Sunday, 13 April 2014

Theme Time : Johnny Mandel & Mike Altman - M*A*S*H

Suicide Is Painless: The Theme from M*A*S*H is a song written by Johnny Mandel and Mike Altman and used as the theme for both the film and the TV adaptation of Richard Hooker's 1968 semi autobiographical novel about his time as a surgeon during the Korean War.


The song was required for a scene in the 1970 film which saw Ken Prymus' Private Seidman serenade the faux suicide of Private Waldowski played by John Schuck. The director, Robert Altman, had two stipulations for the song; that it must have the title Suicide is Painless and that it must be "the stupidest song ever written" Altman struggled to write the lyrics to match Mandel's music himself and so handed them over to his 14 year old son Mike, who is alleged to have wrote them in just five minutes. By 1980, Altman was to say that his son had earned more than a million US dollars for writing the song, whereas he had only made $70,000 for directing the film.

Donald Sutherland and Elliot Gould in the film as Hawkeye and Trapper


Following the success of the 1970 film, M*A*S*H transferred to TV in 1972 for a long running and both critically and commercially successful series which ultimately came to an end in 1983 - making the show three times longer than the actual Korean War it was set in! The final ever episode broke records at the time with a staggering 125 million viewers tuning in.

As a child, I grew up with the TV series thanks to the repeats on BBC2 throughout the 80s and early 90s. The great thing about watching it then was that, like show creators Larry Gelbart and Gene Reynolds original intention, it was screened without a laugh track ("just like the actual Korean War"  as Gelbart remarked) this was something that they failed to get in the US which broadcast all episodes with a laughter track, which became less intrusive and more subdued as the seasons went on.

In the last ten years or more I've become a big fan of Altman's film and struggled to find the respect I have for the TV series whenever I've returned to watching it, because unlike those original BBC broadcasts all the cable channels over here now who run the repeats include the annoying laugh track.



Only one actor transferred from film to TV, Gary Burghoff who played Cpl. Radar O'Reilly. In 1984, one year after M*A*S*H ended, Burghoff resurrected the character of Radar, albeit briefly, for a pilot entitled W*A*L*T*E*R which saw O'Reilly return from the war, drop the nickname of Radar and become a police officer in St Louis, Missouri. This was the third spin off from M*A*S*H, the others being AfterMASH, which ran for two seasons from 1983 to 1985 before being pulled, with one episode never having been broadcast. It reunited Harry Morgan (Col Potter) Jamie Farr (Klinger) and William Christopher (Father Mulcahy) at a veterans hospital after the war. It received the dubious honour of being ranked as the 7th worst TV series ever in 2002 by TV Guide. The most succesful spin off therefore was Trapper John, MD a medical drama which ran from 1979 to 1986. Set in San Fransisco a full twenty eight years after the event of M*A*S*H and the Korean War, it starred Pernell Roberts in the title role, making him the third actor to have played the character after Elliot Gould in the film (1970) and Wayne Rogers in the TV series (1972-1975)

The cast of the TV series including Alan Alda and Wayne Rogers as Hawkeye and Trapper


But back to the song...




Suicide is Painless finally made number one in the UK in May 1980. Having previously reached number 3 in the Dutch charts ten years earlier, off the back of the film, in 1970.



In 1992 the song would be covered by Welsh band Manic Street Preachers as a double A side charity single (alongside a cover of Bryan Adams Everything I Do, I Do It For You by The Fatima Mansions) for what was then known as The Spastics Society but is now known as Scope. 


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