Larry Gelbart’s Words Were Sacred

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At least once during the first three seasons of M*A*S*H, the cast and crew filmed a scene even though members of the cast didn’t understand a line in the script. Why? Because what was written in the script was considered sacrosanct. The cast did not improvise or change a line without permission.

In his November 2000 interview with the Archive of American Television (now known as The Interviews: An Oral History of Television), Alan Alda told a story about delivering a line he didn’t understand. Here’s the video:

And here’s a transcript in case you can’t watch the video:

“We respected the words so much on M*A*S*H. And all of us had come from the theater. One day we were doing a scene out at the ranch. In the early days we didn’t even have a telephone out there because 20th Century Fox didn’t want to spend any money on us. They didn’t know if we’d be a hit or not.

So we were out there, you know, miles from anybody, didn’t have a phone, and we couldn’t get in touch with Larry Gelbart. And we needed to because Wayne Rogers and I were doing this scene and I had to say a line that didn’t make sense to me and it didn’t make sense to Wayne. And we thought, ‘What’ll we do? We can’t get in touch with Larry, we can’t change it without asking Larry’s permission.’ And then we both said, ‘Well, maybe it’s one of Larry’s jokes that we just don’t get.’ So I said it and tried to make as much sense of it as I could. But I didn’t know what it meant. But Larry had written it so I said it.

And the next day I was watching the rushes sitting next to Larry and this line comes up on the screen and Larry turned to me, hurt, and he said, ‘Why did you say that?’ I said, ‘That’s what you wrote!’ He said, ‘No, that was a typo.'”

We so much, you know, didn’t want to veer from what he had written that I even said typos. But later on we had a phone and could work those things out.”
Alan Alda – Archive of American Television Interview (2000)

Larry Gelbart later told a similiar story in a December 27th, 2002 post to the newsgroup:

The cast wasa [sic] extremely disciplined when it came to doing only the lines that were written for them. There was no improvisation, no unauthorized changing of dialogue.

Attending the dailies one day (the dailies being a screening of the film footage shot the day before), I heard Alda deliver the following line to another character:

“Close the nor.”

I turned to Alda and asked him why he said “nor” instead of “door,” since “nor[“] made absolutely no sense at all.

He said that “nor” was the word written in the script (part of some rewrite I had sent to the sound stage where they were filming the episode).

I said it was clearly a typo, that he should have said “door” instead of “nor,” that “nor” made no sense at all.

Alda’s reply: “We thought you meant something by it.”

The two stories are remarkably similiar but unfortunately neither of them identified the episode in question. It’s possible Alda and Gelbart were talking two different episodes. Alda states the incident took place out at the ranch while Gelbart remembers it happening on the sound stage.

A quick Google search found the phrase “close the door” in a handful of M*A*S*H episodes but I’ve only identified one episode in which Hawkeye said it. That would be “George” from Season 2. Hawkeye and Trapper are showering. Radar walks in and Hawkeye says, “Close the door, Radar.”

Can anyone think of other episodes in which Hawkeye used the phrase “close the door”?

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