As star of the landmark TV comedy “M*A*S*H,” Alan Alda played as big a role as anyone in transforming the acronym for Mobile Army Surgical Hospital into a pop-culture buzzword.
Thus, the actor best known as the wisecracking Army surgeon ”Hawkeye” Pierce was surprised, and a bit wistful, at learning Thursday the last real-life MASH unit had been decommissioned by the U.S. Army and handed over to Pakistan.
In keeping with the acerbic wit of his TV alter ego, Alda was ready with a wry suggestion for how he and former “M*A*S*H” castmates who portrayed doctors and nurses on the show might be of service to Pakistan’s newly owned field hospital.
“Before they hand it over, I hope they leave a phone number on the desk so they can call us in case (fugitive al Qaeda leader Osama) bin Laden drops in for a checkup.”
Ironically, the MASH unit became one of the U.S. military’s best-loved and most familiar institutions by way of a long-running CBS comedy series with strong anti-war overtones.
“M*A*S*H” was based on the 1970 Korean War movie satire directed by Robert Altman and adapted from a novel of the same name by a doctor who served in Korea. The series debuted in 1972 as America was embroiled in Vietnam.
It centered on the antics of Pierce and fellow medical personnel of the fictional 4077th MASH unit as they struggled to keep their sanity and save lives.
When not tending to waves of wounded GIs, Pierce and his pals passed the time playing practical jokes, canoodling with nurses and drinking to excess.
“I think the audience was aware that even when it was farcical, there was the sense that at some level this was about real experience,” Alda said in an interview with Reuters.
The setting of an Army field hospital was an ideal backdrop for a comedy exploring the absurdities of war and the extremes of human nature, he said.
“You had a group of people under a tremendous amount of pressure, and it wasn’t just the pressure of a difficult job,” he said. “Their lives were being threatened, they were trying to save the lives of other people, they couldn’t get out, and they couldn’t avoid one another’s idiosyncrasies.”
A far cry from the military sitcoms that came before it, like “McHale’s Navy” or “Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.,” “M*A*S*H” went beyond merely poking fun at Army life to deal with issues such as ethics and the morality of war.
But the show stayed true to a tradition long observed by comics who perform for members of the armed services -- officers were the chief butt of the jokes. In other words, Alda said, “It paid respect to the enlisted people, but the brass was always fair game.”
“M*A*S*H” ran for 11 years, far longer than the actual Korean War. The show’s 2 1/2-hour finale, which aired on Feb. 28, 1983, was a national event that still holds the record for the biggest U.S. audience ever to watch a single TV program.