Episode Spotlight: M*A*S*H — The Pilot

Every Monday, I spotlight a random episode of M*A*S*H, providing a brief review and asking readers to offer their thoughts.

“M*A*S*H — The Pilot” (#1, 01×01)
Originally Broadcast: Sunday, September 17th, 1972
Written by Larry Gelbart
Directed by Gene Reynolds

Capsule Summary: Hawkeye and Trapper need to raise money to send Ho-Jon to college in the States so they hold a raffle.

More has been written about the pilot episode of M*A*S*H than any other episode, with the possible exceptions of “Goodbye, Farewell and Amen” or “The Interview.” For some (but not all) M*A*S*H fans it was their first introduction to the series, its characters and its locales.

Sometimes I wish I could experience watching this episode without having seen any other episodes of M*A*S*H, to find out how good a job it did establishing the characters and their situations. It’s impossible to watch it without being influenced by later episodes but I think many of the characters are given just enough time to exhibit one or two traits that would be fleshed out later in the series.

We know that Hawkeye, for example, is obviously anti-authority and a skirt-chaser. Based on his reaction to the letter he receives from his wife, we see that Trapper is very open about cheating on her (in fact, some might say he seems a little cruel about it). Likewise, we know that Radar has some sort of power of precognition and that Colonel Blake isn’t usually a stickler for rules. And we can clearly tell that Frank and Margaret are in a relationship and that both are arrogant and like throw around their authority.

The least developed character in the pilot is Father Mulcahy, who doesn’t actually have any lines in the episode. George Morgan portrayed Father Mulcahy in the pilot and was replaced by William Christopher later in Season 1.

The plot is relatively simple, which for a pilot episode is a good idea. There’s a nice beginning, middle, and end to the episode, which revolves primarily around the raffle for Ho-Jon but later Hawkeye and Trapper nearly being arrested. For the most part it’s a silly episode but there’s a serious undertone involving wounded Canadians.

(Despite the success of the raffle, Ho-Jon didn’t leave for college immediately but stuck around the 4077th, perhaps waiting until the fall semester got underway.)

Finest Kind

“M*A*S*H — The Pilot” features a number of influences from the original novel. The basic plot is taken from the novel, as is Hawkeye’s catchphrase “finest kind” (used only once or twice after this episode). Hawkeye’s hat is a holdover from the film and may have been referenced in the novel. Trapper refers to Father Mulcahy as Red, short for Dago Red which was his nickname in the novel. And Hawkeye refers to “the Painless Pole” when counting raffle money, a character from the novel and the film.

The closing credits include an Executive Consultant credit for Ingo Preminger (producer of the 1969 film MASH) and a Based on the Novel by credit for Richard Hooker (who wrote the 1968 novel).

In a February 2001 post to the alt.tv.mash newsgroup, Larry Gelbart had this to say about influences from the novel and Preminger’s involvement:

I was constantly going back to the novel in the early days of the series, for story ideas, haracters [sic], language, phrases, etc. Less and less, obviously, as time went by.

Whatever Mr. Preminger’s billing (credit) was he truly had nothing whatsoever to do withg [sic] the series.

The pilot episode also includes a number of unique elements never seen again, including scenes before the opening credits, an extended opening credits sequence, and a library at the 4077th.

In January 2004, Larry Gelbart explained what the text “KOREA, 1950, a hundred years ago” displayed at the start of the episode meant:

I wrote the line to indicate how long ago the Korean War seemed in the minds of the American public.

Most of the minor supporting characters introduced in “M*A*S*H — The Pilot” would stay with the show for at least part of Season 1, including Ho-Jon, Spearchucker, Ugly John, and Leslie Scorch. Boone would reappear in three additional episodes, General Hammond in two, and Lt. Dish in just one. Ginger would remain with the series through Season 3.

Laura Miller is credited as Knocko (a character from the novel and the film) but I have no idea where in the episode the character appears.

19 Comments

  • Crabapple Cove says:

    My comment is not directly related to the pilot, but in comparing series changes from the film.
    I’ve always wondered why they changed the ‘chest cutter specialist’ (Trapper in the film version) to Hawkeye in the series. I don’t know which episode first referenced Hawkeye as the chest expert, but it was definitely established by “Dear Dad” when Col. Blake sends “Santa” Hawkeye to the foxhole instead of Trapper because “it is a chest case”. Does anyone know if the novel (which I have not read) makes mention of Hawkeye, Trapper (or any other doctor) as the chest specialist at the 4077th? I remember in the film version that Hawkeye insists that Henry requisition a chest cutter, which results in Trapper joining the unit.

