(WHTM) — Forty years ago, on February 28, 1983, a TV show ended its eleven-season run with a 2 1/2-hour finale entitled “Goodbye, Farewell and Amen. ” 106 million viewers tuned in, making it the most watched U.S. television broadcast ever for a regular primetime TV series. *
The TV series was M*A*S*H, which first premiered on CBS on September 17, 1972, and ran for 11 seasons. (Following its network run, it ran in syndication for many years here at abc27.) The TV series was based on the 1970 movie MASH, directed by Robert Altman, which in turn was based on the 1968 book MASH, A Novel About Three Army Doctors, by Richard Hooker.
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The book, movie, and TV series center on the doctors, nurses, and support personnel working at the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital during the Korean War, which ran from 1950 to 1953. Of the actors on the TV show, only four stayed through the entire series: Alan Alda, playing Dr. Benjamin “Hawkeye” Pierce, Loretta Swit, playing Head Nurse Margaret Houlihan, Jamie Farr, playing Maxwell Klinger, and William Christopher, playing Chaplain Father John Patrick Mulcahy.
The TV series took a lot of its cues from the movie but had to tone things down considerably for the tube. Suffice it to say the film earned its R rating, both for some of its operating room scenes, and its “sexual content”, some of which is really cringeworthy. (There’s good reason some of the tags on IMDB.com are “humiliation”, “sexual harassment” and “sexism”.) The TV show also used the theme music from the movie, “Suicide is Painless,” but dropped the problematical lyrics.
When the M*A*S*H first premiered in 1972, the Vietnam War was still going on. The show had a fine line to walk, but was able to slip a lot of commentary on the war under the guise of comedy. The showrunners showed a talent for dancing between yuk-yuk comedy and serious drama.
Then in Season Three they killed Henry Blake.
Lt. Colonel Henry Blake, portrayed by McLean Stevenson, was the commanding officer of the MASH unit for the first three seasons. When he decided to leave the show at the end of season three, the episode where he makes his departure, “Abyssinia, Henry,” is full of all sorts of sentimentality and humor. Then in the last scene, as everyone is in the operating room, company clerk and Blake’s right-hand man “Radar” O’Reilly, played by Gary Burghoff, comes in and announces Blake’s airplane got shot down, with no survivors. It was the first time an American TV comedy tragically killed off a departing character. There was shock, and no small amount of outrage from the public, but also praise for the show forcefully reminding people die in wars.
As the series progressed, it became less a comedy with dramatic moments, and more a drama leavened with comedy. Col. Blake, who was a bit of a buffoon, was replaced by Colonel Sherman Potter (Harry Morgan) a career army officer who knew how to use his authority, and when to let things slide. When Larry Linville, playing the inept doctor (and straw man in chief) Frank Burns, left the series at the end of season six, he was replaced by Dr. Charles Winchester III (David Ogden Stiers) who could be abrasive but was a crackerjack surgeon who would show unexpected kindness at unexpected times. Margaret Houlihan, who started the series as the “straw woman” counterpart to Burns, developed into a complex, likable individual. By the time the series came to an end, there were no one-dimensional characters in the main cast, and very few in the guest stars.
But by the eleventh season, with 256 episodes, and 14 Emmy Awards, the show was starting to run out of steam. New ideas were getting hard to come by. So they decided to wrap things up with their 2 1/2-hour final episode. The episode starts with Hawkeye in a psychiatric ward after suffering a nervous breakdown as a result of an emotional trauma, which is revealed over the course of the show. Each of the main characters prepares to go off on their own paths, some of them dealing with their own psychological or physical injuries. (The show even worked in an actual event; near the end of filming a brush fire burned down a lot of their outdoor set.) There is a party in the mess hall, where characters major and minor talk about what they will be doing at the end of the war.
And then everyone goes their separate ways, and the show is over. Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen.
*(NOTE: While “Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen” was the most watched episode of a TV series in America, it is the 13th most watched broadcast in the country. Preceding it on the list are ten Super Bowl games, Richard Nixon’s resignation speech, and, in the number one spot, the Apollo 11 Moon Landing on July 20, 1969).