Alan Alda's insider view from the set of M*A*S*H
The chronically jet-lagged actor Alan Alda got bitten by fleas the few times he tried to take a nap on his army cot between takes of the hit television show M*A*S*H. In the Operating Room scenes, he was often “operating” on a copy of the script. The show’s writing was so tightly controlled, that no one on the cast was allowed to adlib lines.
These are just a few of the revelations that actor Alan Alda, now 82, shared in a phone interview as he discussed his 11-year stint acting, writing, and directing episodes of the award-winning dark comedy M*A*S*H. The television show chronicled the adventures of a Mobile Army Surgical Unit during the Korean War (1950–1953) and aired its final episode to record audiences 35 years ago.
In 1983, 20th Century Fox donated to the Smithsonian two full sets from the show, the bachelor officers’ quarters known as the “Swamp,” and the Operating Room, along with several costumes, props, and scripts. The M*A*S*H objects were displayed in a wildly popular exhibit at the museum from 1983 through 1985 and remain among the jewels of our entertainment collection.
Alda played Captain Benjamin Franklin Pierce but everyone called him “Hawkeye”—a nickname bestowed by his father after the main character in James Fenimore Cooper’s novel The Last of the Mohicans. Pierce is a skirt-chasing, practical-joke-pulling, heavy-drinking army doctor who rails against military authority and the senseless death of war, but who is dedicated to his patients.
Alda, who didn’t have any medical training and ignored his father’s advice to explore premed classes in college, found it easy to take on the role of a surgeon.
“I was very comfortable in the operating room, because no one was dying for real. And there was no real blood,” he said. “Most of the time we were putting stitches in pieces of foam rubber. I would often be operating on a copy of the script. So I could read the dialog while I was operating,” he said.
According to Alda, there was no medical advisor on set during the early episodes. The writers would work with a physician while they were creating the shows, but eventually they hired a nurse to be on set during filming.
“We didn’t have supervision during the operations for the first few weeks, and we made horrible mistakes, like going from patient to patient without changing our gloves,” remembered Alda.
The script, on the other hand, was closely supervised, said Alda.
“When the script was final, we didn’t change a word. We would sometimes go to the phone and call Larry Gelbart (the head writer), and we’d say this scene doesn’t seem to be working, you want to come over?” recalled Alda.
Gelbart would ride his bike over to the soundstage and work with the script, and then they’d shoot the scene. But once, Alda remembered, he and Wayne Rogers, who played Dr. Trapper John, were on the exterior set at the Fox Ranch in the Santa Monica Mountains north of Los Angeles. There was no phone at the rustic outpost and, even though neither of them understood a particular line, Alda said it as it appeared. The next day as they were watching the rushes, Gelbart turned to Alda and said “Why did you say that?”
“It was in the script,” replied Alda.
“It was a typo!” retorted Gelbart.
Alda, who had trained in improv early in his career, kept pushing for a show in which the actors could improvise.
“I knew that you could get stuff through improvisation that you can’t get through writing and acting the writing. You can get more personal stuff that’s surprising,” he said.
Ultimately, the creative team allowed for two episodes that incorporated some improvisation. Both were critically acclaimed, documentary-type shows in which real-life war correspondent Clete Roberts conducts a series of interviews with the staff in the style of famed World War II-era journalist Edward R. Murrow. Shot entirely in black and white, “The Interview” (season 4, episode 25) was the final episode for writer Larry Gelbart. Roberts returned to the M*A*S*H unit for a follow-up documentary in “Our Finest Hour” (season 7, episode 4), which interspersed black-and-white adlibbed interviews with scenes from earlier shows.
An overarching theme throughout the series is how overworked the surgeons are. Countless scenes show the physicians palpably exhausted as they change out of their scrubs after marathon surgery sessions. For Alda, the fatigue was not necessarily an act. Because he didn’t want to uproot his wife and three daughters from their New Jersey home, he commuted to Los Angeles during the spring filming months for about four or five years. Eventually, the girls went off to college, and his wife, Arlene, joined him in Los Angeles.
“It was an interesting experience, because I would get the red eye on Friday night, and get home at six in the morning, and take a nap and then be there in time for the children to say, ‘I’ll see ya, I‘m going out now,’” he reminisced.
“I’d fly back on Sunday afternoon, so I was pretty much in a constant state of jet lag for four months out of the year,” he stated.
As a result, he tried a couple of times to take catnaps in his army cot, which, while comfortable, was not very appealing.
“I guess they didn’t clean out the studio much. We had mice that would pee on our chessboard and a couple of fleas in the cots, so I only tried sleeping there once or twice,” he explained.
Included among the museum’s prized M*A*S*H collection are two signature costumes from Alda’s character, Hawkeye’s trademark corduroy bathrobe and a blue and white Hawaiian shirt. Alda clarified that these weren’t plucked from his personal closet, but were selected by the wardrobe department to reflect Capt. Pierce.
“I did have my own collection of Hawaiian shirts, but just enough to have my kids make fun of me,” he admitted.
The museum also has a pair of Groucho glasses that Hawkeye would occasionally don to amuse patients in the recovery room.
“I wasn’t a particular fan of the Marx brothers,” Alda explained, “but my voice just happened to fall in that vocal range. I finally dropped it because I was doing it too much,” he continued.
The M*A*S*H series, which ran for 11 seasons, lasted nearly four times the length of the actual Korean War. The show ended with a two-and-a-half-hour special, cowritten and directed by Alda, that the Nielsen ratings company claims is the most-watched scripted television ever.
M*A*S*H episodes are still being shown on television today. The show has earned millions in syndication and continues to be popular with viewers. Alda believes that ultimately, viewers respond to the mission that M*A*S*H doctors, nurses, and staff were trying to serve.
“As silly as the show was, or as lighthearted as it was often, there was always this understanding that people were dying or being wounded, and there were many other people who were trying to save them, who were working night and day at this, and I think that expression of human experience resonates with audiences,” said Alda.
Alda says he is grateful for the experience and exposure that he got working on M*A*S*H. After the series ended in 1983, Alda went on to write, direct, and star in movies; to continue acting on stage and television; to author three nonfiction books; to host the science series Scientific American Frontiers; and to start companies that help scientists, health professionals, and business people improve their communication skills.
“It made all the other things that I did the rest of my life possible,” he concluded.
Lucy Harvey is a Program Assistant in the Division of Armed Forces History who also volunteers with the Division of Culture and the Arts. She has also blogged about the costumes from the show and the popular "M*A*S*H" exhibition that once existed at this museum.