A mish-`M*A*S*H' of input

Monday, June 26th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

The concept for "M*A*S*H" came about in a circuitous way, says creator Larry Gelbart.

It began with a novel credited to one Richard Hooker, a pseudonym for authors Dr. H. Richard Hornberger -- himself an Army Medical Corps veteran of the Korean War -- and William Heinz. "Hornberger took the name as a tribute to his golf swing," Gelbart says.

The book caught the attention of screenwriter Ring Lardner Jr. "He picked it up at an airport in England," Gelbart says. "He had served in Korea as a reporter for Stars and Stripes and was intrigued by the story. He called it to the attention of Ingo Preminger, brother of Otto (the legendary director), and they got the screen rights to it."

The film came out in 1970, directed by Robert Altman with Donald Sutherland and Elliott Gould in starring roles. "I saw it in England in 1971," Gelbart says. "I enjoyed it very much, but that was that. I didn't see myself connected with any other project involving it."

Meanwhile, William Self, then head of Twentieth Century Fox Television, saw potential in a TV adaptation. "He convinced CBS that there was merit in this. Bill then assigned the project to Gene Reynolds, an old friend of mine from California. He asked me if I would be interested in working on this and we both agreed that we would be involved, if we could sanitize it.

"That seemed essential to us," Gelbart says. "By then the country was in another undeclared war in Vietnam and we felt we wouldn't be doing anyone a service by just showing military high jinks. CBS said that was fine and would go any way we wanted."

The series, however, still seemed a long way from developing, especially since Gelbart was in London by then, producing and writing a short-lived ABC series, "The Marty Feldman Comedy Machine." "But Gene came over and we spent several days outlining a script. He then went back to the States and left me on my own.

"Well, you know how writers are," Gelbart says. "I let things slide. Then Gene called and asked me, `How's it going?' and I told him I had just mailed him the first script. I had actually written only one line. So, I got busy right away, wrote it in two days and, true to my word, I mailed it."

CBS liked what it got and suggested only a few minor revisions. "I had Hawkeye married and unfaithful," Gelbart says. "He would have been one of three characters like that, so we made him single. There were a few other things we did but I was used to writing quickly and we made the changes very quickly."

The show premiered in September 1972 and, after a shaky start in the ratings, caught on as one of America's most popular series, despite cast changes that included replacements of such key characters as Wayne Rogers' Trapper John, Larry Linville's Maj. Frank Burns and McLean Stevenson's Lt. Col. Henry Blake.

One other note -- "M*A*S*H" author Hornberger "didn't like the show particularly," Gelbart says. "He felt we were too liberal and he didn't like the fact that Henry Blake (the character played by Stevenson) was killed. He wrote several books after `M*A*S*H' with many of the same characters and in his stories Blake was still alive."