Script Spotlight 12: “Pilot Episode”

This Saturday, September 17, marks the 50th anniversary of the premiere of M*A*S*H on CBS. There are several events and marathons planned this week to mark the occasion, but I thought it would be appropriate to celebrate the pilot episode by looking the script for the M*A*S*H “Pilot Episode” (01×01). The pilot is an iconic episode, and since it was the first script written, and it was written by Larry Gelbart to convince 20th Century Fox Television to pick up the series, there is a lot more detail in this script than we see in others. Let’s dig in!

The Script

The best place to begin is with the cover and title page. We see this script is a Revised Final and dated December 8, 1971. That is ten months before the episode would air. A lot happened between this draft was written and the premiere date. Casting, building the sets, filming, approval by the studio, approval by the network, and more would have to be completed before the episode would air on CBS. Of course, this episode was written by series creator and producer Larry Gelbart with input from producer Gene Reynolds. Gelbart was tasked with taking the characters from a R-rated film and adapting them to television. That was no easy feat.

How did he do it? We see some of the clues in the opening pages of the script. In the first three pages alone, he established the place and people. For “The Place,” Gelbart offers an overview of the 4077th. It’s location, Korea itself, and the set up of the camp. Then, in “The People,” we meet each of the major characters, but these are clearly taken from the novel. There are some inaccuracies such as Hawkeye being described as “bespectacled.” While Alan Alda’s Hawkeye did not wear glasses, Donald Sutherland’s Hawkeye did. There are other changes we see such as Henry’s stutter, Trapper not being from Boston, and a few characters that we never meet. Finally, we get the set list with an interesting piece of information about The Swamp. It was tent #6! We do occasionally hear tent numbers in the series, but I do not recall them ever providing the tent number of The Swamp.

When the script begins, we get the extended title sequence described in full detail. The opening titles of M*A*S*H are iconic, but following the opening episode, they were a shortened version of what we see in the pilot (and changes would be made later as characters came and went). The detail in Gelbart’s writing is incredible. He describes every scene very well. But that makes sense. He was trying to sell M*A*S*H as a concept, but he was also inventing what would become the series itself. As you continue through the script, the level of detail does not diminish. The scenes are described in stunning detail.

It is hard to tell sometimes, but this appears to be a period correct copy. As for this script, it only has the script pages. Sadly, I do not have any production documents from the pilot episode. There are also no revised pages, so we cannot see the process of changes the script went through. There were several changes, however, between this draft of the script and the episode as it aired 50 years ago.

The Final Episode

The M*A*S*H pilot episode is a classic, even if it does have an unusual storyline. To raise money to send Ho-Jon to college in the United States, Hawkeye and Trapper devise a plan to raffle off two passes to Tokyo with a nurse. Hawkeye convinces Lt. Dish to be the nurse, but the issue is convincing Henry to provide the passes. After Hawkeye and Trapper cause issues with Frank, Henry nixes the raffle and accompanying party, but Henry lets it slip that he will be out of camp for a few days. Hawkeye and Trapper can have the raffle and party while he is gone, but there are two issues: they need passes and when Henry is gone, Frank is in charge. Hawkeye and Trapper manage to find ways around both issues and they raise the money to send Ho-Jon to college.

Gelbart didn’t have much original source material left from the novel since they were mostly used by the Robert Altman film. Several characters were clearly meant to be around for awhile, but we don’t see them after a few episodes. Spearchucker, Ugly John, Ginger, Leslie, Lt. Dish, etc. were set up as major characters, but they were gone from the series by the middle of the first season. I made an interesting observation about character names in this script. Father Mulcahy was played by a different actor in the pilot episode, but in the script, his lines are listed under “Dago Red” (see page 6 in the photos below). This was changed for future scripts to just “Mulcahy.” Margaret’s lines are listed under “Hot Lips” in the pilot, and the rest of series, despite the nickname not being used much after the first few seasons.

There are several differences between the episode and script that are worth noting. On page 6, the initial scene in the O.R. is longer. The lines between Trapper and Hawkeye when discussing the raffle has been changed (page 11). On page 18, we see that Henry has a much longer speech when he takes away the passes for the raffle, and that scene itself ends differently (page 19). On page 21, we see a brief conversation between Spearchucker and Ugly John that was cut. Then, on pages 22-23, there is a scene between Hawkeye and Margaret discussing the mysterious patient that is, of course, Frank. I am sure most of these scenes were cut for time, but it is great that they preserved on paper!

There is another error in the pilot episode that has always bothered me. When Margaret comes into the Mess Tent during the party to confront Hawkeye about the whereabouts of Frank, Hawkeye calls her “Hot Lips.” However, when General Hammond arrives later, he calls her “Hot Lips,” and Hawkeye and Trapper both react as if it is the first time they have heard her nickname. The script is written this way as well, so it is one of the little continuity errors that occasionally pops up in M*A*S*H.

As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of M*A*S*H this week, looking back at the episode that started it all was a lot of fun for me. The episode has its issues, but the writers and producers worked and improved the storylines over the course of the first season. Then, season two is when M*A*S*H really hit its stride. But this is where it all started. Larry Gelbart’s genius on paper that convinced 20th Century Fox Television and CBS to take a gamble and adapt the popular film to television. M*A*S*H would continue for another 250 episodes after this one, and it would adapt to new characters and new situations. Throughout the changes though, the series never forgot to show the humanity in every situation: the dedication of the doctors and nurses, the internal and external wounds caused by war, the loss of beloved characters, and the importance of laughter in difficult situations. M*A*S*H taught us all of that and more.

One thought on “Script Spotlight 12: “Pilot Episode”

  1. Actually, Hawkeye and Trapper’s reaction is more that Hammond knows the nickname bestowed on Margaret – that it got outside the camp.


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