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?
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.