Many fans and critics consider the season four finale of M*A*S*H, called “The Interview,” to be one of the finest half-hours of television ever made. But it came together completely by happenstance.
Series co-creator Larry Gelbart said CBS ordered 23 episodes for that season. But midway through the season, executives decided since the show was doing so well, they’d add two more episodes to the run, he told the Archive of American Television. Gelbart admits the writers had no idea of what to do.
That was until one writer came up with the idea of doing a fake Edward R. Murrow-style interview episode. But the way, how they would write the dialogue for much of that episode would be unique to the show’s normal style.
“Larry (Gelbart) gave us tape recorders and a set of questions, and we went off by ourselves and answered the questions in character into the tape,” Alan Alda told The Comic’s Comic. Then he took those tapes, sharpened them up, punched them up with some jokes, and made a script that we then learned. …We would be answering with answers that we’d already improvised. Then he would ask us questions we had never heard before with the cameras rolling, and that produced some of the most interesting results. Because you were speaking as the person, and it really counted, and stuff came out of us that we didn’t know was in us sometimes.”
M*A*S*H producers even brought in real-life war correspondent Clete Roberts to ask the cast the questions.
But not all of the answers were from the cast. There is one line, possibly the most famous from M*A*S*H, that came from an actual M*A*S*H trauma surgeon.
‘M*A*S*H’: How Can You Not Feel Changed By That?
Gelbart and some of the M*A*S*H writers wanted to know what life was actually like at an Army surgical outpost was like. So, they went to the 4077th M*A*S*H base, the one the show is based on. Producers and writers spent two weeks there following season two. They spoke with actual doctors and nurses stationed there about their lives.
Gelbart told the Archive of American Television that the experience was eye-opening. But it also netted one of the most memorable lines in the show’s run. It came from a trauma surgeon who was talking on how war changes a person.
“When the doctors cut into a patient and it’s cold, you know the way it is now, today — steam rises from the body, and the doctor will warm himself over the open wound,” he said. “Could anyone look on that and not feel changed?”
Gelbart gave the line to Father Mulcahy in “The Interview” episode.
“You can’t write that kind of line,” Gelbart recalled. “If you can, you’re a wonderful writer.”