Alan Alda, known for his role as Captain Hawkeye Pierce on the ‘80s war dramedy series “M*A*S*H,” once opened up about shooting the series finale and how weird the experience was, considering that, what should have been an intimate moment, was being watched by over 300 reporters.
It’s been 36 years since the final episode of “M*A*S*H”—a series that followed the adventures and misadventures of a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital unit during the Korean War—aired on CBS.
Publicity photo of the cast of M*A*S*H shot just prior to the production of Season 2, 1974 | Photo: Wikimedia Commons Images
The finale set a record as the most-watched and highest-rated single TV series episode in US history.
However, while the episode marked the end of the series for the viewers, it wasn’t the same for the series’ cast.
The cast of M*A*S*H from Season 6, 1977 | Photo: Wikimedia Commons Images
Because of all the post-production work the 2-hour special required, they had to film that episode the summer before the premiere of the last season.
The real last episode shot was "As Time Goes By,” the one penultimately aired.
In November 2000, Alan Lada sat down with the Television Academy Foundation to talk about everything “M*A*S*H” related, including the shooting of that episode. Here’s what he said.
A WEIRD EXPERIENCE
The final episode the “M*A*S*H” cast filmed followed the members of the 4077 unit as they decided to bury a time capsule to commemorate their time on the war zone.
Alan and Robert Alda in 1975 in "M*A*S*H" | Photo: Wikimedia Commons Images
The very last scene was shot on a sound stage, and Alda recalled how everyone on set was emotional because they knew it was their last time filming together, but also recalls how uncomfortable they were with over 300 pairs of eyes on them.
He described the experience as “unnerving,” since there were many reporters from all over the country watching on the side while they filmed the scene.
Alda as Hawkeye Pierce in M*A*S*H, 1972 | Photo: Wikimedia Commons Images
As he explained:
“To have all these people off on the side while you’re playing a scene for the camera, was like having the whole audience in the wings while you’re playing the show for one critic or something. I mean, it was disorienting, you didn’t know where you were.”
Then, when they got the last shot and wrapped the filming, the reporters closed in on them to bombard them with thousands of questions. All while the cast hugged and shed tears while saying goodbye.
“We didn’t have the private moment that we had all been looking forward,” Alda lamented.
THE REAL TIME CAPSULE
In a “life imitates art” moment, one of the cast members suggested the cast should bury their own time capsule too. They all agreed, and a staff member dug a hole in the lot where they filmed most of the show’s exterior shots.
The actors placed items from their characters in a waterproof Red Cross medical box and left notes for whoever found it in the future.
But while they hoped for the box to remain a secret for at least 50 years, they didn’t count on 20th Century Fox selling the property when the box was located just a few months later.
Alan Alda attends the "Marriage Story" premiere at 57th New York Film Festival on October 04, 2019 | Photo: GettyImages
A construction worker found the box and called Alda, asking if he wanted it back, but Alan explained that the box was meant to be kept by whoever found it.
“I thought it would be fun for someone [to find it]. But it wasn’t even fun for this guy. He was like, ‘well, what do I do with this?’ I said, ‘well, I don’t know, it’s yours,’” Alda recalled in between laughs.
A REUNION 30 YEARS LATER
Earlier this year, the surviving cast members of the show, Loretta Swit, Mike Farrell, Gary Burgoff and Jamie Farr, reunited for a special episode of Alan Alda’s podcast, “Clear+Vivid,” and together they reminisced on their time on the show.
Loretta Swit, Mike Farrell, Burt Betcalfe, Alan Alda accept the Impact award for "M*A*S*H" onstage at the 7th Annual TV Land Awards held at Gibson Amphitheatre on April 19, 2009 | Photo: GettyImages
Although they weren’t able to reunite face to face because they’re all spread around the country, they used video and phone calls to make the reunion possible.
In the hour-long chat, they talked about the starks conditions of the set where they filmed the first seasons of the show and how Fox had little to no faith in the series doing well.
They also recalled their chats in between shots and how that comradery became essential for the success of “M*A*S*H.”
Alan Alda speaks during the film discussion of "Marriage Story" during the press conference at Walter Reade Theater on October 04, 2019 | Photo: GettyImages
It also came up in conversation the differences between working on TV back in the ‘80s in comparison to modern TV, where the technology gives writers and directors more freedom to scratch and re-do lines without waiting for approval.
That and more can be heard here.