Discuss: Could M*A*S*H Have Survived If Alan Alda Left?

20 Comments

Monday M*A*S*H Discussions offers fans the opportunity to offer their opinions on a wide variety of topics relating to M*A*S*H. Please share your thoughts and ideas in the comments section. My hope is these discussion posts will continue to elicit comments in the weeks and months after they’re initially published. Have a suggestion about something you think might be worth discussing? Let me know and maybe it will become my next Monday M*A*S*H Discussion topic.

Today’s topic: Could M*A*S*H have survived if Alan Alda left?

Farewell, Hawkeye?

M*A*S*H survived, and thrived, despite significant cast turnover. McLean Stevenson and Wayne Rogers departed after Season 3, Larry Linville left after Season 6 Season 5, and Gary Burghoff said farewell at the start of Season 8. Only two full cast members remained with the show from start to finish: Alan Alda and Loretta Swit. (Although Jamie Farr and William Christopher were around for all 11 seasons, Farr didn’t join the main cast until Season 4 and Christopher until Season 5.)

If Alan Alda had decided to leave M*A*S*H at some point during its run, could the show have survived? Or would viewers have stopped watching without Hawkeye at the 4077th? It’s impossible to know for sure, but it’s an intriguing thought experiment, in my opinion. M*A*S*H survived the loss of four cast members without huge problems but none of them were the de facto “star” of the show.

CBS didn’t promote Alan Alda as the “star” of M*A*S*H when the show began. M*A*S*H featured an ensemble cast. Alda received first billing in the opening credits but the show wasn’t built around him. Wayne Rogers felt his character and Alda’s character were supposed to be equals. But Hawkeye quickly became the focal point of most episodes, which is one of the reasons Rogers decided to leave.

Even as his character grew increasingly popular with viewers, Alan Alda was also working hard behind the scenes. He wrote his first episode during Season 1 (“The Longjohn Flap”) and directed his first episode during Season 2 (“Mail Call”). Beginning with Season 6, he also served as a creative consultant. Given these contributions, it’s hard to imagine M*A*S*H lasting as long as it did without Alda.

If he had left after its first season, it’s possible CBS would’ve cancelled M*A*S*H, rather than face the prospect of replacing the so-called “star” of a show with mediocre ratings. But what if he left after Season 2? Or Season 3? Assuming Rogers and Stevenson also left after Season 3, would Larry Gelbart have been able to figure out a way to replace three characters?

As I said, it’s impossible to say definitively whether or not M*A*S*H could’ve continued without Alan Alda. Realistically, I have to say the answer is probably not. His character was too important and his contributions as writer, director, and creative consultant played too large a role in the show’s continued success.

Hit the comments with your thoughts.

20 Replies to “Discuss: Could M*A*S*H Have Survived If Alan Alda Left?”

  1. My initial thinking is that no, M*A*S*H would not have survived with Alan Alda, because for all intents and purposes, he was the heartbeat of the show, and the glue that held that universe together: if he left, it would have all broken apart, and nobody would know how to put it back together.

    On the other hand, there is one exception to that rule: SANFORD AND SON did pretty well when Redd Foxx walked away from the show during a contract/salary dispute, and not only that, that season where he walked out, and they brought in Grady to substitute in Fred’s absence (while explaining Fred was in St. Louis attending a funeral), ironically was the highest-rated season of the show. So who knows? Maybe M*A*S*H could have survived. A lot of people find it unrealistic that Hawkeye was there for the duration anyway.

  2. He was so integral to the series that it is doubtful it would have survived. My question would be–How would MASH be looked at had the show only lasted three seasons?

    1. So, why not next week’s discussion question: How would MASH be regarded had the series lasted less than it’s original run? After season 3, maybe 5? Longer?

  3. First thought like everyone is no. Hawkeye was the heart of Mash. He was the one people in camp went to for help with an issue. However, Trapper staying instead and meeting B.J. is a good dynamic. Both of them against Frank along with Potter in command is a great chance to play a different angle. Trapper and B.J. were similar in temperament so to watch them deal with Frank in more subtle/clever/humorous ways is something that could have played out well. Hawkeye being there the entire length of the war was not realistic so a character change just refreshes things for the series.

