Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Our most dramatic MASH

Here’s a question I’ve been asked numerous times:

MaryAn Batchellor wonders:

How did you come to write the Billfold Syndrome?

The Billfold Sydromee is an episode of MASH my partner David Isaacs and I wrote in 1978. It’s part of the 7th season if you want to find or rent a copy and watch it. And it’s probably airing right now on three cable channels.

Here’s the premise: A young medic arrives at the 4077th with amnesia. Psychiatrist Dr. Sidney Freedman is summoned, who (along with Hawkeye and B.J.’s help) hypnotize the young soldier to bring him back to the exact time and place he lost his memory. They recreate the battle complete with sounds and role playing. It’s maybe the most dramatic scene we’ve even written. I won’t spoil the ending should you not have seen it yet.

There’s also a subplot where Charles learns he’s been passed over for chief of thoracic surgery at Massachusetts General because he’s in Korea. In frustration he vows never to talk to anyone in the camp again, which of course is laying down the gauntlet for Hawk & Beej who then go to outlandish lengths to get him to talk.

A terrific actor – Kevin Geer played the young medic. Alan Alda directed masterfully, wringing every laugh and tear out of the script.

The title “Billfold Syndrome” is a psychiatric expression: Someone looks at his I.D. or billfold and can’t place himself.

This story came right out research. Larry Gelbart, Gene Reynolds, Burt Metcalfe, and then later me and David, interviewed doctors, nurses, corpsmen, soldiers – anyone who served in Korea. Most of the stories done on MASH were inspired from these interviews.

Because we knew it would be heavy subject matter we wanted to do a B-story that was comedic. We kept of file of notions and the Charles story seemed to fit the bill(fold).

David and I got together with a prominent Beverly Hills psychiatrist I knew and he walked us through the hypnosis process step-by-step. We used some of the doctor’s lines verbatim.

Hypnosis is such a tricky area. It can come off very sketchy. We all took great pains to treat it seriously and portray the scene accurately. Again, my thanks to Alan for directing that scene with such sensitivity.

It’s one of my favorite MASH episodes. As a comedy writer I’m often asked, “So can you write drama?” and I always point them to this. No, it’s not CSI:MIAMI but it’s all I got.

27 comments:

Anonymous said...

I loved the Dr. Sidney Freedman character. I wonder who wrote the line where Charles Winchester's sister's name, Honoria, was pronounced like gonorrhea. I'll never forget that line it was so funny. Julie

PolyWogg said...

I loved the actor playing Sidney, his mental, emotional, spiritual and intellectual separation from Hawkeye's antics throughout the series works perfectly. Regardless of the writing, I often felt it was one of the best castings of a character...it's hard to imagine another actor playing Sidney so perfectly. Even his face invites soft patient rebuke of Hawkeye dodging a question.

PolyWogg

Brian said...

I always loved when Alan Arbus would guest on the show - he had a calmness about him that made Sidney such a believable and effective psychiatrist.

This was a great episode, Ken. You and David should be proud!

The Time Machine said...

An amazing episode that I've never forgotten. Mahalo for sharing. :-)

Michael said...

Julie, according to an internet listing, Mitch Markowitz wrote it and Harry Morgan directed it. And "The Billfold Syndrome" is one of those MASH episodes I can't laugh without both laughing hysterically and crying.

Beth Ciotta said...

A brilliant episode. So much to admire. Appreciated the behind-the-scenes story, Ken, as well as a peek at the script!

Roger Owen Green said...

Great episode. Haven't seen it in years.

David said...

My 14 year-old daughter has discovered M*A*S*H reruns on TV Land and is now experiencing the whole series, as I did when it first aired. She's shown interest in film-making and writing so I'm delighted she's watching some of the best.

Ben Kubelsky said...

Friday question: I've heard that Alan Arbus was considered to join the cast full-time after Radar left. Why didn't this pan out? Are there other famous actors (either for a guest shot or for regular cast) you can tell us about that "slipped through your fingers"?

