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‘M*A*S*H’ Turns 50

Stars Jamie Farr and Mike Farrell spill the secrets of the TV smash

Jamie Farr, Loretta Swit, David Ogden Stiers, Harry Morgan, Mike Farrell, Alan Alda, and William Christopher in publicity portrait for the film 'M*A*S*H', Circa 1978. (Photo by 20th Century-Fox TV/Getty Images)
20th Century-Fox TV/Getty Images

The new documentary M*A*S*H: When Television Changed Forever (Sept. 13, 9 p.m. ET,  Reelz) celebrates the 50th anniversary of the groundbreaking TV series with interviews with producers, historians, writers and cast members including Mike Farrell, a.k.a. Captain B.J. Hunnicutt, and Jamie Farr, a.k.a. Corporal Maxwell Q. Klinger. Farrell, 83, and Farr, 88, tell AARP about their memories of the iconic show, which aired for 11 seasons, earned more than 100 Emmy nominations and gathered 106 million people to tune into its unforgettable 1983 finale.

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Can you believe it’s been 50 years since M*A*S*H debuted?

Jamie Farr: Yes, I have some of the rewards [laughing]: macular degeneration, a hip replacement and a positive attitude.

Did you know at that time you were making history?

Farr: No, I was just happy to get a paycheck and pay my rent and buy groceries.

Mike Farrell: We knew we were having fun. We knew the show was popular but we had no idea until after the end that it had become a social phenomenon.

Farr: When M*A*S*H started on Sunday nights, it was almost canceled because we were on opposite the The Wonderful World of Disney. It was Mrs. Paley —  CBS chief Bill Paley’s wife — who liked the show and said, “Change it to another time.” They did and it became the greatest night in the history of television. The Saturday night lineup was All in the FamilyM*A*S*HThe Mary Tyler Moore ShowThe Bob Newhart Show and The Carol Burnett Show. Eventually M*A*S*H aired on almost every different night of the week. At one point, we were on Fridays [a lower-viewing night]. We went to Fred Silverman, head of programming, and said, “We don't deserve to be there.” He said, “You’re the crown jewel of our crown, where do you want to be?” We gave him the night and time and he said, “OK,” and he changed it for us. That’s how powerful the show was for the network.

Did your service time in the military impact how you saw your roles?

Farrell: Having been in the military gives you a certain awareness of the difference between acting and being there. I was in the Marines, and I always laugh about it because I lived in a tent in Okinawa and then got a job living in a tent purported to be in Korea.

Farr: I actually served in Korea and in Japan, I almost went to Okinawa — Mike, I don’t know if I ever told you that. I helped bring in Armed Forces Network television in Korea and served with Red Skelton entertaining the troops. The M*A*S*H set out at Malibu Creek State Park had the exact looks of Korea when I was there except one exception: They didn’t have any honeysuckle smells. But of course with my nose, I could smell Korea from Malibu. I even went to some M*A*S*H units when I was with Red Skelton. The M*A*S*H unit on the show was extremely accurate.

Did you keep any mementos from your character?Farrell: I have my boots and the sign in front of the swamp that says San Fransisco.

Farr: I have the fuzzy pink slippers. I have one of the Mud Hens [Klinger’s hometown Toledo baseball team] shirts I wore in the series. I had three. I gave one to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.; one hangs in center field where the Toledo Mud Hens play, and I kept one here. I wore my own dog tags on the series, so I still have those. Mike, I do believe I have my boots as well.

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Farrell: You can’t miss mine. 

Where do you keep them?

Farrell: On top of a bookshelf. Alan [Alda] used to call me “Bigfoot” [laughing] because I have big feet.

What size are they?

Farrell: Fourteen.

What do you know now that you didn’t when M*A*S*H was on the air?

Farrell: We left the show in ’83, so for all of us it’s been, what, 39 years. One of things I learned was from a man walking down the street after I did a telethon appearance in Green Bay, Wisconsin. I had a few minutes, and I went outside just to take a stroll. A man said to me, “How does it feel to have a relationship formed with millions and millions of people?” I’ll tell you, that’s something I will never forget.

Farr: I learned that I was one of the luckiest actors you can possibly imagine in this business. I had been around a while, always a day player. I could never get beyond that, and to wind up where you are noticed for a program that is so iconic and the highest-rated written script television show in history is very, very unique.

Did your time on M*A*S*H change you in any way?

Farrell: It opened doors that allowed me to travel the world and be welcomed. It doesn’t matter if it’s the most noble palace or the crudest hut, there is that welcome because what we were part of.

Farr: Loretta Swit and I have been doing a lot of these autograph conventions lately, and I have to tell you it is the most rewarding experience. Loretta and I walk out of there, they actually start crying — sometimes we start crying with them — telling you how much it meant to them, and how many people got into medicine because of the show. I never heard anyone say they became an actor from watching M*A*S*H, but they go into medicine, so it must have been pretty good acting.

Was there ever something you didn’t want to do that the showrunners wanted you to do on the show?

Farrell: They wrote a story based on research they had done with actual people in the M*A*S*H situation, about this pair of doctors that found a real gung-ho officer who was sending his kids out to get killed and was glorifying himself in the process. So the doctors took his appendix out even though he didn’t have appendicitis — just to get him off the line for a while. B.J. and Hawkeye decide they’re going to take this guy’s appendix out even though he’s perfectly healthy. I said B.J. wouldn’t do that. That’s against medical ethics. They said, “But it happened.” I said, “I’m not arguing that, I’m just saying B.J. wouldn’t do it.” So we talked about it for half an hour. Producer Burt Metcalfe said, “You know what, we got a better script here in this discussion than we do on this page.” So they changed it.

Farr: The one with me is that Klinger — as outlandish as he was — when he got an assignment he never let the 4077 down. They had an incident where this nurse had just gotten married and hadn’t spent any time with her husband, a soldier up at the line. I was on guard duty and the soldier came to our camp. He’s supposed to get into the tent where she is to spend her honeymoon. They had Klinger falling asleep. I said, “No,” because he wouldn’t do that. He would not fall asleep, that’s dereliction of duty. Instead I told them, have him be distracted, so Klinger has to leave that area he’s in, so the husband can get into the tent. They bought that.

Farrell: That was what was so great about the show. They understood that we understood the characters that we were creating. They had the class to listen and give us the dignity of understanding that we had invested parts of ourselves in these characters.

Farr: When we would have the first reading of the script around the table, the producers would say, “All right, are there any discussions about any of the pages?” It allowed the actors to voice their opinions. Head producer Gene Reynolds would listen to everybody, but he had the final say and he was usually very, very fair and very right.

Watch It: REELZ is available as a live linear network on DIRECTV channel 238, DISH Network channel 299, Verizon FiOS TV channel 692HD, AT&T U-verse channels 799/1799HD and Xfinity, Spectrum and many other cable systems nationwide. REELZ can also be found on Amazon Channels, Fire TV, Roku, Pluto TV, Tubi, Samsung Smart TV+, Vizio, Crackle, Xumo, Redbox and others.  Find REELZ in your area by visiting www.reelz.com.