When considering the monumental shows of television, one of these would have to be the series “M.A.S.H.” starring Alan Alda and a cast of hilarious character actors who seem to face an endless stream of war-time horrors with levity and courage.
I remember sitting with 130 million other Americans on February 28, 1983 as the cast said their final good-byes as the war came to an end. It was television’s most watched show in history, according to the Neilsen ratings.
“‘Hawkeye’ Pierce,” Alda’s character, and “B.J. Honeycutt,” played by Mike Farrell could not seem to get together to say goodbye. Honeycutt just could not say the words. As the helicopter took off and in stones upon the ground B.J. wrote the word “Goodbye.” I remember welling up as if I had just lost my best friend. In many ways, I had.
When the show started I was too young to watch but my parents enjoyed watching the show so, from time to time, I got to see it.
As I reached high school, I had grown up enough to watch the show regularly, and it became a regular Monday night ritual.
The characters in a way worked themselves into my life. I was vested in what happened to them.
Thanks to “M.A.S.H.,” for a generation of military, Korea was no longer in the past; a new story came into homes every Monday night.
People were amazed at the staying power of the series that went on for over 10 years — seven years longer than the war itself. As cast members moved stateside, such as “Cpl. ‘Radar’ O’Reilly,” played by Gary Burghoff, or to the great reward, such as McLean Stevenson’s character “Lt. Col. Henry Blake,” who died on his way home when his transport crashed into the sea, the war machine just kept on going, much as it did in real life.
Someone else filled his or her shoes and the story went on.
Even after the war ended, the comedy series “AfterM.A.S.H.” followed several characters home.
I have had the distinct pleasure to work with several of the people who made the show a success.
One of these began his acting career at age nine. Gene Reynolds appeared in a string of films from 1934-56. He also made numerous television appearances. In the 1950s, he shifted his attention to directing and, later, producing.
Reynolds was one of the masterminds behind the “M.A.S.H.” phenomenon, acting as an executive producer, writing, and directing several episodes. He also was one of the creators of “Lou Grant.”
I worked with Reynolds as he came to direct an episode of “In the Heat of the Night” entitled “First Girl.” It was in this episode that the Sparta Police Department received its first woman officer. She unfortunately lost her life in a shootout but was quickly replaced in the same episode by Crystal Fox who played “Luann Corbin” throughout the rest of the show.
After attending an Atlanta Falcons football game with fellow cast and crew members, assistant director Paul Chavez, script supervisor Jill Freeman, and I visited with Reynolds at his condo and had the opportunity to hear a few of his stories from his long career. Throughout my time with him working behind the scenes on that episode, I found him a creative, enthusiastic director.
I could easily see why “M.A.S.H.” was such a success.
We were also blessed to have Allan Arbus, psychiatrist “Dr. Sidney Freedman” to guest star as “Dr. Atwill” in a couple of episodes on our show.
In March 1996, while working with Alan Autry on the set of “Grace Under Fire,” I had the pleasure of meeting another “M.A.S.H.” alumnus, that great ball of fire known as “Col. Sherman Potter” — Harry Morgan. Yet another TV veteran with some 50 years on the screen playing roles such as “Officer Bill Gannon” on “Dragnet.”
Morgan played “George,” a beau to “Grandma Jean,” portrayed by Peggy Rhea. Getting to see this legend work up close was a treat. The audience welcomed him warmly, and each of his lines reflected flawless comedic timing.
I only shook hands with him in passing as Alan Autry introduced us outside the studio following the evening’s filming. In that brief moment, however, I did get to tell him how much his performances on “M.A.S.H.” brought laughter into my life. The meeting was even more poignant for me because only a few weeks before, his much younger predecessor on the show, Stevenson, had passed away suddenly. I remember I was driving my truck down Hollywood Blvd. when I heard the news of his passing over the radio.
Another small connection to the series that I have is Tony Packo’s Café, a restaurant in Toledo, Oh. The restaurant started in 1932, and received extra attention when Jamie Farr’s “Klinger” character placed it on the “M.A.S.H” roadmap.
Before that, however, they began collecting signatures of celebrities on small artificial Packo’s buns for display. The first on a real bun was Burt Reynolds. I am honored to be one of those who has signed a Packo’s bun and now have a place in Toledo history and, in a way, another connection to “M.A.S.H.”
I was also honored recently when Alan Alda and Allan Arbus helped me with my latest cookbook “Stirring Up Additional Success with a Southern Flavor” sharing their favorite recipes to help raise funds for our literacy program in my hometown. It is available on our Randall Franks Store page with PayPal.
If you have never watched the show and are looking for a change from reality television, I encourage you to catch a rerun of “M.A.S.H.” on TV Land.
I caution you, there is some adult humor and situations. How else could they depict war without some things that children should not see? Considering what networks are putting on the tube today in most teen-age shows, what was pushing the envelope a bit in the 70s is tame today.
While that does not say much for today’s shows, “M.A.S.H.” came along at a time when producers still respected the audience and tried to develop a show that the family could watch.
Although at times there were themes or stories viewers may not wish to share with younger family members, it was the vast number of characters and their stories that truly brought the viewer back to watch each week.