M*A*S*H pulled a lot of their plot lines from real life, though much of it was exaggerated for comedy. But the best line of the series, according to its co-creator, was taken directly from an actual Army doctor.
Larry Gelbart, who wrote and produced the beloved show, said he wishes he’d written the line, but he can’t take any credit for it. It comes at the next-to-last episode of season four called “The Interview,” which many critics consider one of the best 30-minutes in television history.
The episode actually came from desperation, Gelbart said. CBS asked for two more episodes that season, but the writers hadn’t prepared for that. They had to scramble to figure out what they would do to fill those shows.
“We just didn’t have any ideas,” the comedy legend told the Television Academy Foundation. “We didn’t know what to do for that 24th episode (that season.)”
But one of the writers remembered a CBS documentary called “See It Now.” In it, Edward R. Murrow goes to Korea to interview soldiers. M*A*S*H‘ producers figured they would try something similar.
Much of the show comes from improvisations from the cast, Gelbart said. He had an intern go to castmembers and ask them a series of questions as if they were combatants in the actual Korean conflict. He transcribed the answers and polished them into a script.
One of Father Mulcahy’s lines, however, wasn’t from actor William Christopher but an actual doctor in Korea.
What Was ‘M*A*S*H’s ‘Most Poignant Line’?
Gelbart had a line in his back pocket that he was saving for a special moment. He found that when they began working on “The Interview.” In the episode, real-life news reporter Clete Roberts asks Father Mulcahy ways life in a M*A*S*H unit has affected him.
“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 responds. “Could anyone look on that and not feel changed?”
The line remains one of the most memorable amongst the cast and crew, according to an oral history of the show.
“You can’t write that kind of line,” Gelbart recalled. “If you can, you’re a wonderful writer.”
It came from one of the doctors at the actual M*A*S*H unit in Korea that the show’s 4077th is based on. Producers and writers spent two weeks there following season two to gather real-life experiences from doctors and nurses in the field.
“It was invaluable,” Gelbart said of the trip.
Along with that line of dialogue, it also ended up being the inspiration for several episodes of the show, he said.