It might be hard to believe that the first person cast for CBS’s sitcom “M*A*S*H” has a connection with director Robert Altman’s film.
Gary Burghoff, who played Cpl. Walter “Radar” O’Reilly in Altman’s 1970 movie “M*A*S*H,” was the first actor cast by show creator and executive producer Larry Gelbart. One might think Alan Alda, who played “Hawkeye” Pierce, or even Wayne Rogers, who played “Trapper John” McIntyre for a few seasons, would be first.
Nope. It was Burghoff. He played the right-hand man to both Col. Henry Blake, played by McLean Stevenson, and Col. Sherman Potter, played by Harry Morgan, on the show. “Radar” had a unique sense of timing as in when to enter the colonel’s office when someone was in there complaining.
Reportedly, Burghoff the actor was nothing like the kind, caring role he portrayed on TV. He was known to be difficult, rude, and someone who didn’t get along with the show’s other cast members. “M*A*S*H” fans, there are moments where art does not imitate life at all.
‘M*A*S*H’ Star Alda Said ‘Yes to Everything’ in Early Days
Speaking of art, Alan Alda didn’t shy away from accepting work. He remembers in the early days of his acting career that he pretty much said “yes to everything” tossed in his direction.
NPR interviewed Alda about the salad days of his career. Interviewer Terry Gross said most actors in the 1950s and ’60s played in any production of Frank Loesser’s “Guys and Dolls.”
“When I was a young, out-of-work actor, only about six or seven years after I stood in the wings watching them do it every day, every week, I got a call,” Alda said. “A little theater in Illinois was doing it and, would I come out there and do it? Did I know the show and did I know the part? And I said, of course, I do. You know, when you’re an out-of-work actor, you say yes to everything.”
What part did Alda play? Sky Masterson. Why is this interesting? Well, Alan Alda’s father Robert Alda was the original Sky Masterson on Broadway. Yes, before Marlon Brando played him in the 1955 film version, Robert Alda debuted the role himself.
That’s quite a turn of events for Alan Alda, who managed to overcome nerves and stage fright to perform in “Guys and Dolls.”
Two Cast Members Actually Served in U.S. Army
Alda and co-star Jamie Farr, who played Cpl. Max Klinger, served in the U.S. Army during the Korean War.
They did their military service after the 1953 cease-fire was declared. Farr’s first place of service was at Camp Drake in Japan before going off to South Korea.
“Fifteen years before I played the fictional Corporal Max Klinger on the long-running TV series ‘M*A*S*H’, I was a real Soldier in the U.S. Army,” Farr said. “Just like Klinger, I was drafted. But I wore a regulation uniform, not a dress, and I served two years on active duty and six in the Army Reserve without trying to get a Section 8 discharge.”
Alda volunteered with the Army Reserve. He spent six months in South Korea as a gunnery officer. Most of the time, Alda spent giving out dinners to soldiers at the mess hall. What he saw in the interactions with his fellow soldiers has stayed with him throughout his life.
He didn’t forget about it, either, when he started having input about “M*A*S*H” episodes. If you remember, the show actually had a lot of comedic moments yet also shared real-life situations.