“M*A*S*H” turns 40: Our memories of “M*A*S*H”

“Korea 1950 — a hundred years ago.”

So went the first words to appear onscreen on M*A*S*H. Actually, it was only 40 years ago, but it’s still hard to believe that it’s been four decades since the pilot episode of the much-lauded and excessively watched series hit the airwaves on Sept. 17, 1972. At the time, it was simply a TV series trying to spin off of the success of the popular Robert Altman film that used the insanity of the Korean War to underscore the similar madness taking place in Vietnam. It took a while for M*A*S*H to find its footing as a television series, both for the show’s creators and in terms of an audience, but when it did, it took off — not just for the obvious comedy appeal, but for the tragedy with which the laughs were intertwined, making it one of the most compelling shows television had ever seen.

Forty years on, audiences still get a kick out of watching Hawkeye and Trapper torment Frank Burns, Hawkeye and B.J. spar with Charles Emmerson Winchester III, and watching the roving cast of characters at the 4077th go through their paces, “snatching laughs and love as bombs and bullets burst around them,” to quote the film and the pilot episode. Some of us grew up watching the series, both in its first run and in endless rounds of syndication. (MeTV actually will be marking the anniversary occasion by airing the first two M*A*S*H episodes tonight starting at 7pm ET/PT.) Over the years, we’ve collected a lot of memories of this great series — most good, some otherwise — and we’re happy to remember and muse on them here:

Ryan Berenz:

As a kid in the ’80s, I often watched M*A*S*H with my dad. I was too young to understand a lot of the themes, but I could still enjoy the pranks and wackiness. But every now and then there was a serious scene or a moment in an episode that stuck with me, and reminded me that playing war in the backyard with my friends was so very far removed from reality. I’ve been reacquainted with M*A*S*H over the past two years (Thanks, MeTV!) and can look back with more wisdom on these moments that haunted me the most:

Dreams (1980, Season 8) This episode delves into several characters’ dreams and reveals their deepest fears about the horrors of war and the effect it’s had on their lives. In the final dream sequence, Hawkeye falls asleep during a lecture on “how to re-attach a limb.” As punishment, Hawkeye has his own arms removed and tossed into a river. Hawkeye sits in a rowboat on the calm river. The boat gently bumps artificial limbs that are floating all over the water’s surface. Armless, Hawkeye can’t perform surgery on a dying soldier, and the wounded just keep coming.

Abyssinia, Henry (1975, Season 3) It seems the obvious choice, but this legendary final scene is still hard to watch after all these years, even knowing what happens. The cast didn’t know what Radar was going to announce, and the actors’ reactions are about as genuine as you can get. The stunned silence in the operating room is broken only by a few dropped surgical instruments as the doctors and nurses have to fight through their own emotional pain to tend to the wounded.

The Life You Save (1981, Season 9) After nearly falling victim to a sniper attack, Maj. Winchester becomes obsessed with the experience of dying, and wants to learn all he can about it to abate his own fears. He drives to a battalion aid station, where he tends to a fatally wounded soldier in his final moments. As the soldier’s senses slip away one by one, Winchester asks him, “What is happening to you? Can you feel anything? See anything? Please, I have to know. What is happening to you?” The soldier’s final words: “I smell bread.”

Death Takes a Holiday (1980, Season 9) The sad irony of the title is that death doesn’t take a holiday. A gravely wounded G.I. is brought to the 4077th on Christmas. While the rest of the M*A*S*H celebrates, Hawkeye, B.J. and Margaret try to keep the soldier alive until midnight so his family doesn’t have to remember Christmas as the day he died. Despite their efforts, the G.I. passes away before midnight. In contrast to the joy of the holiday, Margaret says, “It never fails to astonish me. You’re alive, you’re dead. No drums, no flashing lights, no fanfare. You’re just dead.” Hawkeye turns the clock’s hands past midnight, and the soldier’s date of death will be recorded as Dec. 26.

The Billfold Syndrome (1978, Season 7) A young medic is so traumatized from battle, he can’t remember who he is. The M*A*S*H calls in psychiatrist Dr. Sidney Freedman, who puts the medic under hypnosis to try and discover the source of his amnesia. While hypnotized, the medic reenacts the horrifying events that led up to his discovery of his younger brother, Stevie, killed in battle. Actor Kevin Geer delivers one of the most haunting guest performances of the series, bringing out all the terror, shock and loss his character suffers.

