10 Fascinating Facts About Robert Altman’s ‘M*A*S*H’

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Nearly 50 years ago, a film came along that changed the course of cinema. It made its director, Robert Altman, a legend. It made its stars—Donald Sutherland, Elliott Gould, and Sally Kellerman (among others)—into icons. And, above all else, it set a new standard for what a studio film could be. Today, M*A*S*H is most often remembered as a TV series. But before that, it was a rebellious landmark in the history of filmmaking. So, to celebrate this astonishing cinematic achievement, here are 10 facts about M*A*S*H.

1. ROBERT ALTMAN GOT THE JOB AFTER MORE THAN A DOZEN OTHER DIRECTORS TURNED IT DOWN.

Robert Altman, who at the time had little feature film experience, was very interested in directing M*A*S*H, and made that clear to his agent, George Litto. Litto lobbied for Altman, but producers weren’t convinced. Then, after everyone from Sidney Lumet to Stanley Kubrick turned the movie down, Altman eventually got the job.

2. ELLIOTT GOULD GOT HIS PART ON REQUEST.

Elliott Gould was initially asked to play “Duke” Forrest, the Southern soldier who was eventually played by Tom Skerritt. Though he was interested in the film, Gould was worried that he would spend too much time focusing on his accent, and asked for a different role.

“I said ‘I’ve never questioned an offer, and I’m really delighted and flattered that you would ask me to work for you. But I’ll drive myself crazy validating me being an American Southerner,” Gould recalled. “I’m sure I can do it, but I mean I’m going to be so intense as far as how it’s going to sound.”

Gould ultimately expressed interest in the Trapper John role, and Altman gave it to him.

3. WE ALMOST HAD A DIFFERENT FATHER MULCAHY.

Altman fought for, and won, a number of things while making M*A*S*H, but apparently the casting of Father Mulcahy wasn’t one of them. According to actor and writer Malachy McCourt (the younger brother of Angela’s Ashes author Frank McCourt), he was the original choice for the part, because Altman wanted a “real Irish priest.” Producer Ingo Preminger didn’t agree, so the part ultimately went to Rene Auberjonois.

4. TWO OF THE FILM’S STARS TRIED TO GET ALTMAN FIRED.

Altman spent a lot of time during the making of M*A*S*H cultivating his ensemble, directing background extras and bit players to create a kind of mural effect. It worked in the end, but it also annoyed stars Donald Sutherland and Elliott Gould, who felt they weren’t being given enough attention by their director. Eventually, they approached producers in an attempt to get Altman fired from the film.

“Both Elliot and Donald went to the producers of the film and tried to have me fired,” Altman said. “They said ‘This guy is ruining our careers,’ and they said that ‘He’s spending all of his time talking with all of these extras and these bit players, and he’s not playing a lot of attention to us.’ It was kept from me. Had I known that, no question, I would have quit the picture. I couldn’t have gone on knowing that there were two actors that I was dealing with that felt that way.”

Gould eventually apologized to Altman, and they went on to make four more films together, including The Long Goodbye. According to Altman, he and Sutherland never spoke about the dispute.

5. ALTMAN’S SON MADE MORE MONEY FROM THE MOVIE THAN HE DID.

For the scene in which Walter “Painless Pole” Waldowski intends to commit suicide, Altman decided that a song called “Suicide Is Painless” was needed, and ultimately asked his son, Michael—who was an aspiring poet at the time—to compose the lyrics. After writing “like a hundred and twelve verses” that he felt were unusable, Michael Altman ultimately wrote the lyrics “in about 10 minutes.” Michael ended up with a 50 percent stake in the song (along with composer Johnny Mandel), while his father was only paid $75,000 to direct the film (with no share of the eventual profits). Michael estimates that he earned “close to $2 million,” thanks to the song’s continued use in the M*A*S*H television series.

6. THE INFAMOUS SHOWER SCENE NEEDED A FEW DISTRACTIONS.

For the scene in which the officers ambush “Hot Lips” (played by Sally Kellerman) so they can see her naked in the shower, Altman had to deploy a few distractions. Kellerman had never appeared nude onscreen before, and in early takes of the scene she was dropping to the ground before the point of the moment was even made clear. So Altman had to think of distractions to get her to pause before falling to the ground.

“When I looked up, there was Gary Burghoff stark naked standing in front of me,” Kellerman said. “The next take, [Altman] had Tamara Horrocks, she was the more amply endowed nurse, without her shirt on ... So I attribute my Academy Award nomination to the people who made my mouth hang open when I hit the deck.”

7. THE FILM SET A PRECEDENT FOR PROFANITY.

According to Altman, M*A*S*H was the first R-rated film to ever use the word “f*ck,” but apparently it wasn’t his idea. During second-unit shooting for the football game that comes near the end of the film, actor John Schuck was told to say something “really nasty” to his opponent. Schuck came up with “All right, bub, your f*cking head is coming right off,” and it made it into the film’s final cut.

8. THE FILM’S ONLY OSCAR WAS FOR A SCRIPT THAT BARELY APPEARS ONSCREEN.

The film’s script, by Ring Lardner, Jr., took plenty of liberties with the original Richard Hooker novel, but by the time Altman and the cast got their hands on it, things were even more warped. “If something occurred to us that seemed to work, we would do it,” Altman said.

As a result, the final film features very little of Lardner’s dialogue, to the point that Lardner apparently told Elliott Gould, “There’s not a word that I wrote on screen.”

Nevertheless, Lardner was given M*A*S*H’s only Oscar, for Best Adapted Screenplay.

9. A TEST SCREENING SAVED THE MOVIE.

According to George Litto, when studio executives first saw the film, they handed Altman “10 pages of notes for cuts and changes they wanted made,” then producer Ingo Preminger arranged a test screening in San Francisco. By the time Hawkeye was stealing the Jeep, the audience was openly applauding the film, and executive Richard Zanuck apparently said, “Tell Bob to forget about my notes.”

10. ROBERT ALTMAN HATED THE TV SHOW.

M*A*S*H was a huge success for Fox—so much so that it spawned a TV series based on the film, which ran for more than a decade. Despite the success of the franchise he helped create, Altman was never a fan of the series.

“I wouldn’t even mess around with that television series,” Altman said. “I mean, I’ve never seen one of those episodes all the way through—never seen one. I don’t like it, and I don’t like any of those people.”

Additional Sources:
Robert Altman: The Oral Biography, by Mitchell Zuckoff
Altman

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February 29, 2016 - 10:00am
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