M*A*S*H: The Full Story of one of TV’s Greatest Shows

On the 17th of September, 1972, TV fans all around America tuned in for the first episode of what would become one of the nation’s greatest and most memorable shows of all time. It was on this date that the very first episode of M*A*S*H aired. The show, a unique mixture of comedy and drama that shifted and changed over the years, finished its run in 1983 but is still beloved and respected to this day, cited time and again as one of the most beloved, highest-rated TV shows of all time.

The series, produced by 20th Century Fox Television and broadcast on the CBS network, ran for 11 seasons and a total of 256 episodes. Two spin-off shows – AfterMASH and Trapper John, M.D. – were also produced and enjoyed decent levels of success. And even now, in the modern era, M*A*S*H is still being shown all around the world and remains hugely popular with its ever-growing legions of fans.

The Beginning

M*A*S*H actually got started as a novel, published in 1968 and written by ex-military surgeon Dr. H. Richard Hornberger and W.C. Heinz under the pen name Richard Hooker. The book was called ‘MASH: A Novel About Three Army Doctors’ and followed a fictional U.S. Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (MASH) during the Korean War of 1950 to 1953.

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Alan Alda, US actor, David Ogden Stiers, US actor, Jamie Farr, US actor, and William Christopher, US actor, saluting in a publicity still issued for the US television series ‘M*A*S*H’, USA, circa 1975. The medical comedy starred Alda as ‘Captain Benjamin Franklin ‘Hawkeye’ Pierce, Ogden Stiers as ‘Charles Emerson Winchester III’, Farr as ‘Maxwell Klinger’, and Christopher as ‘Father Mulcahy’. (Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images)

The book served as inspiration for the 1970 feature film M*A*S*H, directed by Robert Altman and written by Ring Lardner Jr. The movie was a huge hit for the production company, 20th Century Fox, and even received five Oscar nominations. A sequel book, entitled M*A*S*H Goes to Maine, was written and published in 1972 and a film version was in the work but didn’t quite come to fruition, so a TV version was chosen as the perfect alternative.

A Slow Start Develops into an All-Time Classic

The first episode of M*A*S*H the TV show aired on September 17 of 1972. Despite later becoming one of the biggest shows in the world, the first season didn’t do too well, and there was even talk of M*A*S*H being canceled. However, a second season was produced and given a better time slot. From that point on, it didn’t take long for word to spread and hype to rise about the show, and M*A*S*H started receiving impressive Nielsen ratings from its second season onwards.

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Mike Farrell, US actor, Loretta Swit, US actress, and Alan Alda, US actor, in a publicity still issued for the US television series ‘M*A*S*H’, USA, circa 1975. The medical comedy starred Farrell as ‘Captain BJ Hunnicutt’, Swit as ‘Margaret ‘Hot Lips’ Houlihan’, and Alda as ‘Captain Benjamin Franklin ‘Hawkeye’ Pierce’. (Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images)

The show earned a rating of at least 22 from season 2 all the way through to season 11 and was in the top 20 programs on TV for the entire duration of that run. Despite covering a war that only lasted three years, the show ran for 11 seasons, with its unique mixture of serious drama and side-splitting comedy particularly rare for the time and still unique to this day. The writing in M*A*S*H has always been very highly regarded, with several episodes classed among the best-written pieces of television ever made.

A Sitcom with Something to Say

The show is an ensemble comedy-drama set during the Korean War, following the fictional events (that were often based on real-life tales from former army surgeons and medical professionals) of a U.S. Army Mobile Army Surgical Hospital. M*A*S*H quickly made a name for itself as quite a dark comedy, telling dark stories with grave consequences, all delivered with a contrasting but perfectly dosed amount of lighthearted humor and silly gags.

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(Original Caption) Alan Alda, (left) as Hawkeye and Wayne Rogers (right) as Trapper John face a rather nerve-racking roadblock when they are stopped by Red Chinese Dr. Tam, played by Mako, on MASH Tuesday, April 15 (8:30-9:00 PM, ET) on the CBS Television Network.

