Ken Levine and David Isaacs were dedicated television writers. So dedicated, in fact, that for the first episode of “M*A*S*H” they wrote – in which Hawkeye (Alan Alda) briefly goes blind – they walked around downtown Los Angeles with blindfolds on.
Here’s how it happened.
The writers really wanted to meet “M*A*S*H” showrunner Gene Reynolds’s approval. So they hatched a plot about Hawkeye losing his vision temporarily. (The episode in question is titled “Out of Sight, Out of Mind.”)
But they weren’t sure that what they had written was good enough. So they brought on a consultant who helped the blind. They wanted her to help them punch up the script to make it more authentic.
The consultant had a simple message for them: If you want to write authentically about blindness, try going without sight yourself.
‘M*A*S*H’ Writers Nearly Died Doing Experiment
So the consultant brought Levine and Isaacs to Beverly Glen Boulevard, which is one of the five main roads linking the west side of L.A. to the San Fernando Valley. It’s a very busy street. And she instructed them to walk the boulevard with blindfolds on.
“I can’t say how many times we were almost killed because I couldn’t see the cars,” Levine wrote of the experience in his blog. “But judging by the screeching brakes and horn blasts – fifteen.”
Their ordeal moved them to write a long speech for Hawkeye to deliver about his heightened other senses during that period of temporary blindness. But even with the harrowing experience of walking Beverly Glen blind under their belts, they struggled to perfect the speech.
“It took us FOREVER to write it,” Levine recounted. “Literally three days. We just kept revising and revising, looking for better examples and imagery, trying to be heartfelt and touching without being maudlin and cliché’d, and if possible, work in a small laugh. At times it was too long. Other times it was too short. We just kept going around and around until we were finally happy.”
Reynolds was thrilled with the result. And he gave them more and more assignments on “M*A*S*H” after that episode as a result.
Levine considers that speech the turning point in his and Isaacs’ careers. Still, he doesn’t recommend the approach they took for TV writers just starting out.
“You’re not going to get a lot of job offers if you’re dead,” Levine observed wryly.