Karl Paloucek:

The Pilot Episode (1972, Season 1) Though not as deftly as the episodes that would become M*A*S*H’s signature over time, this first attempt is already loaded with sharp wit and a deliciously tasteless plotline — Hawkeye and Trapper raffle off a weekend in Tokyo with the “completely edible” Lt. Dish as a benefit to raise tuition for their houseboy, Ho-Jon. This is a fun one to watch, as numerous actors from the film version show up, even if not in their original roles. Gary Burghoff is still Radar, of course, and G. Wood shows up as General Hammond, chief medical officer of the Seoul sector, but look for Timothy Brown in the role of Capt. “Spearchucker” Jones — a heavy promotion over his role as Cpl. Judson in the film. Possibly most eyebrow raising, though, is George Morgan as Fr. Mulcahy, who would be replaced by William Christopher for the rest of the series’ run.

The Transitions: You could call it plot-convenience theater, but one of the built-in benefits of the M*A*S*H situation was that in wartime, personnel were rotated home, transferred, wounded or killed, or eventually, as in Hawkeye’s case, simply cracked up. M*A*S*H took full advantage of this scenario when actors decided to leave the series to introduce new characters that often changed the series’ dynamic and refreshed things. Credit is due here — the people at M*A*S*H could have played it safe, replacing Frank Burns with an equally pedantic sort of Ferret Face, but instead chose a different sort of insufferable malcontent in Maj. Winchester, a much more formidable adversary for Hawkeye and B.J.’s shenanigans. Likewise, when the beloved and bumbling Col. Henry Blake was killed in one of M*A*S*H’s most memorable episodes, the new commanding officer, Col. Sherman T. Potter, was no pushover — but he was a reasonable human being, much to the initial disappointment of Majors Burns and Houlihan. Most difficult of all was the transition from Hawkeye’s foil for the first few seasons, “Trapper” John McIntyre, to family man B.J. Hunnicutt, which they handled in a two-parter that had Hawkeye “appropriating” a jeep with Radar to head down to Kimpo airbase to say goodbye to his old bunkmate. By the time they got back to the 4077th and B.J. first addressed Frank as “Ferret Face,” you knew he was a worthy successor.

Col. Flagg: Something has to be said about Edward Winter’s portrayal of this unforgettably paranoid character. The first time Winter appeared in the series, he was actually Capt. Halloran, an intelligence agent sent for by Frank Burns in a fit of army protocol when a wounded C.I.D. man showed up. But even in that appearance, the Flagg persona was there, reeking of McCarthyism. As the series progressed, Flagg periodically returned, and every time he did, we knew it was going to be a good episode. Whether breaking his own arm to secure time at the 4077th for snooping, or suggesting that he would need the alias “Louise” when in Tokyo the following week, Flagg never ceased to entertain — and somehow Winter managed to do it with a completely straight face. Interestingly enough, possibly Flagg’s most extreme and over-the-top appearance came not during the run of M*A*S*H, but in the series follow-up, After MASH, in an episode that had Flagg trying to discredit Max Klinger while on trial.

Tuttle (1973, Season 2) It was an early episode, but it remains one of the funniest, if not the funniest in the entire series. After Hawkeye and Trapper supply Sister Theresa with an abundance of supplies for her orphanage, she asks them point-blank who gave the authorization. In the panic of the moment, Hawkeye blurts out, “Tuttle” — a name ascribed to his childhood friend. In the coming days, Tuttle’s presence becomes more real to everyone in camp, and after he donates a huge amount of back pay and future pay to the orphanage, he becomes a legend. Hawkeye and Trapper manage to get out of this hugely explosive lie with a set of Radar-supplied dogtags, a parachute and an alibi that Tuttle was killed in action, but not before Hawkeye delivers a eulogy with the hysterical line, “There’s a little Tuttle left in all of us. … You might say that all of us together made up Tuttle.”

The Ever-Black Humor: The entire series was laced with it, but some episodes pulled it off better than others. Some of the best moments of the series had the war invading the camp in the form of artillery or the threat of advancing enemy infantry. “Bug Out” (1976, Season 5) was one such episode, in which the Chinese were on their way, and the 4077th was forced to evacuate. Unfortunately, Hawkeye was in the middle of a crucial operation that couldn’t be stopped. So he, Maj. Houlihan and Radar stayed to see the patient to safety. But even under such duress and with his hands all full of the insides of the poor soldier, Hawkeye could still proposition Margaret and get away with it.

The Breakdowns: The big breakdown came in the final two-hour finale, with Hawkeye finally losing his marbles altogether after witnessing a mother smother her own child to death, but there were some harrowing, traumatic episodes during the regular series run as well, maybe most notably Edward Herrmann’s appearance in “Heal Thyself” (1980, Season 8), in which an epidemic of mumps sidelines both Col. Potter and Maj. Winchester, requiring a temporary replacement surgeon to be brought in. At first, his wit and knowing humor add brilliantly to the buffoonery of the Swampmates’ activities, and his surgical skill is on a par with theirs, as well. But when the 4077th is hit with a particular heavy deluge of wounded, the new man loses his grip on reality and slips into a psychotic state requiring the abilities of psychiatrist Maj. Sidney Freedman.