‘M*A*S*H’ Finale, 35 Years Later: Untold Stories of One of TV’s Most Important Shows (PART 4)
Pollock: The CBS correspondent who broadcast the final peace announcement from Panmunjom was Robert Pierpoint, who was still working at the network. I asked him if he had saved the tapes. He said when you’re running from foxhole to foxhole you can’t be juggling reel-to-reel tape. He thought, however, they shortwaved his reports directly back and said he would look. A few weeks later, we get the tapes. It turns out we can’t use them due to the quality. So, we transcribed it and Robert agreed to do them over.
Metcalfe: In camp, as a kid, we used stones to write out something. So, we used the white rocks from the pathway for B.J. to write goodbye, which of course Hawkeye sees when he gets into the helicopter and takes off. On a bigger note, it’s the show saying goodbye to the world.
Swit: A few episodes before, Margaret had borrowed a book of poems from Winchester. He got angry with me at one point and made me return it. In real life, we had this running gag. I would tease David all the time that no one had his private phone number. He was very much his own person, very reclusive in a way. So, in the final episode Winchester gives Margaret the book back. I open it and read the inscription. David had written his phone number inside. That’s my real emotion on camera.
The final episode set records for viewership, not to mention the most expensive kiss in TV history between Hawkeye and Margaret (based on length of time and the episode’s ad revenue per minute).
Pollock: That night we had a special showing for the staff on the lot, earlier than when it aired on TV. Afterward, we drove to our favorite restaurant in Westwood. On the way, we noticed there were no cars on the street. Everyone was home watching.
Metcalfe: In New York, the only people making money that night was pizza delivery. According to the utility commission, when the show ended, there was an enormous drop in the water pressure because people were flushing their toilets at the same time. The sheer weight of it totally surprised us.
Due to the amount of time required for postproduction, the two-hour finale was shot the summer before the premiere of the shortened last season. The real last episode shot was “As Time Goes By.” Hundreds of journalists and photographers from around the world waited outside stage 9 to capture the moment.
G.W. Bailey (Sgt. Luther Rizzo): They had 300 members of the press waiting outside, so they had us go say hello to them. Kelly and I were out there waving and she was shouting, “You’re the world press, so get the word out. We need jobs!” Someone from Fox heard us and cut us off and put us back inside.
Farrell: Swit put it so wonderfully. She said, “Every place I stood in a scene I realized I’d never be doing this again. Every person I had words with, I realized I may never have the opportunity to have this exchange again.” It was heartbreaking and thrilling because we knew we were wrapping up something we loved with people we all cherished.
M*A*S*H means different things to everyone involved in the show and at home. Most important, it means something that people hold dear to their hearts. Could such a show exist today? It’s a debatable point.
Reynolds: It could if intelligently and carefully done without being too silly or morose. But you have to get a guy like Alan, someone that has star quality and can be a comedian.
Alda: I think that’s almost an impossible question to answer. We were doing the show in a certain moment in time. The country is in some ways as divided now as it was then, but there were different currents in the culture then.
Swit: Years ago, someone commented on how M*A*S*H couldn’t be put together and sold today. So much has changed; TV, the whole concept of reality shows and the number of channels. We weren’t a military show and I don’t think I’d want to watch one about behind the lines in Afghanistan.
Alda: We’re all proud of what we did. The show was so remarkable that we all get asked about it all the time. Everybody includes it in every interview.
Burghoff: There are no adequate words to describe the honor I feel to have shared in the M*A*S*H experience.
Isaacs: I think it’s the most profound sitcom ever made. A lot of sitcoms deal with fear of embarrassment, shame, change or disclosure. Hardly any deal with fear of death and madness.
Levine: Everything about M*A*S*H is universal; the issues characters go through, the quest for humanity in the middle of this world of brutality. I think it’s something we as a culture will respond to forever.
Metcalfe: I’d like M*A*S*H to be remembered for its statement about war, though sadly we’ve learned nothing. It’s life. It’s not all perfect and hopefully never all that sad. That we could portray that is very gratifying.
Wilcox: It will be remembered for reasons people can’t articulate. It expresses things that are deeply sad and screamingly funny. We were probing areas that needed probing whether people knew it or not. Someone once said to a girlfriend of mine, “I don’t know what it is with M*A*S*H. I used to like it and now I can’t miss it.”
Swit: I’m going to paraphrase what someone wrote in a telegram when we ended the show. It said, “Dear M*A*S*H folk: You made me laugh. You made me cry. You made me feel. Thank you.” I’ve never forgotten that. That’s one hell of a legacy.
Recently Farrell caught up with the M*A*S*H family to share a story. In the process, he captured in a few short paragraphs what no writer outside the family circle ever could:
“For the first time in many years I returned to the Fox lot to work on a miniseries [FX’s American Crime Story]. On the second day, I was told to report to stage 10 and did. Once my work was completed for the day, I couldn’t resist the temptation to wander over to stage 9 to see what, if anything, being there would bring back for me. I have to say it was a magical couple of minutes. Pushing through the big door I stepped in and immediately traveled back almost 35 years. The sense of familiarity and warmth was so great I almost laughed aloud. I was overcome with memories. The smell of the place, the feelings that came to me, were completely comfortable, welcoming and embracing. Visions of all of you and so many more flooded over me. The jokes; the laughs; the deep, thoughtful conversations; the tricks; the clowning; the long days; and the good, hard, powerful work were all somehow still there. It was as though a vestige of everything we put into the show had somehow been imbued in the bones of the place. I think it has. And I am the luckiest actor in the world for having had the good fortune to be part of that company.”