    1. But do you think they would have gotten a Hunnicut type to replace Alda or someone more like the Hawkeye character? That’s an interesting spin you put on it, because under your scenario Trapper would in essence become Hawkeye in terms of driving the storylines. There’s so many ways this could be cut.

  4. I remember catching a part of some retrospective TV doc back in the early-2000s, I forget what exactly it was or what channel (might’ve been E!), but when M*A*S*H was brought up, it was specifically stated that the show would have never worked without Alan Alda’s Hawkeye Pierce. I’d imagine the catalyst for the statement was a look at all the cast changes the show weathered over the years, as you’d expect.

    Personally, I think if the show would have EVER worked without Hawkeye, the change would have had to have happened really early on, like in the first half of the first season. Even though it began finding its own voice pretty soon after the pilot, the original book and movie were still the obvious templates for those early installments, and it seems that some of the characters (and other related bits; i.e., catchphrases) from those sources could be a bit more expendable, especially as the series progressed. Spearchucker was dropped early, the Painless Pole was mentioned only once (in the relatively-unformed pilot, granted), and most tellingly, Duke Forrest, who was just as important as Hawkeye and Trapper in the book & movie, was MIA entirely. Furthermore, Ho-Jon and Ugly John, while there throughout the entire first year, were the “odd men out” as the season went on; they were gone by season two.

    (Conversely, Fr, Mulcahy was there from the start, but actually GREW in importance.)

    Now, obviously, the character of Hawkeye leaving would have been a bigger deal than any of that; heck, even in the novel and film, while certainly ensemble-based, Hawkeye was always the main (or “mainest”) character. Same goes for the early portion of season one. BUT, if he were to leave, it would have had to have been before Alan Alda became the de facto star of the show, and it seems to me that by the middle portion of the year, certainly by the time of “Sometimes You Hear the Bullet,” the show just wasn’t going to work without him. Prior to that, an emotional send-off *might* have flown, but afterwards, I can’t see M*A*S*H making it to a second season without Hawk.

    And of course, as Alan Alda gained more creative control of the show, forget it; there was no way M*A*S*H could go on without him.

    This reminds me of a discussion I had years ago on a MIAMI VICE forum. I know the two shows aren’t even remotely related, but hear me out because I’m going somewhere with this: The discussion entailed a hypothetical sixth season (had the show continued running into the 1989-1990 season and beyond) and the star if Don Johnson couldn’t be persuaded to stay. I forget what my viewpoint was then, but my viewpoint now is that I could see Philip Michael Thomas’ Tubbs stepping into the main role without them having to hire a new lead. A new partner could be added perhaps, but PMT taking the leadership role I could see working. (The music and fashions of the 1990s would have provided a fresh edge to the series as a whole too, IMO. But I digress.)

    ANYWAY, what I’m getting at is that, frankly, I just can’t see any of the main characters from any era of M*A*S*H filling that top-spot should Alda have left. Maybe, MAYBE early on Trapper could have stepped in to that lead role (maybe bring Duke Forrest in to play second fiddle), but after that? Hawkeye was clearly in the driver’s seat. And while they made it through the numerous cast changes over the years remarkably well, I just can’t see a new cast member stepping into that spot and working. Hawkeye was just too closely identified with M*A*S*H.

    Of course, this is all with the power of hindsight and looking at the series as a whole. Who knows how things would have played out in actuality. It’s interesting to think about though, if nothing else!

  5. Frank Burns left after Season 5, not after Season 6.

    I don’t think the show would’ve lasted long w/o Alda as Hawkeye, but I do enjoy “Temporary Duty”, the final-produced episode of Season 6, where he barely appeared.

  6. If Alda had left at any point, I think they would have gone forward with another season, but that the ratings of that season would drop so low, so fast, that they’d cancel the series after that, potentially even before the season was out. Possibly early on it could have been easier to deal with his departure, say after season 1, as that early they could maybe even recast him or introduce a new long term character, such as Duke from the book. By season 2 though really, and especially starting in season 4, it would have just been a death blow to the show, especially if Trapper and Blake had still left.

    Hawkeye is just too much of a staple on the show, and is really the glue that holds things together. Not to give less credit to characters like BJ, but I just don’t see them working without Hawkeye there.

