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Truth Behind Alan Alda’s Military Service Before Mash

The TV show MASH got it’s start as an adaptation of an Oscar award-winning war film from 1970. In turn, that film was based upon a 1968 novel by Richard Hooker entitled MASH: A Novel About Three Doctors. And expects more about Alan Alda.

The series debuted on CBS in 1972 and ran until 1983. As time goes by and the show gains acclaim, garners accolades and awards and amasses a sizable fan base, it retains its signature comedic edge but devotes to addressing more pressing and grave issues associate with the United States foreign wars in a manner that recognizes as being distinctly anti-war. As such, MASH became a cultural touchstone for those that promoted notions of peace and opposed military involvement in East Asia.

Alan Alda’s involvement was one of the main reasons for the show’s transition from poignant yet lighthearted humor to serious socio-political commentary. Before Alda played Hawkeye Pierce, he had served in the military. He was one of many cast and crew members to have served and fought in the armed forces. It only makes sense that real-life Veterans gets something to say while participating in a program showcasing the realities and horrors of war – but not everyone pleases with how the show tackles the issue. In fact, a couple of key figures connected to M*A*S*H absolutely hated how the show played out – stick around to find out who. But first let’s take a look at the men who helped M*A*S*H become the iconic show that it became.

The Vets Behind M*A*S*H

M*A*S*H, just like the movie it bases on, sets during the Korean War. By 1972, that conflict ends almost twenty years prior but some American forces station in South Korea for decades – come to think of it, as of 2020, there are almost 30,000 US Troops are still in South Korea but that’s not super relevant for this discussion – I digress.

The mid-20th century was a particularly busy time for the United States when it came to fighting in foreign wars so it makes sense that many of the cast members and production crew behind-the-sceners had a bit of first-hand experience serving in the military.

Three of the lead male actors to stick it out for the entire series had spent time in uniform. Alda enlists in the Army after college and stations in Korea for six months. Jamie Farr, whom you remember as Maxwell Klinger, drafts in the Navy shortly after high school. He had previously spent his youth as an actor and appeared on The Red Skelton Show and in 1955s social drama film Blackboard Jungle before spending two years on active duty in Korea and Japan. Mclean Stevenson, who portrayed Colonel Blake had also served in the Navy.

Creators Of M*A*S*H Television Show

The two creators of the M*A*S*H television show were also both veterans. Gene Reynolds stations on a Naval destroyer back in World War II and draws upon those experiences while working on shows like Hogan’s Heroes and F Troop before he co-created M*A*S*H with Larry Gelbert, who was also an Army veteran.

Since so many cast and crew members had an experience-based working knowledge of what war was really like, they remained determined to take the show very seriously. Alda was once quoted as saying that he thought Gelbert had written one of the best television pilots that he had ever read but he was a bit worried that the show might eventually drift into being something very different before long. And it might have too if Alda didn’t speak up and make sure that the series didn’t deviate from its path.

Alda Wanted The Show To Remain Realistic

The absolute last thing that Alda wanted was for the show to devolve into low-brow slapstick humor and shenanigans. He told NPR back in 2019 that neither he nor the show’s producers wanted for the backdrop of the war to just serve as a pretext to tell silly stories. He wasn’t about to let that happen. After reading several scripts by freelance writers some of his concerns confirm. It seems that some people want the show to fill with zany jokes and visual gags but obviously, that wasn’t the kind of program that M*A*S*H really was. Sure, it wasn’t afraid to lean upon humor to develop a narrative, but that wasn’t exclusively what kind of show it was either. The show wasn’t exactly Gomer Pyle USMC.

But Alda agreed to stick with the show after talking with Gelbert and Reynolds about their intentions. It seems they were all on the same page. Them, wanting the show to address the war for what it was. They weren’t going to sugar coat it or drown out the seriousness of the situation with humor, Well not entirely at least. They wanted to find the right balance.

It’s not exactly like Alda was trying to relive the horrors of what that he had experienced when out on the front lines, in fact, his time in the service was relatively uneventful, especially compared to the thousands of American soldiers who died in the Korean and Vietnam wars.

Serving A Couple Of Hundred Soldiers

While enlisting Alda is at first going to be an office but that didn’t seem as the right fit and he receives tasks with being in charge of a mess tent. He would serve a couple of hundred soldiers meals three times a day. What stuck with him the most from that experience was observing so many men shell-shocked by their own hair-raising experiences on the battlefield – staring blankly at a wall or awkwardly shuffling their food around their plate. It was unnerving for him to witness but he needed to see it. That is the reality of the situation that he gets.

