The award-winning television show M*A*S*H debuted fifty years ago this coming Saturday, a war-comedy based on a movie, based on a book – which was based on the Korean War. The hit series would go on to garner 14 Emmy Awards across 11 seasons and 256 episodes.
Starring Alan Alda as Captain Benjamin Franklin “Hawkeye” Pierce as a star surgeon who cracked jokes almost every other line, the program featured a magnificently talented ensemble cast. The 4077-field army hospital had a little bit of everything – wisecracking doctors, wise colonels full of wisdom, uptight career officers, lots of gags including a company clerk in a dress in search of “Section 8” discharge – and weekly plot lines that could make you laugh and cry only minutes apart.
One of the ongoing storylines throughout the series were doctors in search of romance, which is a polite way of putting it. Wink, wink. Leading the charge was the aforementioned Captain Pierce, a lonely doctor from Maine who seemed to be searching for a female companion almost every week.
Ironically, at the time Alan Alda, who played Hawkeye, began the role on September 17, 1972, the actor had already been married in real life to his wife, Arlene, for sixteen years.
“Alan and I met for the first time in the spring of 1956 at the Upper West Side apartment of violist and conductor Bea Brown, a mutual friend,” said Arlene. “Alan had been invited, and I was playing informal chamber music there. Weeks later, Bea invited both of us to a small dinner party at her place. It wasn’t a fix-up.”
“Maybe not, but at dinner, Arlene laughed at my jokes, so that was a good sign,” Alan cut in with a smile.
When Alan went off to serve his (real-life) military commitment, Arlene went to Houston, where she became the assistant first clarinetist with the Houston Symphony.
Now married 65 years, Alan and Arlene Alda are still together – that rare Hollywood couple (who actually live in New York) who haven’t strayed and carry on devoted to one another through all the challenges of life. Back in 2019, Alan acknowledged that he was battling Parkinson’s Disease.
In the middle of his fame on M*A*S*H, an interviewer asked Alan if he was ever tempted to stray from his marriage given all the glamour and the sexual temptations of the entertainment industry.
“Why would I want to do that?” he asked incredulously.
“People make a promise to get married, stay married, live through thick and thin, and that when things get tough … a deal is a deal.”
But isn’t it a lot of work?
“It’s work,” Alda responded. It’s work to have an intimate relationship with somebody. But we shouldn’t be afraid to work. Work brings pleasure. The successful completion of work is wonderful. There’s nothing like the joy you get from being with someone you’ve worked through things with and who you’ve been with for many years.”
Over forty years later, Alan and Arlene carry on. What’s their secret?
“I have a very highfalutin notion about laughter,” Alan once told The New York Times. “I think when you laugh you make yourself momentarily vulnerable. Your defenses are not up, and if you can stay in a playful mood, where you are susceptible to laughter, your chances of being antagonistic with each other are lower.”
In the 106th episode of the program titled, “Hawkeye Get Your Gun,” Colonel Potter, played by Harry Morgan, orders Alda’s character to return fire on an enemy combatant.
“Look Colonel,” he responds. “I’ll heal their wounds, treat their wounds, bind their wounds, but I will not inflict their wounds.”
It would seem Alan and Arlene have enjoyed such a long and harmonious marriage because one, God has allowed it – and two, both have committed themselves to binding up one another’s wounds as needed.
There’s a lesson there for all of us and today, especially – that’s a story with a much-needed happy ending.
Photo from Shutterstock.