    • Larry P. says:

      I believe prior to the TV series, Trapper was always the chest-cutter. I love the novel, but I haven’t read it recently (though I’m gearing up to drag it out again soon).

  • Larry P. says:

    I’ve been watching this one a lot lately, so I couldn’t be happier this is the episode up for discussion this week!

    Even though this is M*A*S*H at its most primitive, and it almost immediately started finding its own path afterwards, I still think this is a terrific, very funny start to the series. It’s clear what a huge influence the book and (more specifically) the movie had on this premiere, for obvious reasons. Indeed, this more than any other episode seems like it’s trying to be like the movie, albeit a watered-down-for-TV version of the movie. Still, unlike some eventually long-running shows, M*A*S*H was excellent right from the start (though, like any great show, it was relatively unformed in comparison to the subsequent seasons or even later in the first season).

    There are a lot of holdovers from the source material(s), including the, as RJ mentioned, usage of “Red” for Fr. Mulcahy, and of course “finest kind,” which I *think* was heard once or twice more in this first season, and last heard in “Dear Peggy,” albeit by BJ as he describes Hawkeye in his letter. (IIRC there’s also a request for Mulcahy’s “Cross Action,” something I think was last heard in the final episode of this first season; that’s another holdover from the book, where “Cross Action” is seen as a miracle caused by Mulcahy’s praying in regards to a patients well-being during surgery).

    Frank is much closer to the iteration of the character as seen in the movie; he’s self-righteous and a bumbler, as always, but not as neurotic and sniveling as he’d later become.

    There are a lot of laughs in this one. I love Margaret’s frustrated stomping when Hawkeye calls her Hotlips (to which Hawkeye and Dish stare curiously), Hawkeye’s initial recognition (or lack thereof) of Hammond, and I *really* love Hawkeye and Trapper’s simultaneous exclamation of “Hotlips!” when Hammond calls her by that name. There’s many very funny moments throughout, but those always especially get me.

    Something surprising I learned about the older (pre-MeTV) syndicated airings of this episode: for quite awhile I figured the regular syndicated opening credits were used after the initial CBS airing(s), but the original unique credits *did* pop up in syndication, at least from time-to-time. I have an old recording of a broadcast from Wisconsin that aired just prior to the finale in 1983, and it did indeed have the original opening credits sequence. (Something else about that broadcast: in this day and age of DVDs, new remastered syndicated airings, and so on, it’s easy to forget just how TRASHED some of those local broadcasts of M*A*S*H could look in decades past. This particular airing of the pilot is very scratchy, dirty, and in general just very ‘old’ looking.)

  • hrflyer says:

    I love this episode because of its raw feel and the ‘ensemble’ approach (ie. Hawkeye was not the main dog). I also liked it because Frank was not the caricature he would become later on. Here, he was insufferably self-righteous, but he was at least seen as a competent surgeon and a somewhat sympathetic character.

  • Larry P. says:

    I forgot to mention (and was happy to see that RJ noticed) the only real moment of seriousness in the episode: the wounded Canadians comment. It’s something that could be easy to miss amidst the otherwise comical plot. Even the operating scenes have wisecracks and so on (yeah, big surprise), but Hawkeye’s declaration that the Canadians “went to a different kind of party tonight” and Alan Alda’s delivery of the line is spot-on; it drives home the point that for all the screwing around at the 4077th, people are really dying out there. We all know how dramatic M*A*S*H became as the seasons progressed, but the seed was there right from the very beginning.

  • Dan says:

    Not much to add to RJ’s excellent article and everyone else’s comments, except one note re: Laura Miller as Knocko. If she is in the credits, she had a line (even if just one line) in the episode, and that was probably cut for time. If she didn’t have a line, she wouldn’t have received a credit.

    FWIW, I love the extended opening credits and wish they weren’t almost always cut for time… but happy they are on the DVDs.

  • Seoul City Sue says:

    The episode that started it all. The overall tone of the episode is much closer to the movie with the risque dialog and sequences. Hawkeye is also supposed to be engaged in this episode and there is no mention of that after this. Trapper’s look is different and the still that appears in this episode is very different from the one that appears in the rest of the show.

