‘M*A*S*H’ turns 50: How Alan Alda’s wartime CBS dramedy changed TV, and set ratings record

It began as a satire, morphed into comedic drama, made Emmy history through 11 seasons, and ended with a final episode watched by TV’s biggest audience for a scripted series.

Fifty years after its debut, “M*A*S*H” is still saluted as one of television’s finest (half)-hours.

Adapted from director Robert Altman’s Oscar-nominated 1970 film, “M*A*S*H” premiered on Sept. 17, 1972. It told of the boisterous and messy life at a South Korean-set Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (explaining the title acronym) during the Korean War of the early 1950s.

The ensemble cast – Alan Alda, Wayne Rogers, McLean Stevenson, Loretta Swit, Larry Linville and Gary Burghoff – was mostly unfamiliar to TV viewers. Among them, only Stevenson had a small-screen profile, thanks to a two-year supporting role on “The Doris Day Show.” (As naïve-but-efficient Corporal Walter ‘Radar’ O’Reilly, Burghoff was the lone principal cast member from the film to transition to the series.)

Alan Alda and Wayne Rogers in an early episode of CBS hit "M*A*S*H," which premiered Sept. 17, 1972.

In a 1998 interview with the Television Academy Archive, writer and co-creator  Larry Gelbart, who was tasked by producer Gene Reynolds with adapting the film, said he told Reynolds that he’d take on the assignment “only if what we did could be true to the spirit of the motion picture.” In a phrase: anarchy in a war zone.

But Gelbart, a respected veteran writer of both live 1950s TV (“Caesar’s Hour”) and of 1960s Broadway (“A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum”), said that because the country was still fighting in Vietnam in 1972, “there was no intention to trivialize that effort by simply doing another gang comedy set in an Army background.” So “M*A*S*H” would have to walk a fine line. Reynolds and CBS agreed. A pilot and series pickup followed.

Early ratings for the show, scheduled on Sunday nights opposite NBC warhorse “Wonderful World of Disney” and ABC’s long-running “The FBI,” were disappointing to dismal. Not helping: CBS’s decision to position the show  between another film-to-series adaptation – the poorly received and short-lived “Anna and the King,” based on “The King and I” and starring that film’s Yul Brynner – and “The Sandy Duncan Show.” (Trivia alert: “Anna and the King” was also produced by Gene Reynolds.) “M*A*S*H” was little noticed.

McLean Stevenson (as Lt. Col. Henry Blake) and Alan Alda ("Hawkeye" Pierce) in a scene from "M*A*S*H."

But it was more than a bad time slot that “M*A*S*H” was battling. Viewer expectations and TV conventions were also at issue: In honoring the spirit of the Altman film, the series version zigged where other more conventional sitcoms zagged, teetering between high jinks and pathos. Case in point: “Sometimes You Hear the Bullet,” its 17th episode, broadcast in January 1973, in which lead surgeon Hawkeye Pierce dealt with the death of a patient who was also a childhood friend. It featured what became known by fans as the “Two Rules speech,” given by M*A*S*H leader Henry Blake (Stevenson) in an attempt to console a tearful Pierce. (“All I know is what they taught me at Command School. There are certain rules about a war. And rule number one is, young men die. And rule number two is, doctors can’t change rule number one.”)

A Lucille Ball sitcom – still on the air in 1973 – it was not.

“M*A*S*H” finished its first season in 46th place, out of 75 network TV series. But it also  was showered with nine Emmy nominations. Eking out a renewal, it was rewarded with a better time slot for its sophomore season, paired on Saturday nights with “All in the Family,” then TV’s highest-rated show, where “M*A*S*H” became the smash it would remain for another decade. At the 1974 Emmy Awards, it was named Best Comedy, with Alda winning as Best Comedy Actor.

“M*A*S*H” continued to rewrite the rules of TV comedy in success, changing both how it could be written and shot, through the eyes of a patient,  with on-camera interviews about life in a war zone or shown in real time, complete with an on-screen ticking clock or with a dramatization of nightmares. It also weathered multiple cast changes: Stevenson, Rogers, Linville and Burghoff left during the series’ middle years, with Harry Morgan, Mike Farrell, and David Ogden Stiers added to the cast. Lower-profile roles played by Jamie Farr (Corporal Klinger) and William Christopher (Father Mulcahy) were later expanded, too.

It was Stevenson’s departure after the third season that saw “M*A*S*H” in ultimate defiance of sitcom convention: “Abyssinia Henry” killed off Blake just as the bumbling commanding officer was heading home to the States.

Devotees tend to draw a line between two distinct eras for the long-running series (which lasted nearly four times longer than the Korean War itself): Seasons 1 through 5, when it was chiefly a military satire shaped by Gelbart (who left in 1976) and run by Reynolds (who left in 1977); and Seasons 6 through 11, influenced if not overseen by lead actor Alda, who’d become the face of  “M*A*S*H” as well as its frequent writer and director. Under Alda, the series drifted into broader social commentary about the human condition (PTSD, sexism, racism) and the general fog of war.

(Alda made Emmy history with wins in three separate categories throughout its run : acting, writing, and directing.)

Larry Linville (Maj. Frank Burns) with Alan Alda in a scene from "M*A*S*H," which aired from 1972-83 and set an unbeaten record with 105 million viewers for its finale.

By Season 10, Alda, coming off a successful movie directorial debut (“The Four Seasons”), was ready to leave the show. But CBS squeezed out a shortened 11th season, to be tied up with a war-ending 2½-hour finale that Alda directed. Following months of publicity and drum-beating, “Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen” aired on Feb.  28, 1983. Nearly half the country – 105 million people — tuned in to see their longtime favorites finally go their own separate ways.

When “M*A*S*H” premiered in 1972, it was the latest in a line of CBS comedy fare aimed at better reflecting a changing country, ushered in by the success of “All in the Family” a year earlier. Gone were longtime older-skewing rural-sitcom mainstays (“Petticoat Junction,” “The Beverly Hillbillies”).  That September brought big-city character comedies that provoked (“Maude”) or showcased more sophisticated storytelling (“The Bob Newhart Show”). By the time “M*A*S*H” ended, in a three-network TV universe, the kind of dramatic comedy that “M*A*S*H” helped introduce had become a prime-time staple. By the end of the decade, there’d even been an official term introduced – the “dramedy” – to describe the hybrid.

Of the eleven principals seen over the course of the show’s 251 episodes, only five – Alda, Swit, Burghoff, Farrell and Farr – survive.

And “M*A*S*H”’s record as the TV show with the most-watched series finale stands.

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