My partner, David Isaacs and I wrote 19 episodes of MASH. I’m often asked which is my favorite and the answer is easy. POINT OF VIEW. It was from the 7th season when we were the show’s head writers.
We wanted to simulate the experience of being in a MASH unit as seen through the eyes of a wounded soldier. The viewer would be the soldier. We would see him get hit, transported by chopper, rushed to OR, recuperating in Post Op, mingling with the doctors and nurses, etc. The actors would talk directly into the camera.
We pitched the idea to our producer, Burt Melcalfe, telling him it would either be the best show of the season or a colossal embarrassment. But we wanted to shake things up. Larry Gelbart had so brilliantly done that a few years before with “The Interview”. We wanted our opportunity to tell a story a different way. To Burt’s credit, he gave us the okay. And this was back in the day when the creative staff of a series decided the show’s stories and direction, not the studio or network. (Allow me a moment of wistful reflection)
First off, though, we needed a story. On the surface it was simple. A soldier is injured, treated and saved by those lovable medicos at the 4077th. But what’s his injury? Where’s the suspense? And more importantly, how does he connect with our central characters?
We heard of a 1947 movie that used this first-person device called LADY IN THE LAKE. It was a Raymond Chandler mystery with Robert Montgomery as detective Philip Marlowe. Or, more accurately, Robert Montgomery’s voice. So we screened the movie. Holy shit! What we found was that when someone talked to Marlowe it was fine, but when Marlowe spoke the other actors had nothing to do but stare uncomfortably into the camera and try to react (this was not Jayne Meadow’s best work). It was sooooo dicey. Not to mention static, boring, and…well, downright creepy.
It seemed to us the key to making this device work was not having the soldier talk. And that sparked our story. What if the patient is hit in the throat? He can’t speak. He must undergo a series of tricky operations (the suspense) until finally he is able to utter only two words –
Now the story laid out pretty easily. We created a B story where Potter forgets his anniversary and the patient informs Hawkeye which leads to the resolution. That way the soldier is directly involved in the story. One of the show’s highlights for me was how masterful Harry Morgan played the scene in which he confided in the young soldier. Not a dry seat in the house!
We wanted to really utilize the visual, give the viewer a different perspective whenever possible. What did it look like actually being in the chopper, gazing down at the camp, being on a stretcher during the insanity of triage, being wheeled into OR? So much credit for the success of the episode goes to director, Charles Dubin. And remember, he had only three days to film this, not three weeks…or months. And this was 1978, before steady cams. I think D. W. Griffith used this camera to shoot BIRTH OF A NATION. It couldn’t have been heavier or more unwieldy.
The cast was marvelous, really rising to the occasion. It’s hard enough to relate to fellow actors, but to play highly emotional scenes looking directly into a camera has to be nearly impossible. Additionally, scenes all had to play out in one take. We couldn’t cut back and forth between characters and angles and takes. To this day I marvel at their skill.
Trivia note: We gave the patient the name Bobby Rich. Bobby is one of my dearest friends, currently hosting a morning radio show in Tucson.
When the show was completed we watched the finished product in a screening room. I was horrified. There was Radar’s giant head filling this huge screen, addressing all of us tiny ants in the theater. AAAAAAGH!!! As I sat in the dark, contemplating my next career, I wondered how I could reconcile the fact that I personally had destroyed MASH. How’s THAT going to look on my resume?
The show aired on a Monday night during November sweeps. I almost didn’t watch it. When it began I cringed. A few moments into it Radar appeared. And a strange thing happened. The show suddenly worked.
Seeing Radar’s head on a TV screen, the comparable size of most human beings (Only Barry Bonds has a head the size of Radar’s on the silver screen.) the audience was able to buy the conceit. I can’t tell you how relieved I was. By the act break I cancelled my 11 PM flight to Antarctica.
I look back at that show today with great pride. We were allowed to take risks. Encouraged to take risks. And even if the show had been the “GLEN OR GLENDA of television” that it appeared to be that dark day in the screening room, I would still be proud to be a part of it. To the cast and crew and everyone involved in POINT OF VIEW, all I can say is –
Tomorrow: the opening scene from POV.