M*A*S*H stars describe their famous characters in their own words
Character notes from Hawkeye, Hot Lips and more.
M*A*S*H was a book first, a movie second, and a TV show perhaps the most memorably. For many fans, the television version of famous characters like Hawkeye Pierce and Radar O'Reilly is the one they remember most fondly, and that has a lot to do with the special way the show was written and performed.
On M*A*S*H, the line between actor and writer was so blurred that actors like Alan Alda and Mike Farrell actually became writers on set, pitching ideas that turned into real episodes they penned themselves. Farrell was nearly dumbfounded when he joined M*A*S*H and was asked his opinion, telling The Hollywood Reporter, "Gene [Reynolds] would take us through the script, page by page, to see if anyone had any questions or suggestions. I thought, these people want to hear from the actors about the script? Oh, my God, I'm in heaven."
If you asked Harry Morgan, the actor who played Col. Potter, the characters could even be left almost entirely up to the actor. He told the Archive of American Televison that when he was cast, "Oh they didn’t describe him much. I think they sort of left that up to me."
For this reason, we wanted to pause today to look back at what the actors who helped shape these iconic characters had to say about their onscreen personas. See how Alda, Morgan, Loretta Swit and other stars sum up their M*A*S*H counterparts below.
1. Alan Alda on Hawkeye
Hawkeye, summed up in one line: “He hated war and he hated death and he hated people dying if he could do something about it.”
Alda said, "He had a sharp wit. He was a little bit of a smart aleck. Took his surgery very seriously. He hated to see a patient die on him. He was competitive, about his surgery and about fighting death, and competitive in games. He liked to laugh. He had a good sense of humor. Could make a little fun of himself. Probably liked making fun of other people more. Really liked women a lot and had an old-fashioned idea about women, which women kept educating him about." (Archive of American Television)
2. Loretta Swit on Hot Lips
Hot Lips, summed up in one line: "She was the head nurse, and her ambition was to be the best damn nurse in Korea."
Swit said, "They would write wonderful, wonderful material for her. Having her father, a many-starred general, come and visit me, cast it with a fabulous actor Andy Duggan, and we would get to know her character through episodes like this where she was an only child, she was a girl. A general doesn’t want a girl. A general wants a guy, to follow in his footsteps. And so she was trying to be the soldier he didn’t have." (Archive of American Television)
3. Jamie Farr on Klinger
Klinger, summed up in one line: "He was many things, many times over."
Farr said, "He was a good soldier, and he never shirked his duty. You could always count on him, if he was given an assignment, to do it. And also what they did was they gave him different things [to become discharged from the army] besides wearing the dress. You know, try to eat his way out, where he’d gain weight, or try to sweat his way out, try to fly his way off with a hang glider. Tried to immolate himself with gasoline. He tried to convince the colonel that he was a gypsy … just wonderful things they’d come up with, that were silly but at the same time, were acceptable. He could get away with it. That’s what made him so much fun, because the writers and the actors always enjoyed whatever they were coming up with." (Archive of American Television)
4. Harry Morgan on Potter
Potter, summed up in one line: "He was a commanding officer, but a kind man."
Morgan said, "He was whimsical. Humorous."
"I think he was kinda sentimental. That’s not a character weakness, but probably an officer weakness."
"He was firm. He was a good officer, and he had a good sense of humor. I think it’s the best part I ever had." (Archive of American Television)
5. William Christopher on Father Mulcahy
Father Mulcahy, summed up in one line: "The character is pretty real to me."
Christopher said, "I actually, when I started out to play Mulcahy, I sought out a number of priests, and they wanted me to understand that to be a priest was first, to be a man, a real person. And I think over the long haul, we were able to stay away from stereotypes and make Mulcahy pretty complete as a person.” (History Nebraska)
6. Gary Burghoff on Radar
Radar, summed up in one line: "You needed a character where the experience of war registered on their face for the first time."
Burghoff said, "In this backdrop of this horrible war experience, a void was there. You needed a character where the experience of war registered on their face for the first time. Like a little kid, discovering something for the first time. You needed that."