Monday, September 17, 2012

M*A*S*H Almost Didn't Make the Cut

Hawkeye (Alan Alda): Henry, you have no idea what it's like to share a tent with a guy who thinks he's all 12 disciples.

In the history of television, I don't think there has ever been another series like M*A*S*H.

When M*A*S*H went off the air in 1983, it was one of the top three shows in the United States.

But most people forget that it languished at #46 in the TV ratings in its first season, which began on this day in 1972, and almost didn't make the cut.

Other shows have survived — some have even thrived — after sluggish starts, but M*A*S*H did so while writing its own rules and virtually ignoring conventional wisdom.

It often seemed to be searching for itself in that first season — not entirely content to play things for laughs, even though it was mostly billed as a sitcom.

And that apparent ambiguity almost led to its cancellation after that first season. No one really knew what it was, but the series was saved thanks to an impassioned plea from the wife of a CBS executive who liked the show — whatever it was.

M*A*S*H was always more than a comedy. It just didn't know how to achieve its mission.

Its first three seasons leaned toward slapstick, but, at the end of that third season, when Henry Blake (McLean Stevenson) left the series — permanently — when his character's airplane was shot down over the Sea of Japan, M*A*S*H truly began to blend comedy with drama and pathos to create some of the most imaginative half–hour episodes ever filmed.

Before Stevenson's departure, there were flashes of what was in store, even in the pilot episode, which largely introduced the cast to the audience.

That was when viewers first learned of Radar's strange ability to know what people were going to say before they said it.

They learned of Frank and Hot Lips and their torrid affair.

And they learned that Hawkeye and Trapper John were skirt–chasing, gin–swilling doctors, gifted in matters of medicine.

By the way, if you're a M*A*S*H fan, you probably think of actor William Christopher when you think of the character of Father Mulcahy, the unit's priest. And that is certainly as it should be. Christopher appeared in more than 80% of the series' episodes — only one appearance shy of matching Jamie Farr for third place in frequency of appearances.

And Christopher probably should have had that extra appearance — but someone else played Father Mulcahy in the pilot episode that aired 40 years ago tonight.

It really is a shame that Christopher wasn't in that pilot episode — since Father Mulcahy figured rather prominently in the story's conclusion.

You see, Hawkeye was trying to organize a raffle to raise money so his Korean houseboy, Ho–Jon, could go to the U.S. and enroll at Hawkeye's alma mater. The winner of the raffle would receive a weekend in Tokyo accompanied by a beautiful nurse, whose name (Lt. Dish) was mildly reminiscent of Pussy Galore from the James Bond series.

M*A*S*H could be irreverent and decidedly incorrect politically in those days before Saturday Night Live challenged so many television taboos.

For example, in the initial episodes of the series, Hawkeye and Trapper John (Wayne Rogers) and the smarmy Frank Burns (Larry Linville) had a black bunkmate, a doctor named Spearchucker Jones.

He disappeared a few months after the show's premiere — with no explanation given.

The natural assumption might have been that CBS received some complaints from viewers who were offended by the racist connotations of the name, but apparently, the character was a casualty of story accuracy.

The writers learned that there were no black doctors during the Korean War so the character was quietly removed.

Well, anyway ...

When the big moment for the raffle drawing arrived, Hawkeye had it all worked out for someone to win who would be sure to turn it down — Father Mulcahy.

A brigadier general, who had been summoned by a phone call from Hot Lips, arrived at precisely the moment that Mulcahy was revealed to be the raffle winner and bellowed, "Do I understand that the priest of this outfit has just won a weekend with a nurse in Tokyo?"

"It's a prayer come true," Hawkeye replied.

At that point, Hot Lips entered the tent, pulling Frank behind her. He had been wrapped in gauze and sedated to keep him from interfering with the raffle.

And Hot Lips delivered perhaps the finest line I have heard in a pilot episode.

"Those two," the exasperated Hot Lips sputtered, pointing at Hawkeye and Trapper, "they're ruining this war, for all of us!"

Fortunately for TV viewers in the 1970s, M*A*S*H kept "ruining" war for the next 11 years.