M*A*S*H: A Second Look by Vernon Weatherbe
My five favorite television shows of all time are:
5. The Wire
4. Law & Order (the original)
2. All In The Family
- Rod Serling’s “The Twilight Zone” ( The creator’s name I put first to specify from the other bastardized versions)
In reference to M*A*S*H, (No.3), as a kid or an adolescent, I was never a fan of the show. I was more into “Barretta” or “Starsky & Hutch”.
It wasn’t until in my early twenties, and on recommendation of a friend that I, first, started watching M*A*S*H. Eventually, I became hooked and was one one of the record breakers when the finale, “Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen”, aired in ’83!
As a Black man, to this day, people laugh in surprise when I tell them I like the show! Even though I laughed, when Chris Rock likened the White rage felt from the 1995 O.J. Simpson verdict to White people’s response to the cancellation of M*A*S*H, I felt kinda guilty for liking the show. But, I like the show. I like it for the same reason I like the other four shows, the writing. **(Honorable mention to David Chase’s “The Sopranos”)
First season, aside, the writing made M*A*S*H the template for the dramedy, a genre with a mixture of comedy and drama. A genre tried again in the Eighties with John Ritter’s, “Hooperman” and “The Days And Nights Of Molly Dodd” with Blair Brown, although, neither had the staying power of M*A*S*H. Two years for Ritter’s cop show (ABC 1987–89) and five years, and, two different networks (NBC 1987–88) and Lifetime (1988–91) for Brown’s Molly Dodd.
In 1972, M*A*S*H was developed as a television show by Larry Gelbart and Gene Reynolds, which was proceeded by an Oscar winning film of the same name in 1970 (Ring Lardner, Jr. /Best Adapted Screenplay From Another Material). The material was the book, “MASH: The Story of Three Army Doctors” written by Richard Hooker and W. C. Heinz in 1968. Hooker was the author’s pseudynym for his real name, which was H.Richard Hornberger. Hornberger was an actual doctor in a MASH (mobile army surgical hospital) during the Korean War. The book was a fictitous account of his time there.
MASH units were created a month before the end of World War ll in 1945, but weren’t deployed until Korea five years later. The tv show, “M*A*S*H, though set in Korea, was a sort of protest against the Vietnam War.
The first season was mostly medical hijinks interspersed with a few serious moments. There was one episode, however, “Sometimes You Hear The Bullet”, where the Alan Alda character, Hawkeye’s friend, a war correspondent, is shot and bought to the 4077th , where he dies. That episode was the game changer for the direction of the show.
Also, in that early season, the show had two African Americans in the cast, Timothy Brown and Odessa Cleveland.
Brown played Captain Oliver Harmon Jones or “Spearchucker”, on the show. The role in the movie was played, in his film debut, by former NFL star and soon to be Blaxploitation movie idol, Fred Williamson.
Tim Brown, along with Gary Burghoff, (Walter “Radar” O’ Reilly) also, was in the original movie. He played Corporal Judson. However, Brown’s Spearchucker character, on the television series, didn’t get quite the send off Radar did. After seven episodes, he was given a Keyser Soze’ like exit … poof, he was gone. Reason citing, there were no Black surgeons during the Korean War. “Yeh, c’mon, Truman let you guys fight and , now you wanna stitch us up, too?! (quote mine)
This was probably true, given the show’s time period on the show and America in the Fifties, but that should have been researched by the producers, beforehand. So, to bring believability to the show and not upset certain viewers, especially in their maiden year, Dr. Jones was shipped stateside.
Odessa Cleveland’s character, Ginger Bayliss, on the other hand, had a future with the show . . .or so it seemed. All told she appeared in 27 episodes from 1972–75. In one of the early episodes, she was given her own “B” story.
It involved a racist soldier who was worried, he get the wrong kind of blood, when he sees Nurse Bayliss setting up his IV for a transfusion. So Hawkeye and Trapper decides to play on the soldier’s stupidity and do things like paint the soldier’s face and extremeties tannish brown and gives him a lunch of watermelon and fried chicken! A scene that wouldn’t fly in today’s PC climate!
Ginger even gets into the act, by congratulating the soldier for “passing” with a knowing wink, she says “ Your secret is safe with me”. This is too much and the soldier loses it only to have Ginger pull rank and reminds him he a lowly private and she’s a lieutenant, so show respect!
During the Seventies, I’m sure it was a “right on sister” moment for any person of color watching MASH or any show, for that matter, that featured a Black character, because in those days we had so few of both.
After that episode, Ginger went back to being a nurse. A nurse, who was strangely absent from the O.R., when Henry Blake’s plane crashed nor was she available for the first cease fire that didn’t happen. Neither in her short time at the 4077th, did she and Loretta Swit’s character, Margaret Houlihan, ever confer on a medical matter, let alone have a scene together. It would’ve made the episode, “The Nurses” (S5/E6), very interesting.
When it came to African American actresses in the Seventies there wasn’t an influx, especially in television, and the ones that were working, Hollywood didn’t know what to do with. Maybe that was the case with MASH and Odessa Cleveland.
Time marches on and we meet B. J. Hunnicutt and Colonel Sherman Potter. We also witness, simultaneously, the maturing of Margaret Houlihan and the imploding of Frank Burns, leading to the arrival of Charles Emerson Winchester, III.
