from martinet to person, were entirely logical. What’s amazing is that TV, which hates to change any formula that gets laughs, allowed them to happen anyway.

What all this still leaves, of course, is the question of exactly how “M*A*S*H” entertained us for so long with the rather unfunny raw materials of war and death – and the answer probably lies in the emotional range of the characters.

We’ve all known people like Hawkeye or Radar or Potter who said funny things in painful situations; it’s not unlike running your car into a tree and asking who put that thing there. It’s not really funny, but what else can you say? This is not “Hogan’s Heroes,” where the whole premise is an appalling lie; because the “M*A*S*H” characters are multi-dimensional, they have earned the right to cope with war using any weapon at hand, including jokes.

New York Daily News covering the end of M*A*S*H in 1983.
New York Daily News covering the end of M*A*S*H in 1983. (New York Daily News)

Actually, “M*A*S*H” did have a couple of decent TV role models, going back through “McHale’s Navy” to “The Phil Silvers Show” (on which 22-year-old Alan Alda made a guest appearance in 1958). Those shows, while less ambitious, lent character shadings (Radar is not Doberman, but Radar evolved from him) and a style of dialogue to “M*A*S*H.” The following, for instance, is “Silvers,” 1956, but could just as easily be Alda, 1980:

“I imagine. Bilko’s doing something without making a profit.”

“Yea, even the chaplain is stunned. He’s using it for the subject of next Sunday’s sermon.”

In the end, the only way to kill “M*A*S*H” was to kill the war, and that, of course, is what tomorrow night’s show will do. Appropriately, it will not end with a bang – unless you count the one on the Nielsen chart – but with a sigh of relief. For 11 years these people have only wanted to go home, and that is what they do; although crises remain, like Hawkeye’s nervous breakdown and Father Mulcahy’s partial loss of hearing, everyone gets out alive.

Some attention is given to setting up Father Mulcahy, Potter and Klinger for their sequel series this fall, which reunites them in a stateside hospital (“After MASH” is the working title, with Gelbart writing the first three episodes). But the more poignant scenes for fans will be the simple ones, like B.J. poised on his motorcycle; six days on the road and he’s gonna make it home tonight.

“M*A*S*H,” though, has always fed on ambivalence, and even its departure suggests a final irony too striking not to remark on: The fact it comes the same month as another of the most-watched shows in American history, “The Winds of War,” and that both are, in the end, almost the opposite of what they seemed.

“Winds” was designed as a hard look at one of the bleakest stretches of modern American history; in truth, it somehow managed to turn our focus from the slaughter of millions and the devastation of continents to the lives of a dozen fictitious characters – every one of whom, incredibly, seemed on the verge of a happy ending as World War II was breaking out. “M*A*S*H,” meanwhile, a show often casually described as a sitcom, gave no glory to its war. The only happy ending was to survive.

Proving, perhaps, that once in a while television can imitate life. It sounds so simple.

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