    One could say that the writers would be allowed time to really focus on the other characters, since Hawkeye tends to take up at least 50% of each episode, but I still just don’t see it working. Having Margaret scream all the time, and BJ whine about missing home, and Charles wine about the camp being terrible, and Klinger/Mulcahy/etc. doing their thing just seems like it would feel kind of empty, meaningless, and pointless without Hawkeye there as the backbone of the show. And this is coming from someone who generally doesn’t like Hawkeye on the show.

    This all being said, AfterMASH did make it to a second season without Alda, but it took going to an entirely new setting and making an all new show to do it. It of course ultimately failed quickly.

  7. I am forced to agree with my esteemed colleagues. Alan Alda certainly does get a lot of grief for his raging egomania, but his importance to the show is absolutely critical. I will use an analogy from a completely different show to clarify:

    On the original Star Trek, William Shatner was known to be a serious attention-whore and hard-core egocentric bastard from time to time. In spite of this, however, the show & movies would have never made it as successfully as they did without his contribution. Even his most ardent critics admitted that the show would have never become even the tiniest bit as successful without his presence.

    In the same respect, Alda may be a self important SJW who was a little too convinced of his own brilliance, but that does not take away from the FACT that his presence was critical to the show’s success and popularity. Certainly, the show could have benefited from a more balanced portrayal of other characters, but it would never have become the cultural touchstone it is today without him.

      1. Hah yea, not sure SJW is what I’d use to describe Alan Alda, although that term is the ‘modern’ version for what Alda was/is.

      2. I suppose I might use that epithet a little too cavalierly. In fact, I can appreciate the frustration with the overuse of the SJW descriptor. I just thought it was a simpler one than to describe Alda as slightly-to-the-left-of Chuck Schumer. Alda has a brilliant streak but it is often tainted with an excessive stain of sanctimony.

      3. Haha I like that “slightly to the left of Chuck Schumer”. That’s pretty funny. At least he’s not slightly to the left of Nancy Pelosi, if that’s even possible. Not even sure what that would be.

  8. It’s interesting you bring this up because I was just thinking of the same thing, mostly in the context of the excellence of the writers to replace so many key characters and keep things rolling. However, I think Alda is the one person they couldn’t afford to lose and keep the show viable.

    I think it Alda had left after the 2nd season you definitely keep Rogers around for the duration and maybe Stevenson sticks around as invariably the lines would get spread around to everyone. That leads to another question in my mind, though. Would the show have gotten stale faster keeping most of the cast around?

    While I always thought the first three seasons to be superior to the final 8, I’ve always thought the injection of new storylines brought about by the departures of Rogers and Stevenson (and later Linville) allowed the show to keep going strong. As much as I liked the original cast, the history of TV is littered with great shows who ran out of stores to tell. So I think it wouldn’t have survived ed Alda leaving for reasons that may be different from what one would think.

  9. The show simply became all about Alan Alda. Second time watching reruns it became glaring to me. Good show, but once is enough.

  10. I remember people back in the day (when new episodes were still being aired) asking this question. The consensus was No. I agreed and still agree. I don’t think the show could have survived that.

  11. that question about alan alda why not leaving mash it’s very difficult to know! but i think alan alda have a great talented and he was so young! that’s why alan alda continue to mash! but that’s not reason! the reason is announced him as a new producer! because the old producer leaving series in season five he stayed five seasons between 1972-1976 and from 1976-1983 alan alda he was the new producer! i think it’s enough leaving the series mclean stevenson! wayne rogers! larry linville! and gary burghoff! but that’s the deal! continue of course with alan alda! harry morgan! william christopher! jamie farr! loretta swit! and mike farrell! of course and rest of actors!

  12. of course another reason why alan alda not leaving mash! is about his family! robert alda and antony alda! who played in this series!

  13. No. He was the show. I’m watching the first season right now and although Wayne thought they were supposed to be equal, they weren’t, right from the start. It all had to do with how Alan Alda played the character because in the movie, Trapper was the main character.

    I’m surprised that the series did so well after the first three seasons. I couldn’t stand B.J, and although Potter was a good fit, Henry was the best. It’s such a shame that McClean and Wayne left so early.

    It jumped the shark again when Margaret got married, when Frank left, when radar left. I couldn’t stand Winchester. I watched the later seasons as reruns but I quit watching the series when they killed Henry.

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