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 Family, M*A*S*H, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The 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.