BETHPAGE, N.Y., November 3, 2000 – As the tent flap went up on actress Sally Kellerman during the filming of Major “Hot Lips” O’Houlihan’s famously funny shower scene in M*A*S*H, director Robert Altman and co-star Gary Burghoff surprised the actress by dropping their pants at the same time, eliciting the genuine look of shock and chagrin that flashes across her face in that seminal moment. The stunt was an example of the unorthodox shooting methods of Robert Altman on the set of the landmark anti-war film, as detailed in BACKSTORY: M*A*S*H, premiering on Saturday, December 30 at 5:30 PM (ET) on AMERICAN MOVIE CLASSICS.
With this episode, BACKSTORY celebrates the 30th anniversary of M*A*S*H‘s 1970 release. Through interviews with Robert Altman, Donald Sutherland, Elliot Gould, Sally Kellerman, Tom Skeritt, 20th Century Fox executive Richard Zanuck and others, BACKSTORY: M*A*S*H offers an in-depth and humorous look at life about a Korean field hospital.
BACKSTORY: M*A*S*H is part of AMC’s unique new series that takes a provocative and in-depth look at the making of a classic movie. Stars, directors, producers and other Hollywood players provide revealing inside “backstories” about the events that affected each movie and its success and its stars.
Fifteen experienced directors turned down offers to helm M*A*S*H before Fox tapped Altman, a veteran television writer and director whose propensity for using improvised, overlapping dialogue and innovative camerawork had earned him both praise and pink slips. But his unruly approach seemed appropriate for the anti-establishment tone that had drawn screenwriter Ring Lardner Jr., producer Ingo Preminger and 20th Century Fox executive Richard Zanuck to the project. Lardner was first to discover the novel by Richard Hooker, a U.S. Army surgeon who had fictionalized his experiences during the Korean War. Having been blacklisted for 15 years, Lardner connected to the anti-authoritarian nature of the characters, who develop a bizarre sense of humor to deal with the awful reality of their lives in a wartime field hospital. Altman also felt a personal connection to the material. He had been developing his own anti-war script, “The Chicken and the Hawk,” and saw in M*A*S*H the chance to bring his own vision of military satire to the screen. That vision turned out to be very different from what his cast or Fox executives could have imagined.
Although Hollywood wasn’t interested in making an anti-Vietnam film at the height of the Vietnam War, Altman wanted audiences to associate the film with the escalating conflict in Southeast Asia, so he took all references to Korea out of the script. That wasn’t the only liberty he took with Lardner’s screenplay, much to the writer’s dismay. Altman wanted M*A*S*H to have a realistic, documentary feel, and cultivated an on-set atmosphere to encourage all-out improvisation. To bolster the realism, he cast unknown actors and actresses from a San Francisco theatre troupe. The cast lived together in a tent camp on set, and over the course of the shoot developed a camaraderie that translated onto the scene. But Lardner was increasingly frustrated that his script wasn’t being followed, that actors spoke over each other’s lines and made up their own dialogue.
Co-stars Sutherland, as Hawkeye Pierce, and Gould, as Trapper John McIntire, worried that Altman’s non-traditional shooting methods would derail their up-and-coming careers.
Fortunately for Altman, Fox executives hadn’t been paying a lot of attention to its $3.5 million independently produced film. But once Altman started editing, and they saw their first glimpses of the raw footage, they thought they had an incoherent bomb on their hands. They hadn’t expected the graphic realism of the gruesome surgery scenes, and Altman’s freewheeling shooting style had created continuity problems. From their vantage point, the film was a mess. Even Altman knew he would have a problem bringing the disjointed pieces together into a linear whole. But it was exactly that challenge that inspired the stroke of genius that makes M*A*S*H a true original: the use of the constant narration over the loudspeakers, which Altman took straight out of military manuals. When Fox previewed the film for an audience in San Francisco, it was an instant hit.
M*A*S*H was finally released in 1970, and audiences lined up to see it before the first reviews hit the newsstands. The cast, the crew and the studio were astounded at the word-of-mouth this irreverent and unconventional film generated. But an even bigger surprise lay in store when M*A*S*H took the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival and garnered five Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Editing, Best Screenplay and Best Supporting Actress for Kellerman’s performance as “Hot Lips.” In an ironic twist, only Lardner walked away with an Oscar