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Interview: Jeff Maxwell and Dan Harrison on the 50th Anniversary Special of ‘M*A*S*H’

There is no doubt in anyone’s mind that M*A*S*H was a game-changing television show. Starring Alan Alda, Loretta Swit and William Christopher, the stories about the horrors of war combined with the characters’ funny misadventures captured the hearts of millions of people from 1972 until 1983.

Awards Radar had the opportunity of speaking with Jeff Maxwell, who played Pvt. Igor Straminsky over 83 episodes of the show, and Dan Harrison, a certified expert on M*A*S*H and its history. They discussed the show’s 50th Anniversary Special, as well as its legacy on television and their favorite anecdotes surrounding the program. You can find the whole interview below:

Awards Radar: Jeff, when you first worked on this show, did you believe you would be celebrating its 50th anniversary?

Jeff Maxwell: I did not. I didn’t even think about my 50th birthday, quite frankly. I didn’t think about that. It is a remarkable achievement that the show debuted on September 17th, 1972. And, holy moly, here we are, fifty years later. It’s stunning.

AR: Dan, did you read the book before watching the show or was it the other way around?

Dan Harrison: I became a fan of the show in the 70’s. It was precocious for my age…

JM: Dan, what you said just now made me nauseous, really. (laughs)

DH: I’m sorry, Jeff. (laughs). This was the era before the internet, so I think it is important to put that into context. I didn’t know who Larry Gelbert was, other than his name being on the funniest episodes of M*A*S*H. There was no easy way to get a list of credits and find out what his other accomplishments were. I just sent him a letter, which started a friendship which would last literally until the final days of his life.

That’s how I spoke to many of the writers of the show and I became sort of an unofficial historian of it. When I was young I saw the movie, we’re talking about renting VHS at the time. I actually went out and bought M*A*S*H and found a whole bunch of other books that were more poorly written sequels, that were ghostwritten. So I have most, if not all, of those books. M*A*S*H Goes to Las Vegas, M*A*S*H Goes to Vienna.

Those books were really taking advantage of the popularity of the television series. But the movie of course, stands on its own. It’s a classic directed by Robert Altman starring Elliott Gould and Donald Sutherland.

AR: Jeff, what is the biggest takeaway that M*A*S*H left you about war?

JM: Well…war isn’t good (laughs). I think I went into the show with an understanding that war was not good and it meant death, destruction, misery, and agony. When I got there, I watched the concept of war unfold to the eyes of the brilliant writers that were able to connect the tragedy and horror of war with comedy and a human of comedy that we all are as human beings. And that was really the genius of it.

You could laugh at it. But you were really laughing at the humanity and humor that we all have as people. And certainly nobody ever discounted the tragedy of war through that show. It always hung in the room. Watching operations going on, you knew what the heck you were doing. That’s what everybody was there for. To destroy each other. And the fact that they can do that and see the repair of human beings as comedy and as a sort of coat, that was amazing.

DH: I would just like to add. At the time, on television, you had war with shows like Hogan’s Heroes and McHale’s Navy. And Alan Alda wasn’t cast until the day before rehearsals were to begin for two reasons. One, he was shooting a television movie in Utah. He wasn’t quite able to have the creative discussions that he wanted to.

But he also wanted to get together with Gene Reynolds, the producer, and director. And also, Larry Gelbert, the producer, and writing genius behind the early years of M*A*S*H. They collectively agreed that this was not going to be another Hogan’s Heroes. It wasn’t gonna be Abbot and Costello Go To War. This was going to show the not so pretty underbelly of the war and use humor to make that digestible for television audiences, which was one of the many revolutionary things about M*A*S*H. That’s why he signed on literally at the eleventh hour.

AR: Dan, who is your favorite character from the show? You don’t have to make Jeff happy with your answer. Just be honest.

JM and DH: (both laugh)

JM: I’ll turn my head. Go ahead, it’s alright. (laughs).

DH: I think everybody wants to see a part of themselves in Hawkeye taking a stand and being quick both comically and intellectually, and being able to put themselves into those shoes. And also show some growth over eleven years.

I was fortunate because I’m sitting with you, right now, from the Twentieth Century Fox lot, where I’m an executive at Fox Entertainment. The television network, not the one that broadcast M*A*S*H. But I’m sitting at the studio where M*A*S*H was produced. This is where Jeff spent his time. I was fortunate, because when I was in college I was hired by Fox Syndication to work on marketing for the syndication of M*A*S*H. A great deal of my professional path has been illuminated because of this show.

JM: It is remarkable how impactful the show was and all of the cast members feel it and hear it from fans. Because fans come up and say “You changed my life. I was in the hospital and I was very upset, but when you came on the screen, I knew I was gonna laugh and I did”. These things go on and on and on. And it’s just remarkable.

M*A*S*H: When Television Changed Forever will air on Saturday, September 24th at 1 P.M. ET/ 10 A.M. PT


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Written by Diego Peralta

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