February 16, 2006

TV’s ‘Hawkeye’ Alan Alda salutes end of real MASH

By Steve Gorman

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - 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 for playing the wisecracking
Army surgeon "Hawkeye" Pierce was surprised, and a bit wistful,
at learning on 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
February 28, 1983, was a national event that still holds the
record for the biggest U.S. audience ever to watch a single TV