The relationship between the cast and writers of M*A*S*H was the show's secret sauce
The trust between the actors and writers was key to the success of the show.
Sure, there were actors on the set of M*A*S*H that had their problems, but one of the reasons that the show is so great is because you can really feel the love and appreciation that exists not only for the characters but also for the writing of the show itself.
Alan Alda explained in an Academy interview that on the first day the cast and crew began working on M*A*S*H together, Gene Reynolds established an interesting precedent that wasn’t heard of very often among writers. Alda explained that Reynolds told the cast, “‘Let’s go through the script from the first page and tell us what you have a problem with.’” Alda added, “I’d never seen that before and I don’t think it’s done much anywhere else.”
The open dialogue between actors and writers not only helped the process on set but also helped to make the actors better understand their characters, leading to a better performance. Of the discussions, Alda said, “By the time either the actor understood what the writer meant, or the writer worked on it until the actor could get it, you had the actor owning it in some way. The actor was into it. It was credible to the actor. So, you had much more believable behavior.”
Moreover, Alda also added that Larry Gelbart’s ability to step in and lend a hand to the cast whenever necessary certainly helped the process along. Of Gelbart, Alda said, “Whenever we had a problem [on set] he would come on a bicycle from his office and work on the line or the scene.”
It’s clear that Gelbart and Reynolds had a certain dedication to their actors, and that dedication certainly went both ways. Alda recalled a moment when he had noticed a typo in one scene of the script, and though he assumed it was an error, he still spoke the typo verbatim in the scene simply because Gelbart had written it that way. It wasn’t until he watched the rushes with Gelbart that Gelbart turned to him and questioned why he said it that way before realizing he had written a typo in the script. Alda said, “Larry turned to me, hurt, and he said, ‘Why did you say that?’ I said, ‘That’s what you wrote.’ He said, ‘No! That was a typo!’”
Alda explained his faith in Gelbart: “We so much didn’t want to veer from what he had written that I said typos!”