Thursday, September 17, 2009

The truth about MASH

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From Dana King:

I stumbled across a cable show the other night that was about what a hell hole MASH was to work on, at least for the actors and crew. How McLean Stevenson actually left because he couldn't take it any more (And I always thought it was for HELLO, LARRY), and Wayne Rogers constantly battling with Fox and CBS. Without betraying confidences, how much of that is true, and how much is sour graping after the fact?

None of it is true. And it’s why I refuse to be interviewed for these shows. In order to get viewers they fabricate all this “inside dish”. Here are the facts.

Most of the MASH crew worked the entire eleven-year run of the show. If they were so miserable they would have bailed for other shows. The economy was actually good back then and there were other shows to go to.

McLean was frustrated playing a supporting role and was receiving all these offers to star in his own series. So he left but not before serving the length of his contract. When people are really unhappy they want out right NOW. That wasn’t the case. And I know McLean was devastated upon learning his character was being killed off. I imagine he thought there might be some way for him to guest on future episodes somewhere down the line.

Wayne Rogers was also frustrated. Hawkeye and Trapper were supposed to be equal characters (Wayne was actually hired first) but Alan emerged as the star. Don’t blame the producers. Blame America. Wayne went off seeking starring roles. He also had issues with the studio over certain deal points and objectionable clauses in his contract. There is another facet of Wayne and that is he's a brilliant businessman. His investments and financial endeavors have earned him far more than he was making as an actor – even on MASH.

Wayne still participates in MASH retrospectives and even said if he had known the show was going to stay on eleven years, “I probably would have kept my mouth shut and stayed put."

MASH was a very happy set. But if the documentary showed that for an hour no one would watch. Better to just keep showing Kristy McNicols having drug problems.

And Joe asks:

How can you tell (or at least improve your odds) when an actor or actress will devolve into a complete PITA?

By PITA I assume you mean monster and not the bread. When casting parts you try to do your homework. Ask people who have worked with the actor before. In television there’s a pretty good grapevine. Nightmarish behavior gets around at the speed of “Send”. So heed the actor’s reputation.

Sometimes you’re in a pickle because you know the actor can be difficult but they’re also brilliant and no one else is as perfect for the part. Then you have to make the “Is this person worth it?” decision… otherwise known as the “Mandy Patinkin” decision . Often times you make a Faustian deal with the devil. Lots of people got rich thanks to Brett Butler and GRACE UNDER FIRE but half of them are spending it all on 24-hour care at the drooling academy.

If the actor doesn’t have a reputation and you just meet them it’s very hard to tell if they’re going to become a major problem. Actors can be incredibly charming when they want to be. But that’s the result of good acting.

At this point, I need to make a distinction here. There is a big difference between an actor who is a pain in the ass and one is just high maintenance. The latter has a slower process but he’s genuinely working hard to give you the best possible performance on show night. The pain in the ass is a primadonna, unreliable, disruptive force who makes everyone’s life miserable, and worse, doesn’t give a shit. He's also a justification for waterboarding.

I must say however, that these bad seeds are very rare. The overwhelming majority of actors are fabulous people who treat those around them with respect and kindness. I have even had actors in my home.

What’s your question?


Nat G said...

And just to be anally retentive about it: MacLean wouldn't have been leaving M*A*S*H for Hello, Larry, as that wasn't his first series after leaving. In fact, it was his third.

WV: "shiess" - the female form of "she".

Larry said...

"The economy was actually good back then"?

Maybe for people working on a TV show, but, if I recall, the 70s had two horrible recessions, and by the end of the decade, there was stagflation--high unemployment and high inflation--which wasn't supposed to happen.

Pat said...

Second what Larry said ("Hello, Larry"). I got out of college in the spring of '80 with an honors degree and three years of pro radio experience. Had to work my way through college eating broken taco shells (25 cents a bag from Taco Inn) and house brand refried beans. Only job I could find was minimum wage record store clerk. This was supposed to be the worst recession since the '30s, but I'm living like a king now, compared to the late '70s economy.

Anonymous said...