Time marches on, and as goes Hawkeye, so goes the 4077th. . . As the war trudged on, did anyone, other myself, notice that Hawkeye Pierce morphed into Alan Alda? Gone was the womanizing pacifist, and in his place was a more enlightened, liberal protester! He drove to the Panmunjom Peace Talks, in the episode, “Peace On Us”(S7/E2), to aid in the ending the war more quickly.
An act that would have gotten anyone else thrown into the stockade until the end of Desert Storm, he was thrown a party in his honor back home . . . with his CO knocking them back with rest of the camp! When the MP’s came to the 4077th, he was given a warning and was asked by one of the generals to prescribe him something for indigestion! WTF!!
Even though Sherman Potter was more commander material than Henry Blake, he too, when it came to Hawkeye, was a figurehead.
In an episode from the same season, (S7/ E 24) “ A Night At Rosie’s”, after Pierce starts a Pied Piper-esque trip to the roadside watering hole, Rosie’s, Potter shows up in an understable huff. He reminds, both Hawkeye and B. J., who’s in charge and he won’t abide subordination. To this, Hawkeye gives a half assed excuse about needing something like this, while his partner in crime, (and most times, fall guy) B.J., gives a blanket apology which Potter accepts and acquiesces to.
Of all the seasons, Season Eight is my favorite, because M*A*S*H hit it’s stride as the television show it would become famous for. It bought realism to most of their episodes that season. In the nadir of pay tv and it’s choices, the writers felt they had to up the ante.
The first show was on the comedic side, “Too Many Cooks” (S8/E1), and featured a future t.v. doc as a bumbling soldier who is a whiz in the mess tent, played “St. Elsewhere’s”, Ed Begley, Jr..
After that they were off to races with an episode concerning The Communist Blacklist in “Are You Now, Margaret? (S8/E2)”, another about euthanasia with “Life Time” (S8/E11), where a brain dead soldier becomes an unwitting donor for another soldier in need of an aorta to prevent paralysis.
Also , the plight of Amerasian children, who are born out of wedlock and are abandoned by their GI fathers, was dealt with in “Yessir, That’s My Baby”(S8/E15). The subject of battle fatigue and mental illness was tackled in “Heal Thyself” (S8/E17), as well, as sleep deprivation and it’s effects in “Dreams” (S8/E22). This episode won the Humanitas Prize (1980) and was nominated by the WGA for best stoty.
Another episode ,which I saved for last in mentioning, was one that showed the reality of war and my personal favorite, “Guerilla My Dreams” (S8/E3).
During the routine flow of casualties arriving at 4077th, a woman, who has been shot, is among them. Thinking she’s a villager caught in the crossfire, the doctors prepare to treat her. However, they are assisted by Lieutenant Pak and his two guards. They are told by Pak, that she is an enemy guerilla and she must treated and released for questioning. The doctors go through various measures, as well as military channels, to prevent her leaving, but to no avail. So, as usual, they resort to chicanery, but are intercepted by Pak and the woman is hauled off for questioning. But not before the woman, through Pak’s interpretation, reveals that she really is a guerilla and she is willing to die if she can kill an American for invading her homeland. Hawkeye, ever the gallant doctor , calls Pak, a “son of a bitch” before attempting to rescue the woman. But he, B. J., Potter and Klinger are stopped in their tracks by Pak’s soldiers who aim their weapons ready to fire. As they leave, Pak, brilliantly played by Mako Imawatsu, sneers at them in victory.
That was one time the doctors tried and failed by attempting to save someone who didn’t want saving. This was also the season where Radar went home and Klinger graduated from being a cross dressing Section 8 trying to leave the Army to sealing his fate by becoming the new company clerk . . . by default.
Maxwell Q. Klinger was everything Radar wasn’t. Where Radar was honest to a fault, Klinger was a con artist. Radar was a country bumpkin and naive, Klinger was from the city and street smart. Radar was White. Klinger wasn’t, he was Lebanese. But “his secret was safe with us” (wink wink).
Born Jameel Farah, Jamie Farr became an actor through the mentorship of another fellow Toledoan and Lebanese actor, Danny Thomas. His stint on M*A*S*H was supposed to be a one day thing, but the producers saw that the character, Klinger, had legs, figuratively, and literally and a star was born!
As the Eighties slowly began opening doors for more African Americans with a new type of drama, the prime time soap, Not the usual John and Martha stories, but male oriented shows like “Hill Street Blues” followed later by, “ St. Elsewhere” and “L.A. Law”. These were “soaps” that men can enjoy as well as women. They were, though not known, then, the blue print for much of today’s cable’s hour long series.
Then, there were also, the same old stand bys like, “ Different Strokes” and it’s clone, “Webster” as well as, “Benson” and “The Jeffersons”.
“The Jeffersons” and “ M*A*S*H , both aired on CBS, garnered big ratings for the network and even aired for the same amount of years, eleven. However, in 1983, where MASH ‘s exit was ceremonously announced with pomp and circumstance , George and Weezy were moved on out, with as not so much as a kazoo rendition of “Taps”, two years later.
MASH, on the other hand, was on it’s way to becoming classic television, thanks to, first syndication, then VHS cassette and DVD sales, and now Internet streaming.
So, to all my brothers and sisters if you enjoy watching MASH, no matter how you watch it, you’re secret is safe with me. Enjoy!