Unlike so many sitcoms that move from one joke to the next over an interchangeable and often meaningless plot, M*A*S*H broke the boundaries of the form, proving that laugh-out-loud moments and heartbreaking scenes could work together in the same show. Episodes would often focus on the antics and interactions of the various members of the hospital, with tensions and issues almost always on the horizon, while also offering sobering and subtle commentary on the nature of war and the human condition.

Decorated and Honored Time and Time Again

Like a successful military general with a box full of medals, M*A*S*H ended its run as one of the highest rated and most decorated shows of all time. The show earned an astonishing total of more than 100 Emmy nominations over its run, winning 14 in total, including Outstanding Comedy Series in 1974, Best Lead Actor in a Comedy Series for Alan Alda, and various Outstanding Supporting Actor and Actress awards for Gary Burghoff, Loretta Swit, and others.

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Actor Jamie Farr, who played Klinger in the T.V. show MASH, poses with some of the products spun off from the popular movie and T.V. show. Five hundred products, including everything from hats to teddy bears, carry the MASH logo.

The show also won the Golden Globe for Best TV Seris in 1981, with Alda winning the Best TV Actor Golden Globe on no less than six occasions. The Peabody Awards, Writers Guild of America, and Directors Guild of America all awarded the show several additional honors, and it was consistently rated among the most-watched programs in the US during its long run. In 2013, the Writers Guild of America even called it the fifth best-written show in history, and the final episode holds the distinct honor of being one of the most viewed episodes of any show ever made, with a Nielsen rating of 60.2.

Suicide Is Painless

One of the most famous and recognizable elements of M*A*S*H is its theme song. Entitled ‘Suicide Is Painless‘ the song was written by Johnny Mandel, with lyrics by Mike Altman. It was the theme song for the 1970 movie, with the lyrics being written by the son of the director, Robert Altman. Robert’s son, Mike, was just 14 when he wrote the words, with Robert saying his 45-year-old mind wasn’t capable of coming up with the sort of lyrics he wanted.

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MALIBU, CA – JUNE 18, The last episode of MASH.Goodbye, Farewell and Amen Goodbye, Farewell and Amen remained the most watched television broadcast in American history, Loretta Swit, Mike Farrell, Alan Alda, Harry Morgan, Jamie Farr, Allan Arbus Fox Ranch, June 18, 1984 at the Malibu Creek State Park in California ( Photo by Paul Harris/Getty Images )

Robert later said he was looking for “the stupidest song ever written” and decided that his teenage boy would be able to make it come to life. The song, originally recorded in 1969, became a cult hit and is one of the most well-known TV themes of all time, having been covered and re-released many times, perhaps most notably by Welsh rock group Manic Street Preachers in 1992.

Where Are They Now?

Since M*A*S*H ended in 1983, the stars of the show have mostly continued to work in the entertainment industry, with varying degrees of success. Alan Alda (Hawkeye Pierce) has appeared in a range of films and TV shows, including The Aviator and 30 Rock. Loretta Swit, (Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan) appeared in various TV shows including The Love Boat and Murder, She Wrote. Jamie Farr (Max Klinger) has guest starred on TV shows like Mad About You and Diagnosis Murder, while William Christopher (Father Mulcahy) died in 2016 after working to raise awareness about autism and appearing in AfterMASH.

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UNIVERSAL CITY, CA – APRIL 19: (L-R) Allan Arbus, Loretta Swit, Mike Farrell, Burt Metcalfe, Alan Alda, Kellye Nakahara Wallet, and Wayne Rogers accept the impact award for ‘M*A*S*H’ onstage at the 7th Annual TV Land Awards held at Gibson Amphitheatre on April 19, 2009, in Universal City, California. (Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images)

Harry Morgan (Sherman T. Potter) appeared in AfterMASH and guest starred in various shows before his death in 2011, while David Ogden Stiers (Major Charles Emerson Winchester III) did some voice acting for Disney and appeared on many shows before dying in March of 2018. Gary Burghoff (Radar O’Reilly) has appeared on TV game shows and worked as a wildlife artist and jazz drummer, while Mike Farrell (B.J. Hunnicutt) has worked on various films and shows, as well as being involved in political campaigns for various causes like an animal and human rights.