Script Spotlight 3: “Death Takes a Holiday”

For December, a holiday themed episode seemed appropriate, so I selected “Death Takes a Holiday” (09×05) to review. When I went to the pull the script, I realized that I have two copies! One is from my first set of scripts from 2007, the scripts that were used by costume director Albert Frankel. That episode is similar to the “A War for all Seasons” script that I featured a few weeks ago. The other script belonged to a gentleman named Bob Hill, and telling Hill’s story will provide insight behind the scenes of M*A*S*H.

The Script

Looking at the cover, we see Bob Hill’s name hand written and a few of his notes. They are names of airlines, which is odd. I would like to know the context! The most interesting thing about this cover is the title of the episode. The official episode title is “Death Take a Holiday” whereas the script is titled “Death Take the Holiday.” The name change makes sense as the key scene of the episode, when Hawkeye changes the clock so it appears that the wounded soldier died on December 26th instead of Christmas day. Death did indeed take a holiday as opposed to taking the holiday for the soldier’s family. However, death did take the holiday for the soldier, Hawkeye, BJ, and Margaret.

Aside from the name change, the cover tells us that this script belonged to Bob Hill, and that offers a clue how this script was used on set. Hill was the stand-in for Mike Farrell at the end of the series. What is a stand in? M*A*S*H was a single camera show so when, for example, Hawkeye and BJ are having a conversation, the camera is over Farrell’s soldier looking at Alan Alda while he says his lines, then the camera would be over Alda’s soldier to film Farrell’s lines. Since this might have been shot out of sequence or when the primary actor was unavailable, the shoulder we see might not have been the actor, but a stand-in.

Since we see the stand-in’s back, they have to have a similar build and height to the actor for which they are standing in. Hill served as Farrell’s stand in, so he must have looked like Farrell, at least from the back. The stand-in’s other responsibility was knowing the lines of the actor they were standing in for. Hill would recite Farrell’s line to queue the actor who was on camera. This would have been a challenging job because they were required to be on set each day and know the lines of the actor for which they served as stand in. In an episode of the podcast MASH Matters, Jeff Maxwell has said that he served as stand in for Alda for several seasons.

When I watched the episode, I didn’t notice any scenes that were filmed from the back of Farrell. This led me to wonder why he needed a stand in at all in this episode. Then I noticed the title page. Farrell wrote this episode, so he would have likely been involved in other parts of filming and revisions. The scene where BJ, Hawkeye, and Margaret are trying to keep the solider alive until December 26 focuses quite a bit on each individual character. It is possible that Hill stood in for Farrell off camera in this episode. It is likely that we see Hill’s back in other episodes, however.

Throughout the script, Hill has marked all of BJ’s lines and handwritten several changes as he was expected to know what had changed. The script also includes a few sets of revised pages, call sheets, and the shooting schedule. It is a fairly complete script. Hill’s script gives us insight into one of the many jobs on the set of M*A*S*H that often went uncredited. To my knowledge, Hill’s name is not mentioned in any M*A*S*H credits. I know his story because I purchased this script, and several others, from his family. Meeting people who worked on set and the families of people who worked on set has been one of the greatest joys of collecting.

The Final Episode

I forgot how much I like this episode. Margaret and the doctors trying to keep the solider alive so his family didn’t have to think of Christmas as the day he died. The party with the orphans in the Mess Tent. And the storyline with the donation to the orphanage from Charles is one of the rare instances we see the softer side of Charles Emerson Winchester III. The scene where he is explaining his family’s Christmas Eve tradition to Mr. Choi, his reaction when he finds out the candy was sold, the sad realization that kids can’t be expected to have dessert when they have had no meal, and the scene in The Swamp between Charles and Klinger…they’re all perfectly executed by David Ogden Stiers.

As for differences between the script and the final episode, there weren’t too many. Of course there are the usual minor changes of a word here and there because the actors are human. But there was a scene on page 5 where Hawkeye and BJ are hanging stockings (old Army socks) that didn’t make the final episode. Then on page 20, Father Mulcahy sings Christmas carols with the kids, and that didn’t make the cut either. As usual though, 90% of the script is as written, which is a credit to the writers and actors of the series!

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