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When it premiered on Sept. 17, 1972, M*A*S*H, the comedy-drama series following a team of American doctors and support staff stationed in South Korea during the Korean War, was a risky venture. Would its often dark humor connect with an audience divided over the real-life conflict in Vietnam?
Eleven seasons later, when its last episode aired, more than 100 million viewers tuned in, making it still the most-watched TV finale of all time.
"I'm not sure we ever knew what kind of impact it was having," Alan Alda, 86, who starred as Capt. Benjamin Franklin "Hawkeye" Pierce, tells PEOPLE in this week's issue.
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"It took a while to catch on, lingering near the bottom of the ratings for the first season," says the host of the Clear + Vivid podcast. "We got used to coming to work, doing the best shows we could and not worrying about the numbers. By the time that huge audience watched the last episode, we were kind of shocked."
In an email interview, Alda (who revealed he was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease in 2015) shared behind-the-scenes moments that still resonate with him and how he hopes the show will be remembered.
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What goes through your mind anytime someone mentions M*A*S*H?
Alda: Gratitude that what we did all those years ago is still on people's minds.
Does it feel like it's been 50 years?
No, it seems more like 100. It feels like it happened to a totally different person. Fortunately, though, this person still lets me live in his house.
Take us back to that first day on-set. What do you remember most?
After 10 days of rehearsal, I was standing behind the door of the aluminum building waiting to shoot the first scene of the first episode, and I still didn't feel like I knew how to play this character. He didn't seem anything like me. It was a silent shot. All I had to do was walk across the compound, but I wasn't convinced I could be this guy who drank too much, hit on women and was something of a smart aleck. When I heard, "Action!" I stepped out onto the compound and saw a nurse headed toward me. I'd never seen her before, but I made the instant decision that she and Hawkeye had some kind of relationship and gave her a little hug. She played along, we exchanged smiles and walked on. I had a little extra spring in my step. "Okay," I thought. "I'm him."
At what point did you realize your life was going to change?
I don't know, but it wasn't right away. Everybody was warning me that after the first episode aired, I'd have to get used to suddenly being known. So the day after the first show aired, I pulled up to the guardhouse at the entrance to the studio. The guard looked at me with no hint of recognition, even though I'd been seeing him there every morning for a month. "Name?" he asked. "Alan Alda," I said. He looked puzzled and said, "Alan Ogre?" When I got to the soundstage, I told Loretta [Swit] about my first moment of fame, and to this day she calls me Alan Ogre.
What were your favorite moments from the production?
The laughing and kidding as we sat for hours together between shots. We were pals.
If the series were to be rebooted, would you change or tweak anything?
I can't see how it could be. It was a lucky gathering of producers, directors, writers and actors that contributed both a sense of the times we were in and a critique of those times. For instance, Loretta campaigned hard to have her character not be seen as a one-note joke. When her character's name in the script went from "Hot Lips" to "Margaret," it was a reflection of how she succeeded in that. And in the scripts I wrote, I worked on giving Hawkeye the chance to have genuine relationships instead of the schoolboy skirt-chasing he started with. We weren't always successful, but we were on it.
Why do you think viewers were so drawn to the show?
I have a feeling that the audience may have sensed that we were aware that real people had lived through events like these and that we were trying to respect that.