Although its lifespan is a thing of the past, running as it did from 1972 to 1983, M*A*S*H remains among the most popular shows in American TV history. And yet in spite of such acclaim, there are still some things that fans – even those who’ve watched every single one of the 256 episodes – may not know about the series. Covering everything from behind-the-scenes disputes to real-life inspiration, here’s a look at 40 little-known facts about the groundbreaking war comedy.
40. Some of the cast had practical experience
Given the timing of the show and the Korean War, it’s perhaps no surprise that some of the M*A*S*H cast actually served during that Far East conflict. This was certainly the case for Jamie Farr, who played Maxwell Klinger, and Alan Alda, who portrayed Hawkeye Pierce. Yes, both actors were part of the U.S. Army at that time. Talk about firsthand experience.
39. The U.K. didn’t think war was a laughing matter
For a show that walked a thin line between humorous and somber tones in the blink of an eye, a laughter track arguably wasn’t the wisest element to add. And despite this very addition being employed in the U.S., the laughter was actually removed by the BBC when M*A*S*H premiered in the U.K. owing to complaints that it was distracting.
38. Some big-name celebs turned up in the show
It’s no revelation to fans of M*A*S*H that the show had a cast of hundreds, but some people may not be aware of just how many future celebrities got their start there. After all, at different times it featured the likes of Patrick Swayze, Andrew Dice Clay, Laurence Fishburne, Leslie Nielsen, Ron Howard and many more. Spotting such celebs on M*A*S*H is, then, surely a drinking game just waiting to happen.
37. Alan Alda was a bit of a Renaissance man
As if it weren’t enough playing the central role in this hugely successful series, Alda took things one step further by also writing and directing 13 episodes by himself as well as sometimes sharing those duties with others. This in turn led to him scooping Emmys in three different categories – for directing, writing and acting – making him the first Emmy recipient to achieve that feat.
36. The show came to a rather democratic conclusion
The fates of most television shows are determined by producers and executives, but M*A*S*H wasn’t just any other series. Breaking from tradition, the comedy-drama’s conclusion was in fact collectively decided upon by the cast, with the majority voting to end the series after the tenth season.
35. Sesame Street paid tribute to the show in an unusual fashion
Here’s a quirky little piece of trivia that you may not know. Remember Radar’s beloved teddy bear? Well, so did the writers of children’s show Sesame Street, who decided to give Big Bird a teddy bear of his own. And the cuddly toy just so happened to be called Radar – thanks to puppeteer Caroll Spinney being a huge M*A*S*H fan.
34. Certain storylines were given the chop
As much as the cast and crew were given free rein in certain instances, there was a line drawn on issues such as unpatriotic sentiment. Indeed, CBS actually dropped one storyline for reportedly being “anti-American,” while the network likewise refused any ideas that didn’t fit with the patriotic ideals of the show. Free speech? Not in this case.
33. It had some record-sm*a*s*hing ratings
The longer M*A*S*H was on air, the more its popularity grew. And that following peaked with the final installment of its eleven-season run. Indeed, with a whopping 125 million viewers, M*A*S*H’s finale become the most watched single show in the U.S. ever. And not only that, but with a 60.2 percent Nielsen audience rating to its name, that same episode remains the highest-rated such installment in American history.
32. One writer took it out on the cast
In this day and age, actors have a reputation for diva-like behavior. But on M*A*S*H, it was none other than the writers who made sure that the performers didn’t get out of line. And one of the most infamous examples of this was writer Ken Levine’s reaction to complaints by the cast regarding the script. How did Levine respond? By having the actors perform wearing weighty coats in heat of around 90 °F. Needless to say, the cast likely got a little hot under the collar.
31. The show recycled one notable outfit
When Klinger donned a wedding dress for his marriage to Laverne Esposito, it wasn’t the last time that audiences would see the garment. In fact, the dress was used three times in total, with Margaret Houlihan and Soon-Lee also wearing it for their respective weddings. No wastage there, then.
30. The theme song’s iconic lyrics were composed by a teenager
Interestingly, while the instrumental version of the theme song “Suicide Is Painless” was used for the TV show, the lyrical version of the song was first featured in the movie. And, incredibly, the lyrics for the popular track were in fact written by the son of the movie’s director, Robert Altman. More astonishingly still, Altman’s son was just 14 when he penned the famous words. Impressive, right?
29. Radar kept a secret about his hand concealed
One thing hawk-eyed fans may have noticed while watching the show was Radar’s persistence in hiding his left hand, often by folding his arms or obscuring it with the help of objects. These were, however, deliberate moves by actor Gary Burghoff, who was trying to disguise a small deformity on the appendage.