Harry Murphy said...

Fun Fact - Alan Arbus was married to photographer Diane Arbus.

wholeearthblog.com said...

Allan Arbus was brilliant as Dr. Sidney Freedman. He is probably my favorite character in the series. This episode is one of my favorite with Sidney (my absolute favorite being "Dear Sigmund").

I would also like to know the answer to Kubelsky's question. I have heard that Arbus was considered as a replacement for Radar. I think Arbus would have been a great fit in the show, but would M*A*S*H units have had psychiatrists on staff? I know accuracy was important to the show's producers and that might have been a reason adding Arbus to the cast was scrapped.

jason said...

Enjoyed the post, Ken, but I believe you intended to write Alan Alda was 'wringing' every laugh not 'ringing.' Unless, of course, he was walking around with a cow bell and getting laughs that way. Which is, now that I think of it, how the 'Green Acres' crew used to operate.

Anonymous said...

Interesting that you don't like to spoil your OWN work ;-)

Anonymous said...

Michael, Thanks! :) Julie

Chuck said...

This an episode where you and your partner took some really big risks and achieved a great result. I wonder how many executives would be comfortable green-lighting this episode today?

"Really? A psychiatrist hypnotizes a soldier? Do we really want to focus on mental illness? Couldn't we do a nice light episode about Hawkeye getting drunk and pulling a prank?"

I've always been drawn to MASH because so much of the comedy is drawn out of dramatic situations, which makes it all seem very real.

There were many ways that this episode could've missed the mark, and been viewed as cheesy or melodramatic. This was great writing meets great acting meets great directing.

Thanks for sharing -- and FYI you really cannot post too many MASH stories. We love them all.

BruceB said...

As Harry Murphy pointed out, Arbus was married to Diane Arbus. Actually they both were photographers. Allan was quite successful as a fashion photographer and Diane was his assistant. Then Diane felt the need to follow her own muse. Apparently Allan lost interest in photography soon after and followed his own muse into acting. A very fortunate decision, since he was amazing as Dr. Freedman. The face and voice reflected such patience and intellect.

Les Nessman said...

I really hated it when Gary B. left, but if they had added Arbus in his place, I would have taken Radar's absence a lot better. Nothing againstJamie Farr who got the lion's share of Radar's scenes, I would have preferred Mr. Arbus. He was also good later on in an episode of Brooklyn Bridge, a show no one remembes - except those who watched it.

Paul Duca said...

The movie FUR tells the story of Diane Arbus...I'll have to watch it.

Anonymous said...

How is it that you came to know a prominent (not ordinary) Beverly Hills psychiatrist?

Johnny Walker said...

Hey Ken, you've probably already seen this, but news today on Natalie Wood:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-19341547

WizarDru said...

Nearly 30 years later, I know exactly which episode we're discussing and remember that scene vividly. Like the best MASH episodes, it was both very funny and deeply moving.

You should be rightfully proud of it.

Anonymous said...

I looked up a large sampling of Diane Arbus' photographs. Intriguing to say the least. Some of her subjects resembled Roseanne Barr in pill box hats, and some just pull you in they are so bizarre and wonderful to look at. Julie

Michael Stoffel said...

Totally off topic, I was watching the episode about the bug out the other night....and wondering if Harry Morgan already rode horses, or learned for that role?

Kirk said...

Count me as another Allan Arbus fan. Didn't know he was married to Diane.

Michael said...

Michael, I believe Harry Morgan owned horses. Also, that bug-out episode is great, but I always thought it was strange that POTTER seemed not to know what a brothel was about but HUNNICUT did!

Kirk said...

@Michael--As I recall, it wasn't Potter, but Frank Burns who didn't know what a brothel was (or at least didn't recognize the various nicknames for one.)

Johnny Walker said...

Michael, Ken answers your question here:

http://kenlevine.blogspot.co.uk/2011/12/rip-harry-morgan.html