    The only bit that I didn’t understand is when Hammond calls Margaret ‘Hot Lips,’ Hawkeye and Trapper have a surprised look on their faces indicating they had never heard her being referred to as such before; but Hawkeye calls her that just one short scene before. Are they surprised that someone else calls her that or that their nickname for her is universally known??

    Why was George Morgan replaced after this episode?? Anyone know the story behind that.

    Good episode and starts the series off with a BANG!!

    • RJ says:

      I put together a salute to George Morgan back in May 2010 and discussed his replacement. According to Larry Gelbart, they wanted “someone who had a quirkier personality” for the Father Mulcahy role. That’s the only explanation I’ve ever come across.

    • Joe says:

      Hawkeye was never supposed to be engaged. They originally had him married (like he was in the book and the movie) and he was going to have a girlfriend in the camp. But they decide to make him single because with Trapper, Henry & Frank married and “fooling around” having Hawkeye doing it would be too much. “After all” they said “it’s a show about doctors, not adultery.”

  • Crabapple Cove says:

    I just re-watched the episode. Here are a few observations:

    — I love the way Hawkeye pats the top of the Swamp tent when he comes up with the idea of raffling a nurse (as if he were patting her bottom)
    — The episode clearly establishes Radar as the brains of the outfit, as Henry basically signs whatever Radar places in front of him.
    — The ‘mummification’ of Frank was hilarious and I must assume Burns has a mole or some other mark on his rear as Margaret recognizes him before giving the injection.
    — It did not occur to me in my dozens of previous viewings of this episode that it establishes the “letter home” concept right off the bat as we hear Hawkeye voicing a letter to his father while in OR.
    — the hilarious banter between Henry and pre-cognitive Radar is clearly established by this episode
    — Frank’s smashing of the (clearly different style) still provides a convenient explanation for the clear glass still that appears in all future episodes/seasons.

    • RJ says:

      I’ve always assumed Margaret’s reaction upon seeing Frank’s rear is due to the number of needle marks. Hawkeye wanted him sedated every hour, right? So he’d have an awful lot of needle marks.

  • The pilot episode (and finale) is always the most written-about episode of any show.

    Aside from that, I kind of wish the M*A*S*H pilot had more of a How We Got Here plot, much like how the GREEN ACRES pilot touched on how Oliver came to buy his farm in Hooterville; I would have liked to have seen when the various different doctors ended up being assigned to the 4077th and what their initial reactions to each other were and how they came to learn to put up with each other the way they do. But, oh well, the pilot’s still a good one, just random.

  • Joe says:

    I read somewhere that Klinger was originally going to be in the pilot, but just have a cameo appearance. Can anyone confirm this?
    If it’s true was the scene scripted then they decided not to do it? Or was it filmed but then cut from the episode? If so, why?

  • Dan says:

    Klinger was never supposed to be in the pilot. Gene Reynolds went to London, where Larry Gelbart was living/working at the time, and hired him. A little while later (probably 1-2 months) he checked in with Larry who said, “I just finished it.” He then sat down and wrote it. Klinger was an original character and would not have been in the pilot, given that, realisitically, there were too many characters in the pilot to service in the series (as we later learned) – Dish, Hammond, Spearchucker, etc. Duke Forrest had to go.

    As for whether or not this should have been a “premise” pilot (a la Green Acres), while it is very common to have a premise pilot, it is considered a weakness of a series to need one. The strength of MASH and the potential of MASH is shown by having a pilot – a standard episode that introduces everyone – rather than a premise pilot. Note that the first episode of the second season was meant to be a second pilot because of the switch of time periods and Gelbart/Reynolds’ correct assumption that there would be a lot of new viewers… hence, “Divided We Stand.”

    • Joe says:

      not to contradict you, but since I wrote that first post I read that he was and he looked so funny in a dress they decided to keep him on the show. Of course the web site I read it on could have been wrong.
      I read that the scene was: a general drives up in a jeep and stops and asks Klinger where the 4077th Mash is. Klinger tells him then skips away down the road.

  • Joe says:

    there was another line from the novel that R.J. didn’t mention: in the O.R. scene at the beginning Trapper says to Fr. Mulcahey “Hey Red, put in a fix over here!” “A fix” meant they wanted Mulcahey to give a patient the last rites.

  • Lady you ARE a Piece of Cornbread says:

    I always notice during the raffle scene after Hawk says the line about Dish’s sensuous claw, someone makes a happy moaning sound similar to Jim Backus’s Mr Magoo (The Oh sound in Oh,Magoo you’ve done it again.)

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