28. The pilot script was done incredibly quickly
Screenwriter Larry Gelbert jumped at the opportunity to adapt the M*A*S*H movie to television – so much so, in fact, that he completed the pilot script in just two days. Then again, perhaps the $25,000 fee for that one episode alone helped spur him on.
27. The show outlasted the Korean War by quite some time
In a slightly strange outcome of events, the M*A*S*H series actually lasted for longer than the Korean War. Yes, the show’s acclaimed recounting of fictional events that were apparently going on during the conflict enthralled viewers for over a decade. The real war, by contrast, lasted for a little more than three years.
26. One war relic didn’t stay buried for long
Remember the time capsule that the cast buried in the penultimate episode of the series? Well, it didn’t remain hidden for long. It turns out that a rather bewildered construction worker stumbled upon the capsule just two months after the show had wrapped, with Alan Alda telling the worker to treasure it as a keepsake.
25. Some cast members popped up in an astonishing number of roles
M*A*S*H is known for its long list of different characters, but the show also used some trickery when it came to casting people more than once. This was certainly the case for Japanese actor Mako and Korean actor Soon-Tek, who were each recalled up to five times for different roles. That’s what you call versatile.
24. M*A*S*H broke TV swearing boundaries
This one’s a bit frivolous – but interesting nonetheless. Nowadays, audiences are so used to hearing swearwords on television that many have become desensitized to them. This wasn’t necessarily the case when M*A*S*H aired, though. In fact, the trailblazing show was the first in the U.S. to feature the expression “son of a bitch.” So the next time you watch an episode and hear a character cussing, just remember how against the grain it was to include such language at the time.
23. Klinger killed the drag for a very good reason
Despite only being called upon to appear in one episode, the character of Klinger was so popular with viewers that he became a recurring figure on the show. And, by consequence, so did his habit of dressing up as a woman. However, this comedic motif had a wider impact for actor Jamie Farr, who made the decision to stop the drag routine for fear of his kids being picked on because of it.
22. The final episode of the show was interrupted by something very dangerous
A shadow was cast over the filming of the final episode when a fire burned the set to the ground. And after it was decided that no remodeling work would be done, the limited scope for filming meant shots were instead confined to happening indoors – or else at night, when it was easier to conceal the situation.
21. Tony Packo’s actually exists
Of several iconic instances involving Klinger, one was clearly close to his own heart. Yes, the frequently mentioned Tony Packo’s happens to be an actual restaurant in actor Farr’s hometown of Toledo, Ohio. And guess what? The diner still operates today.
20. Radar’s teddy bear sold for a small fortune
After disappearing for more than two decades following the show’s end, Radar’s beloved teddy bear later suddenly turned up at an auction. And the bear – which was unnamed on the show but christened Tiger by actor Gary Burghoff – ended up going for a small fortune. A medical student and M*A*S*H fan paid $11,500 for the prop – before reselling it to Burghoff himself.
19. Klinger was initially gay
Farr was only supposed to play cross-dressing Maxwell Klinger for one episode. But his character proved to be so popular with viewers that he ended up assuming the role for a further 215. And as well as upgrading Farr so that he became a cast regular, producers also changed Klinger from being gay to straight.
18. Klinger’s cross-dressing antics were inspired by Lenny Bruce
Klinger’s cross-dressing antics were, furthermore, inspired by a comic great. You see, while serving with the U.S. Army in 1945, Lenny Bruce performed a drag routine for the rest of his shipmates. Bruce’s commanding officers didn’t see the funny side, though, and he later found himself discharged for “reason of unsuitability for the naval service.”
17. M*A*S*H’s finale is still the most-watched TV show in U.S. history
An amazing 125 million Americans tuned in to the series’ 150-minute 1983 finale – and this remains the largest ever audience for a single television show episode in U.S. history. Indeed, 77 percent of the population who switched on their TVs that night opted to find out how the long-running dramedy ended.
16. The show caused a plumbing breakdown in New York City
Moreover, it seems that for fear of missing out, millions of those viewers never stopped for toilet breaks during the finale’s extra-long running time. And as a result, they all apparently ended up emptying their bladders at roughly the same time. New York’s public works confirmed that many plumbing systems broke down – and it’s claimed that it was the highest usage of water at any one given time in the history of the city.
15. Mike Farrell’s screen daughter was named after his real-life offspring
Played by Mike Farrell, captain B.J. Hunnicutt had a daughter who was originally named Melissa. But upon taking the role of the captain, the actor asked producers if his screen daughter could instead be named after his real-life female progeny, Erin. And in a sweet gesture, the decicionmakers duly obliged.