Hi Ken-

I recently (this week) attended a taping of a new sitcom and noticed that several of the writers were not in their thirties, nor forties, but fifties, really. There were several young ones on staff, but I counted at least three middle aged, contributing writers on set. And by the way, I worked on a sitcom and know what to look for as far as identifying a working writer.

Can you provide any thoughts on the current television writing landscape and ageism?

Anonymous said...

A question for next Friday, perhaps:

I was in college in the 80s and had a friend at William and Mary who told a story about a classmate who wrote a spec script for M*A*S*H, submitted it and had it produced. This writer, the story went, wrote at least a few scripts while still a student at William and Mary, and eventually became a regular writer for M*A*S*H.

Is there any truth to this story, and if so is it something that could never happen now? I get the impression that it is much harder to get anyone to look at a spec script than this story made it sound.


Dana King said...

Thanks for answering my question, Ken. I'm not sure why that show bothered me like it did. Maybe I just liked the show so much I wanted to think those making it were enjoying themselves as much as I was.

Mitch said...

Great post! MASH is one of my favorite shows and it's good to know that the people in front of and behind the camera were good people that worked well together.

Timothy said...


I've just started reading your blog, and I'm back to mid-2007 so far, and I must say, it is absolutely wonderful to read the thoughts of the creative minds behind some of the shows that have provided me with hours of entertainment. I smile to myself when I am watching MASH on Hallmark channel and I see your name pop up on the end credits.

Since you so nicely asked what *my* questions were, here goes!

First, I'm a big fan of quality sit-coms, and often my first thoughts go to British shows (Royale Family, Fawtly Towers, anything with Steve Coogan in it). I've said all along that an American show has to go a long way to be as good as them, because writers/producers/actors have to create quadruple the amount of shows that they do in England.

It seems that the cable shows are drifting to this format, a smaller season, but one that can be crafted to a better finished product. I'd rather have 6 wonderful episodes of WEEDS than 22 episodes of hit-or-miss quality.

I'm not saying that there aren't shows that transcend this, but it's logical if you don't have to churn out as many shows, you can increase the quality. What's your take on that?

Second question (if you'll grant me!) is...and I'll kick myself, but I've forgotten my carefully thought out second question. Oh well, there is always another day!

Keep up the good work Ken!

Michael said...

I have read interviews in which McLean Stevenson talked about how 20th Century Fox treated them all in the early days, and it certainly is plausible that those objections led to better conditions. That said, I also think of Alan Alda telling how he and Larry Gelbart would drive home side-by-side in their cars, yelling ideas at each other through their windows. If you love what you do, you'll stick with it despite some setbacks.

cpreynolds said...

Ken, did you see the blog at Vanity Fair where they publish a speech by Larry Gelbart? Thought you'd enjoy as it's about writing.

Aaron Barnhart said...

Two actors who had a reputation for being easy to work with, to the point where it might have hurt their chances of getting better roles: Robert Urich and Ronald Reagan.

Anonymous said...

Great points, Ken. I have certainly worked for a diva, or two (no names) but I've also worked with some wonderful people.

Jonathan Stark

Joe said...

Incidentally, every once in a while Wayne Rogers pops up on CNBC. (As does Frank Bank, who played "Lumpy" on Leave It To Beaver, as both of them are in the financial whiz category.)

That's my trivia factoid du jour.

Kirk Jusko said...

I should have asked this while Larry Gelbart was still alive, but maybe you know the answer. Gelbart worked on the first four seasons of MASH. The character of Charles Winchester, played by David Ogden Stiers, debuted in the sixth season. I'm curious about what Gelbart thought about that character, and the actor who played him.

I remember reading once that when they closed down the last real-life MASH in Korea sometimes in the 1990s, both Larry Gelbart and David Odgen Stiers showed up for the closing ceremony. I thought that was kind of nice, as both men represented two different TV MASH eras.

chalmers13 said...

I think Larry Linville was at the closing of the last real Korean M*A*S*H unit. I've heard the producers say that he was one of those actors who was too decent a guy to make waves while his character was being written into a corner.

Kirk Jusko said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kirk Jusko said...

