The M*A*S*H finale is a watershed moment in television history. More than 106 million people watched members of the U.S. Army’s 4077th lift off from their makeshift landing pad and say goodbye to Korea. And it remains the most-watched scripted television episode of all time.
Sunday, Feb. 28, marks the 38th anniversary of that episode. Titled “Goodbye, Farwell and Amen,” it begins as the Korean conflict comes to an end.
Alan Alda, who played Hawkeye, co-wrote and directed the finale and said they wanted the show to end on a bittersweet note.
“I wanted to send everybody home having been wounded in some way by the war,” Alda told The Hollywood Reporter. [The finale] emphasized the seriousness of what Hawkeye had been through.”
CBS, however, wasn’t so sure they wanted to end the show at all. M*A*S*H was still a rating juggernaut in its 10th season when producers decided to end it. But the show’s production team felt it was the right time. They decided to finish the show the next year and began planning for it.
“We didn’t want to ride the horse downhill to get to the point when a studio exec pulls the plug on us,” Mike Farrell, who played B.J. Hunnicutt recalled.
Getting it right, however, wouldn’t be easy. The audience, studio, and producers all had different expectations for the finale. But they’d need to get it right.
“I remember (executive producer Burt) Metcalfe saying, “We’ve got to get this right. I don’t want to go out a punch-drunk fighter staggering around the ring,” M*A*S*H writer Elias Davis said.
‘M*A*S*H’ Finale Had Some Unexpected Repucussions
While everyone expected the show’s finale to draw a big audience, the size of it still boggles the mind. To put it into perspective, 106 million viewers was the largest audience for anything ever on television. That’s nearly half of the population of the United States in 1983. And the two-and-a-half-hour broadcast wasn’t topped until the Super Bowl in 2010 — 27 years later.
“In New York, the only people making money that night was pizza delivery,” executive producer Metcalfe told The Hollywood Reporter. “According to the utility commission, when the show ended, there was an enormous drop in the water pressure because people were flushing their toilets at the same time. The sheer weight of it totally surprised us.”
The cast and crew gathered to watch the finale together ahead of the broadcast.
“That night we had a special showing for the staff on the lot, earlier than when it aired on TV. Afterward, we drove to our favorite restaurant in Westwood. On the way, we noticed there were no cars on the street. Everyone was home watching,” writer David Pollock said.
And reviews of the finale were also glowing. Years later, it still receives mostly positive reviews. Noel Murray of the AV Club called it “beautifully bittersweet.”
“Still, few TV series have done a better job of closing up shop,” he wrote for the 35th anniversary. “… M*A*S*H always excelled at making its viewers appreciate real life’s sublime mundanity, as opposed to war’s misery.”
Making all of this even more impressive is that CBS nearly canceled the show after the first season, the Washington Post reported. The network was persuaded by the passion of the cast, crew, and the show’s fans. And thankfully so. M*A*S*H would go on to produce some of the most important and interesting moments in television for more than a decade.