14. Some patients were named after real people
Erin wasn’t the only character named after a real person either. Fans of late 1970s baseball may have noticed that several patients in the series were named in honor of various Los Angeles Dodgers and California Angels players. Meanwhile, a scriptwriter used his ex-girlfriend as inspiration for one particular character’s name.
13. Producers interviewed real-life veterans for stories
Producers didn’t just start running out of names towards the show’s end; they also started running out of plots. As a result, they began to interview real-life Korean War veterans for inspiration. And various of the stories that the producers heard were then worked into the comedy-drama.
12. The actors rarely wore army boots
M*A*S*H may have been authentic in many ways – but it sure wasn’t when it came to footwear. You see, army boots were very rarely worn by the actors on set – due to the noise that they made and the discomfort they caused. Instead, the cast sported sneakers most of the time, which is why you very seldom saw the camera pointed towards their feet.
11. Wayne Rogers didn’t sign a contract
Producers weren’t particularly happy when Wayne Rogers suddenly decided to quit his role as Trapper John McIntyre at the end of season three. However, they were powerless to do anything about it. You see, execs initially threatened to sue Rogers for a contract breach – before discovering that the actor had never actually signed an agreement in the first place.
10. The show was the subject of a Smithsonian exhibit
In the same year that it went off air, M*A*S*H became the subject of a hugely popular exhibition at the National Museum of American History. Titled “Binding Up the Wounds,” the display featured costumes, early script drafts and props – such as Hawkeye’s still and the legendary signpost. The exhibit in fact once attracted a record-breaking total of over 17,000 visitors in just one week.
9. It received over 100 Emmy nominations
M*A*S*H got more than 100 Emmy nominations over the years and ran out winner a total of 14 times. Alan Alda was its most decorated cast member – having picked up five such awards all told – and co-stars Harry Morgan, Loretta Swit and Gary Burghoff were also recognized for their talents.
8. Larry Linville and Gary Burghoff were polar opposites to their characters
Larry Linville and Gary Burghoff were each reportedly polar opposites to the characters they played on M*A*S*H. The former portrayed the antagonistic and unlikeable Frank Burns but was apparently a popular guy on set. Meanwhile, the latter gained a reputation for being surly and difficult to work with – a stark contrast to his on-screen nice-guy persona.
7. Alan Alda didn’t get on with one of the show’s directors
Legendary director Jackie Cooper was hired to helm 13 episodes of M*A*S*H in total – but he certainly didn’t get along with the show’s leading man. Cooper in fact once admitted that by the time he left the director’s chair in 1974, he and Alda were barely on speaking terms.
6. It was one of the first network shows to include nudity
M*A*S*H may not be the first series you think of when it comes to flashes of nudity, but the dramedy did indeed break boundaries when it came to exposing flesh. Thanks to the sight of Gary Burghoff’s buttocks in second-season episode “The Sniper,” M*A*S*H became one of the first ever network shows to feature a partially naked character.
5. Only three characters appeared in both the pilot and the finale
Only three characters who appeared in the pilot showed up in the finale: Hawkeye, Houlihan and Father Mulcahy. The latter, mind you, looked very different in those two episodes. You see, George Morgan assumed the role for the comedy-drama’s first season opener – before William Christopher swiftly replaced him.
4. Alan Alda made an appearance in every episode
Alda also appeared in every single episode in between, making him the only M*A*S*H ever-present character. Granted, he was very nearly joined in this exclusive club by Loretta Swit. But although the actress was credited throughout the series’ eleven years on air, she didn’t actually show up in fourth-season episode “Hawkeye.”
3. Alda was the only cast member to know of Blake’s fate before filming took place
Alda was also privy to top-secret information about the third-season finale. Yes, producers decided to keep the rest of the cast in the dark about the fate of McLean Stevenson’s Henry Blake until just moments before shooting the relevant scene. Alda, though, already knew that the character would meet a tragic end.
2. Alan Alda helped William Christopher keep his job
William Christopher, a.k.a. Father Mulcahy, was forced to miss numerous episodes at the beginning of the fifth season when he fell seriously ill with hepatitis. And while producers were originally intending to write Christopher’s character out, Alda fought to keep his co-star on the show. Why? Well, for one thing, he knew that the Father Mulcahy actor would have struggled to bring up his autistic son without a regular paycheck.
1. It was very nearly canceled
M*A*S*H was in fact almost a mere footnote in the annals of 1970s U.S. television. Yes, due to disappointing ratings, CBS seriously considered pulling the plug on the show after just one season. But after the dramedy was given a reprieve and a better time slot, it started pulling in viewers by the bucketload. And the rest, as they say, is history.