He wasn’t exactly sure that his involvement in the war was justified – not even then. But he took a lot of what he had learned from that experience and incorporated it into the show. Regardless of the fact that he didn’t stare down the barrel of a gun during his tenure in the Army, he learned that war was very real.

Sanity And Peace Of Mind

People die, and many return home without their arms and legs – not to mention their sanity and peace of mind – that’s just the way things are and he wanted to make sure that that crucial bit of truth came out in the show. It’s not like he wants the series to be purely dramatic, but he also didn’t want it to be purely about how humorous things were inside of a mess tent.

Okay, don’t mean to get too side-tracked, but if you’re enjoying this video so far make sure you give it a like and subscribe to our channel.

And make sure you stick around to find out who were the only 2 cast members to know about Colonel Blake’s death in advance before he was killed off the show.

The Books Author And Director Of The Original Film Hated The Series

You can’t please everyone.

The show and the film were both based upon the novel MASH: A Novel About Three Army Doctors by Richard Hooker – which was actually just the pen name for Dr. H. Richard Hornberger and W. C. Heinz.

Hornberger had actually served as a surgeon in the Korean war. In the process, he even helped develop a novel kind of surgery.

Hornberger had actually based Hawkeye Pierce on himself – well at least loosely – but he was pretty outspoken for his dissatisfaction with the show. Not only was he making peanuts per episode, but he also took offense to the series anti-war sentiments.

Robert Altman

Robert Altman, the man who directed the MASH film didn’t care much for the series either. He had taken great pride in depicting the horrors of war in a transparently, untamed manner. In 2000 for a commentary track on the film’s DVD he noted that the series was in fact the exact opposite of everything that they were trying to do with the film.

To be fair though, the TV series still had plenty of blood and drama. Audiences got an eyeful of the brutal reality of war and human suffering in a way that was rarely depicted in sitcoms during that era.

For M*A*S*H’s final episode, Hawkeye had an emotional breakdown, which was very clearly a reflection of how drained the country felt towards the end of the Vietnam War, which mind you had already came to a conclusion several years into the series.

Alan Alda Was The Only Other Cast Member Who Knew What Would Happen To Col. Blake

For several seasons McLean Stevenson played the lovable and easy-going Col. Blake. When he died at the end of season three, fans were absolutely shocked, but his demise was also a surprise to the cast members who were there for filming the finale. They were given the script but the last page was withheld from everyone but Stevenson and Alda.

M*A*S*H was a wartime program. Tons of people had died on the series already but they were always extras and bit actors, but for the first time the show’s writers had the opportunity to have a character die that the audience would actually care about – it was a death that would carry meaning. As it turns out, Stevenson was always meant to be killed off the show. The writers had planned that move from the moment that he signed on.

Alan Alda Is A Family Man

With all of his prestigious career achievements under his belt, you might expect Alda to be quite the playboy but that couldn’t be further from the truth. He and his wife Arlene have been happily married for 63 years now. The couple tied the old proverbial knot back in 1957 and subsequently had three daughters Eve, Elizabeth, and Beatrice.

These days they love being the stereotypical doting grandparents to their eight grandchildren. Alda met Arlene at a party in 1957 and they immediately hit it off. They knew almost instantaneously that they wanted to spend the rest of their lives with each other – despite the fact that Alda was two years younger than his bride-to-be.

They’ve stuck with each other through high times as well as low ones – through thick and thin as it were – and their love hasn’t waned in the least bit. In fact, their appreciation for each other has only grown over the years.

When asked what their secret was for a happy marriage, Alda humorously cited having a short term memory as being key to their success, but he further noted that serving each other rather than focusing on their selves certainly helped keep their love going.

CBS This Morning In 2018

Alan Alda went on CBS This Morning in 2018 and revealed that three years prior he had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. Living with someone with that debilitating condition can be difficult, but Arlene has stayed by his side the entire time.

Alan Ada certainly is a remarkable individual. He’s a six-time Emmy and Golden Globe award winner and even at the age of 84 and dealing with the debilitating effects of Parkinson’s disease he’s still taking an active role in show business. He also host’s his own highly applauded podcast called Clear and Vivid which is currently on its 133rd episode.

Anyways, we’d love to hear from you! What did you think about M*A*S*H? Are you one of the millions of fans that tuned in week after week to see what Hawkeye and his comrades were up to, or do you agree with Richard Hooker, the book’s author, who found the series to be missing the mark? Let us know what you think in the comments section below.

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