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''M*A*S*H'' star Alan Alda on life as Hawkeye

”M*A*S*H” veteran Alan Alda talks to EW about his decade-plus run playing Captain Benjamin Franklin ”Hawkeye” Pierce on one of the most celebrated comedies in history

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Alan Alda
Mark Mainz/Getty Images

From 1972 to 1983, Alan Alda (No. 30 on EW and TV Land’s list of the as top TV icons of all time) kept us in stitches as ”Hawkeye” Pierce, the skirt-chasing Army surgeon on M*A*S*H. Let’s pour ourselves a martini and get to know the man (who’s now 71 years old) behind the fatigues.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How do you feel when people describe you as TV icon?
ALAN ALDA: I think they’re talking about somebody else. It’s very nice that people put me on that list.

Is it gratifying to think that M*A*S*H has lasted?
It’s very interesting, isn’t it? It’s totally in the hands of the audience and the audience stays interested. And there’s still a gigantic audience for it. They put it on the air and people watch, even though times change.

Do you have any iconic moments that stick out in your mind?
Well, the night that the final episode was on the air, I don’t think any of us had had an experience like that. We knew that the show was very successful, but when we did the last shot, there were about 300 people from the press on the soundstage with us, with cameras and lights and recording machines. They were standing just off camera. It was almost impossible to act. You couldn’t concentrate with all these people watching. As soon as the final shot was over, they just swarmed in. That was an amazing experience. And then sometime later, when the final episode was shown on television [on Feb. 28, 1983], we watched it in a theater on a big screen at the studio — like a movie, without commercials. Afterward, we got in cars and went to a restaurant to celebrate. On the way to the restaurant, there was this eerie sensation because the streets were almost empty — this should’ve been rush hour — and we suddenly realized that everyone was home watching. The next day we realized that half the country — half the country — was watching at the same time. That was an extraordinary experience.

Do you have an episode or moment when the show solidified? I always think of the ”Tuttle” episode from season 1…
”Tuttle” was a terrific one. [Producer and frequent writer and director] Larry Gelbart used to feel we hit our stride with a show called ”Sometimes You Hear the Bullet.” I do know that in the very early days, shows were written by people who were on the outside. They didn’t know what we were able to do. Nobody quite knew what we were able to do except Larry Gelbart. And you know it took a full season to get an audience. Nobody watched it in the beginning. Today it would’ve been cancelled after the first week or during the first commercial. They have no patience.

Any other favorite episodes? I remember the episode ”Hawkeye” from season 4, where Hawkeye soliloquizes for most of the episode.
That was a hard one to shoot. We kept rewriting, and you have to remember a five-minute piece that you just changed eight times, and you don’t know which version you’re saying — we had to do take after take because I couldn’t remember. I also like all the shows in which we told the story in a different way, like ”Point of View” [from season 7] where the camera was the patient, or ”The Interview” [from season 4], which was in black and white and the only show we ever did that was improvised. I liked the ”Dreams” episode [from season 8]. A number of times, we did things that were really different and that made it fun for everybody and also gave us a chance to come at the story from a different angle. So I think as a result, the audience got an impression of M*A*S*H as a real place that they wouldn’t have gotten if they always saw it from one style of storytelling or one style of filming.

Do you have any TV icons you liked to watch?
Well, I always loved Sid Caesar and all the people on his program. And I used to watch Lucille Ball’s show before I’d go downtown and act on Broadway when I was in my 20s. I would benefit from watching her because she was so brilliant. Not that I would try to do an imitation of her — I just enjoyed her ability and her genuineness. I think there are probably very few people on this list that I haven’t gotten something from in one performance or another.