In today’s entertainment climate, everyone is familiar with (at least the idea of) the multimedia property. A single piece of entertainment can blossom into a micro-industry that generates spin-offs and seemingly endless merchandise. Of course, that’s not a new practice at all. Fifty years ago this week, MASH: A Novel About Three Army Doctors made the jump to film as the award-winning M*A*S*H. The film led to the classic TV series, which in turn led to an entire series of novels, two other TV series (in a way), and even a line of action figures. Here’s the story of how one man’s reflections on Korea became a comedy classic.
1. The Author Wasn’t Really a Hooker.
The original novel by “Richard Hooker” is actually a pseudonym used by Hiester Richard Hornberger Jr., a graduate of Cornell Medical School who served in Korea. He was assigned to the 8055 Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (which is, of course, what MASH stands for). After the war, Hornberger went into private practice and worked off and on with the material for 11 years. Following a round of rejections from publishers, he recruited sportswriter W.C. Heinz to help him. They sold it soon after; the book was a hit upon its 1968 publication.
2. The Movie Struck Gold in More Than One Way.
Ring Lardner Jr. adapted the novel into screenplay form, and Robert Altman sat in the director’s chair. The cast included a number of familiar faces, like Elliot Gould, Donald Sutherland, Tom Skerritt, Robert Duvall, and Sally Kellerman. Gary Burghoff played Radar O’Reilly, a role he would reprise in the TV series. The film earned plaudits right out of the gate; in addition to being financially successful, it racked up an impressive run of awards. The film earned the Grand Prix du International du Film (now called the Palme d’Or) at Cannes in 1970. It took the Golden Globe in the Musical or Comedy Category, and it was nominated for five Oscars, including Best Picture, winning for Best Adapted Screenplay. Ironically, whereas M*A*S*H was a film that looked at the horror of war through the lens of comedy, it lost most of those Oscar nominations to the very serious Patton. Though the film took pains to establish that it was indeed set in Korea, the audience could certainly sense the undercurrents that paralleled the contemporaneous Vietnam War.
3. The TV Series Lost Two Major Movie Characters.
Fans of the film will remember Duke Forrest as a major character; he’s right there alongside Hawkeye and Trapper John. However, he’s completely absent from the TV series. That’s because the producers offered Skerritt the chance to take the character to TV, and he declined; with that, they decided not to include Forrest at all, save for a throwaway line in Season 3 that indicated someone named Forrest had shipped back home two years prior. As mentioned, Gary Burghoff was the only actor to move from the film version to the TV show. One character that did make the transition to the small screen, but didn’t stick around was the indelicately nicknamed Captain Oliver Harmon “Spearchucker” Jones. Jones was both a book and film character, played in the movie by Fred Williamson. Timothy Brown played him in the first few episodes of the series, but he was phased out over the writers concerns about dividing the focus from Hawkeye and Trapper and an inaccurate perception that there weren’t black surgeons in the army during Korea (there, in fact, were).
4. The TV Show Got a Huge Send-Off.
M*A*S*H wound up being a huge hit on the tube, covering 256 episodes and 11 seasons, with nine of those seasons spent in the ratings’ Top Ten. When it came time to wrap it up, it did so with a 2-1/2 hour finale that was watched by more than 125 million viewers in 1983. It remains the most-watched single episode and most-finale of a TV series. You can watch it today on a variety of streaming platforms.
5. The Book Series Went On, TV Spin-Offs Came and Went, and Other MASHendizing.
M*A*S*H Goes to Maine, the first sequel to the novel, was released in 1972, the same year the TV series debuted. It detailed the lives of the original cast after the Korean War. William E. Butterworth came on as Hooker/Hornberger’s co-writer, and they released 12 more novels up through 1977. That year, Hooker wrote one final, solo novel in the series, M*A*S*H Mania. The post-war years (though vastly different than the books) were followed up in the short-lived spin-off AfterMASH and the aborted pilot W*A*L*T*E*R, which would have focused on Radar’s life as a police officer. One non-canonical spin-off that had a long life was the series Trapper John, M.D. A quirk of the rights to the franchise allowed for the character to be spun off from the film, rather than the TV series; the modern-day set show featured Pernell Roberts in the lead and ran for seven seasons from 1979 to 1986.
Despite the relative lack of success for follow-up TV shows, M*A*S*H merchandise of various kinds has sold well over the years. In addition to the obvious books sales and various home video releases, MASH and 4077th hats and t-shirts remain available in a variety of styles. Perhaps the two most curious additions to the M*A*S*H mythos would be the 1983 Atari 2600 video game and the Tri-Star toy line. In the Atari game, you fly a helicopter to rescue soldiers in the field and then operate on them. While Durham did put out two nine-inch figures in 1975 (intended to be Hawkeye and Hot Lips), the real line that collectors remember hit stores and catalogs in 1982. Made in the popular 3-3/4” scale (like original Star Wars figures), the line included eight figures; Klinger was represented in both his fatigues and in one of his drag outfits. There was also an ambulance, jeep, helicopter, and 4077th base playset.
Featured image: Entertainment Pictures / Alamy Stock Photo