The final episode of M*A*S*H aired on February 28, 1983. It wasn't just a "TV event" ...it was the most-watched episode in scripted TV history.
WAR IS SWELL
M*A*S*H was a sitcom based on a cynical movie inspired by a cynical book about an unpopular war. It was also one of the most successful TV shows of all time. Chronicling the doctors and nurses of the 4077TH Mobile Army Surgical Hospital during the Korean War (1950-1953), the first season in 1972 drew such low ratings that CBS nearly canceled it. But they gave it a chance, and by season two, M*A*S*H was a top 10 show. For the remainder of its 11-year run, it never fell out of the top 20.
Until 1983, M*A*S*H was a fixture on Monday night at 9:00 PM on CBS. But by the time it ended, it had evolved into a much different show than it had been at the start.
FROM SILLY TO SERIOUS
The biggest reason for M*A*S*H's change in tone was Alan Alda, who starred as Captain "Hawkeye" Pierce, the unit's chief surgeon. After series creator Larry Gelbart left the show in 1976, Alda took over as head writer. He, along with executive producer Burt Metcalfe, convinced CBS to phase out the laugh track and focus less on the doctors' womanizing and pranks and more on character development and honest depictions of the horrors of war.
Result: M*A*S*H was no longer a comedy with occasional drama, but a drama with occasional comedy. "We're recreating a time of suffering and joy and revelation that happened to real people at a real time," said Alda. "We know what they went through. We can't be casual in the face of that."
THE BEGINNING OF THE END
M*A*S*H remained popular through all the changes, but after 10 seasons, Alda and company were running out of stories to tell about a three-year war. CBS wasn't willing to call it a day, though, and convinced Metcalfe and Alda to return for a final season that would conclude in February 1983 with a movie-length finale.
That wasn't Alda's first choice. He wanted the last M*A*S*H to be a regular 30-minute episode. At the end of his version, the audience would hear the director yell "Cut!" and the camera would move back to reveal the crew. Alda would take off his surgical mask and address the viewers with a short, heartfelt tribute to veterans.
CBS nixed that plan, so Alda and eight other writers began penning "Goodby, Farewell, and Amen."
THE WAR AT HOME
When M*A*S*H's end date was announced in the fall of 1982, it became the biggest story in entertainment. Many fans mourned the show's end. "The general viewing audience will feel a tremendous disappointment when M*A*S*H finally goes off the air," reported Dr. Robert London, a psychiatrist at the NYU Medical Center, adding that viewers might even suffer withdrawal symptoms. (CBS mourned the end of its hit show by 30-second advertising spots on its finale for $450,000 each -about a millions dollars in today's money.)
In fact, M*A*S*H fans were so eager to find out what would become of Hawkeye, B.J., Col. Potter, Charles, Margaret, Klinger, and Father Mulcahy that a Fall 1982 edition of the National Enquirer promising exclusive scoops on the final episode sold out: "One character goes crazy, one is wounded in action, one leaves early, and one remains in Korea!" (They were right.)
While the final episode was being filmed, a forest fire swept through the outdoor set in the hills outside Malibu, leaving only a burned-out Jeep and the "Best Care Anywhere" sign standing. And only half of the scenes had been shot. Undeterred, Alda wrote the fire into the story: North Koreans had set off incendiary devices, causing a blaze and the evacuation of the 4077th.
(Image credit: Flickr user Danielle Directo-Meston)On February 28, 1983, "Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen" aired on CBS. Directed by Alda, it was unlike any other M*A*S*H episode. It opens with Hawkeye in a mental institution, recalling a horrific experience to Dr. Sidney Freedman (Alan Arbus), M*A*S*H's psychiatrist. Over the course of the first hour, Hawkeye reveals a horrific ordeal he experienced while hiding in a bus with some Korean refugees. (A chicken was making noise, putting them all in danger of being captured by the Chinese, so Hawkeye told the woman to "shut the chicken up!" Hawkeye soon remembers that it wasn't a chicken but a baby, and that the mother had smothered it.) Later, he's deemed fit to return to duty, but it's obvious that he's damaged -especially when he risks his life to drive an abandoned tank out of camp to draw enemy fire away from the hospital.
That took up the first hour; the second hour and a half was about the cease-fire ending the Korean War, and saying goodbye. In the iconic final scene, Hawkeye boards a helicopter and looks down at the camp from above. He sees someone had written "GOODBYE" in rocks on the ground. The helicopter flies away.
Even now, 28 years later, "Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen" still holds the record for the most-watched scripted TV episode. (The previous record holder was 1980's "Who Shot J.R?" episode of Dallas.) It's estimated that between 105 million and 121 million people tuned in, more than half of the U.S. population at the time. No single American TV broadcast surpassed the finale until the 2010 Super Bowl. And it's likely that M*A*S*H will hold on to this record for a long time, perhaps forever. Why? In the early 1980s, network television was the biggest thing going in home entertainment. But today, audiences are divided among hundreds of cable channels, DVDs, video games, and the Internet.
The M*A*S*H finale was such an event that it affected everyday life. Newspapers reported that more than a million New Yorkers all flushed their toilets at once immediately after the show ended (they'd all waited until the end). According to "The Straight Dope's" Cecil Adams, it nearly brought on a plumbing catastrophe: "The resultant pressure drop caused a pronounced surge in the two huge tunnels that bring water into New York each day." And according to New York Magazine, classical radio stations across the country were inundated with requests for a Mozart piece called "Quintet for Clarinet and Strings, K 581" just after the show. The music figured into a poignant subplot where the snooty Major Charles Emerson Winchester II (David Ogden Stiers) teaches a group of Chinese prisoners of war how to play it.
* Each main characters exits the show in a different form of vehicle: Hawkeye in a helicopter, B.J. on a motorcycle, Col. Potter (Harry Morgan) on his horse, Charles in a garbage truck, Margaret in a Jeep, Father Mulcahy (William Christopher) in an ambulance, and Corporal Kinger (Jamie Farr) in the back of an oxcart.
* Klinger, Potter, and Mulcahy reunited in the CBS spinoff series AfterMASH, which lasted two seasons (1983-1985). In 1984, CBS aired a pilot called W*A*L*T*E*R about Radar (Gary Burghoff), the camp's original company clerk, but the show was not picked up.
* During the filming of the finale, the Smithsonian Institution requested that set pieces, props, and costumes be set aside for the Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. Later, the M*A*S*H exhibit broke so many attendance records that it was extended for six months, and a few items are still on display today. And if you go to Malibu Creek State Park, about 25 miles north of Los Angeles, you can touch a piece of TV history -a burned-out Jeep carcass from the old 4077th.
___________________The article above was reprinted with permission from Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader Tunes Into TV.
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