Ask most fans what they love about M*A*S*H, and a fair number will say the balance of comedy and drama. The series successfully incorporated a proper amount of humanity and the horrors of war. There have been many stories over the years about how series creator Larry Gelbart ensured that M*A*S*H didn’t forget that war is hell. Finding that balance was very challenging for a half hour “sit-com.” But they did achieve it, and in addition to Gelbart and Gene Reynolds, many also credit Alan Alda for achieving that balance. Despite having a fair amount of creative control, Alda held out until the last minute to agree to take part in M*A*S*H because he feared the series could become another war comedy. This week’s Press Pass document is a CBS Feature from September 24, 1979 in which we get insight into the meeting that convinced Alda to join the series…the day before rehearsals began!
“I think that meeting was one of the most crucial factors in the eventual success of the show.” Alda is not referring to the fact that the meeting in question in 1972 led to him being playing the role of Hawkeye in M*A*S*H, he believed the series was a success because they did not compromise on keeping a humanistic element in the show. Alda continued, “We knew we had a unique concept – one that gave us a chance to reach for a humanistic point of view – but if we hadn’t had that meeting, where we swore to be true to our concept, we might have lost it.” By 1979, M*A*S*H was a success, so Alda is correct in assessment that the show had worked up to that point because of the balance of comedy and human drama. But I would take take it a step further and argue that the show wouldn’t have worked without Alan Alda. He seems to downplay his importance, but he was the constant in the series, in front of and behind the camera, for all eleven years.
This press release is different from ones I have discussed before. For one thing, it is from CBS, M*A*S*H‘s distributor as opposed to 20th Century Fox, the show’s production company. But that was common in this era. The studio and networks would release “human interest” stories related to one of their shows to gain public interest, and this a compelling story. The fact that Alda, the star of show, had not signed on to play Hawkeye the day before rehearsals began…that would have been a huge shock to fans in 1979 considering the series was a huge success.
Most importantly, this release demonstrates the creative team’s goal to ensure that M*A*S*H was respectful of the events they were portraying. The Korean War. The MASH doctors and nurses. The wounded. They are the heart of the series. As the press release points out, “Alda recalls there were pressures to take a less serious approach to the subject…” There was a push from CBS to downplay the way. Downplay the O.R. scenes. I am glad they didn’t because if they did, I do not believe M*A*S*H would be as beloved as it is today.
Read the full press release below.