''M*A*S*H's'' record breaking finale -- We remember the most-watched series episode now available on video

By Jess Cagle
Updated February 22, 1991 at 05:00 AM EST

The Feb. 28, 1983, episode began just like any other, with Johnny Mandel’s ”Suicide Is Painless” trumpet and flute theme. But this show ran for 2 1/2 hours, not half an hour, and the opening credits ended with the words, ”Goodbye, Farewell & Amen.” After 11 years — nearly four times as long as the Korean War that inspired it — CBS’ M*A*S*H was pulling out. No more would Hawkeye Pierce (Alan Alda) crack wise through his surgical mask to B.J. Hunnicutt (Mike Farrell) or set the eyes of Hot Lips Houlihan (Loretta Swit) rolling.

Americans sat back and soaked it all up: 50.2 million households bid a teary adieu to some of their favorite characters, making the last M*A*S*H the most-watched TV program in history. (The episode is now available on videotape as M*A*S*H: Goodbye, Farewell & Amen) If it took the Korean War to help set that record, it took another war to break it: President Bush’s Jan. 16 speech on the Persian Gulf attacks, carried by all three broadcast networks plus CNN, drew 71.5 million households. But the last M*A*S*H still hasn’t been topped by another series episode.

As M*A*S*H‘s final outing begins, the war is ending and Hawkeye is in a ”wacketeria” recovering from a nervous breakdown; he was on a bus in which a Korean peasant woman suffocated her noisy baby while hiding from an enemy patrol. Hawkeye snaps back, though, and returns to the unit just in time to give Hot Lips a good-bye smacker that lasts 35 seconds.

”It was a wonderful cap on their relationship,” recalls Swit, who is now touring in the one-woman play Shirley Valentine. She adds, ”Harry Morgan [Col. Sherman Potter] had to reshoot our good-bye because we both just collapsed. I said, ‘You dear, sweet man. I’ll never forget you.’ ” Jamie Farr, who made his Cpl. Max Klinger TV’s most famous — and probably hairiest — transvestite, remembers that the M*A*S*Hers had to work hard to hold their emotions in check. ”If we’d all let go, we would have never finished it,” he says.

M*A*S*H, based on Robert Altman’s lyrically cynical 1970 film, would flop if it premiered today, according to Entertainment Weekly’s TV critic, Ken Tucker. ”Even though it was set in the Korean War, the show’s strong antiwar stance reflected Vietnam-era sentiments, which are utterly at odds with the support-our-soldiers thinking of the current conflict,” Tucker says.

TIME CAPSULE: Feb. 28, 1983
Few TV viewers tune in to ABC’s movie, American Gigolo. But Patti Austin’s No. 1 hit, ”Baby, Come to Me,” has the nation humming. The top-selling books are James Michener’s Space and John Naisbitt’s Megatrends, while E.T., Gandhi, and Tootsie head the just-released list of nominees for Oscars.


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