I saw an inteview where Larry Linville said that Frank Burns was basically a comic construct. Few actors made more out of a comic construct. Especially during his final season. He was hilarious.

AlaskaRay said...

KEN LEVINE SAID: "Most of the MASH crew worked the entire eleven-year run of the show. If they were so miserable they would have bailed for other shows. The economy was actually good back then and there were other shows to go to."

As an impartial observer, I can vouch for everything Ken said. He was kind enough to invite me to the MASH set on several occasions and they were a wonderful and friendly group who clearly enjoyed working together.


Max Clarke said...

Ted Danson was interviewed yesterday by Terry Gross for Fresh Air, I just caught the podcast.

It's a good interview, he gives Shelley Long a lot of credit for the success of Cheers, he felt he got the role of Sam Malone because he worked well with her in the audition, and he thought she was crucial in the first couple of years. Ted was working on developing that Sam Malone style of athlete's arrogance, but it didn't kick in for a couple of seasons.

blogward said...

Regular TV series, probably US ones more than UK, are very much written 'on the fly', as regular Ken fans will appreciate. Last-minute changes to accommodate actor problems or producer brain farts are very much the rule, as much today as ever. The point is that for all this to reach your screen, there has to be a teamwork ethos on set and location. If anybody's grandstanding, or being disruptive or over-demanding - or anybody in production just doesn't give a fuck - it marks the whole show. And contrariwise, no show gets to be a long-term hit without the majority of the people on it having the love of that show at heart. People in a show know when something is bigger than all of them put together.

cb said...

Jonathan Stark doesn't name names...but if you check the credits...well, let's just say, you might get a clue or two.

DwWashburn said...

My question is . . . did anyone on the MASH writing staff understand poker? I was always amazed when I watched scenes that included poker games. In one Charles was beating everyone in poker until they found out he had a tell. In the final scene, his tell shows that he's bluffing and EVERYONE calls him. Potter said "Can anyone or everyone beat (Charles's hand)?" Well EVERYONE can't win the pot so even though most of the people at the table knew the tell, they threw their money away.

Also in most scenes the pots had no relevance. Henry once counted out his remaining monthly pay and said "That leaves me $40 to play poker with." However the pots usually were announced to be in the hundreds. $40 would last him one hand, and only if they used the "table stakes" rule like they do in Vegas which few home games use.

Mike Barer said...

That was right about the time Farrah Fawcett and Suzanne Summers left their respective shows. It is rarely a good career move to walk out on a successful show.

gottacook said...

Which brings to mind a few more complicated cases:

Would Chevy Chase have had a more durable career if he'd not left Saturday Night Live so abruptly early in its second year? Five years later, or even 7 years later (National Lampoon's Vacation), it would have been possible to argue convincingly that he'd made a good decision - but for not much longer than that.

And also the converse, the case of David Caruso and NYPD Blue - who would have thought (after his roles in various underperforming features during 1995-2000) that he might eventually star in a series that has a chance of running as long as NYPD Blue did?

Kate Coe said...

A once asked Mick Taylor if he wished he'd stayed with the Stones. He told me that if he'd stayed, he'd be dead. Staying or going, sometimes the reasons aren't clear for many years.

mister muleboy said...

Ken -- you're a writer; please stop using the abominable often times.

[it was there somewhere near the hilarious Mandy Patinkin decision]

"often" is all about times, baby. And "often times" isn't a cute or quaint colloquialism; it's a symptom of modern prolixity.

PS Yes, I am a douchebag.

PPSS Yes, I write comments about free gift; indeed, I get a lot more animated in my objections.


Jen said...

Hi Ken,

I just watched one of my favourite Frasier episodes - "The Innkeepers." How difficult was that one to shoot, and did you get the car coming through the wall in one take?

comedy movies(us) said...

i like the comedy movies

LaNell Barrett said...

Any 'work' in acting leaves little if anything to WHINE about. Talk to anyone who REALLY works. IE plumbers, resraurant staff, barbers, ditch diggers, etc. etc. THOSE that WORK make up the majority of us out here. And we slave for a lot less money.