'M*A*S*H' finale 30th anniversary : The inside story behind the most-watched TV episode of all time

Yahoo TV

Consider these numbers as we celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Feb. 28, 1983, series finale of the classic military sitcom "M*A*S*H" today: The episode, "Goodbye, Farewell and Amen," drew nearly 106 million viewers. The population of the United States in 1983: 233 million, meaning close to half of the country was watching this TV event unfold.

[Related: Check out our 'M*A*S*H' infographic]

Today's top-rated broadcast network sitcoms, "The Big Bang Theory" and "Two and a Half Men," routinely attract millions of viewers each week, too. Tens of millions. Outside of a sporting event or live coverage of a national crisis, in fact, it's almost impossible to imagine that 100 million Americans will be tuned in to the same TV show at the same time ever again.

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Even series finales of other beloved, wildly popular comedies couldn't touch the "M*A*S*H" finale numbers. When Sam and Diane and the "Cheers" crew called it quits in 1993, 84 million viewers tuned in. And when Jerry and George and Kramer and Elaine said so long to primetime five years later, 76 million viewers watched. No other TV series finales have drawn even half the viewers that the "M*A*S*H" ender earned.

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"It was a phenomenon," "M*A*S*H" star Jamie Farr, who played the cross-dressing, Section 8-seeking, Toledo-loving Maxwell Klinger, tells Yahoo! TV. "It was a great show. It was well written, well directed, well acted, and well watched. And still well watched."

In anticipation of "M*A*S*H" leaving the airwaves, the New York Times reported, psychologists fretted about how saying goodbye and farewell to the show would affect fans. Local officials in some towns canceled evening meetings so that people could be home to watch the finale; this was in the early days of VCRs and, of course, long before DVRs. People threw "'M*A*S*H' bashes," reports the Times, and even before spoiler websites existed, the National Enquirer had published details about the mental breakdown of Hawkeye (Alan Alda) and the hearing loss of Father Mulcahy (William Christopher) before the finale aired.

[Related: Must-know 'M*A*S*H' trivia]

So many were tuned in to the two-and-a-half-hour "M*A*S*H" finale that, as Emmy, Golden Globe, Humanitas Prize, and Directors Guild of America award winner Alan Alda told TV Guide, "the next day, the papers said that so many people had flushed their toilets at the same moment during the commercials that the New York City water supply was seriously in trouble."

Alda, whose Dr. Benjamin Franklin "Hawkeye" Pierce shared a long-awaited kiss with nurse Margaret "Hot Lips" Houlihan (Loretta Swit) in the finale, joked that the 30-second smooch was one of the costliest kisses in TV history. A 1983 Time magazine story about the finale cited the cost of a 30-second commercial during the series ender at $450,000, so the Hawkeye/Hot Lips pucker-up was worth almost half a million dollars.

Watch the "M*A*S*H" finale promo:

"It was called the most expensive kiss ever on TV," Alda said. "So between that and nearly shutting down the New York City water supply, we made our mark on history." 

Not that "M*A*S*H," like fellow future sitcom classics "Seinfeld" and "Cheers," was an immediate hit. The show finished its first season in 46th place in the ratings (out of 84 shows), airing on Monday nights between "Anna and the King" and "The Sandy Duncan Show."

[Related: 'Cheers': Where are they now?]

But the comedy had a fan in Babe Paley, the wife of then-CBS honcho Bill Paley, and for its second season, "M*A*S*H" was moved to the popular Saturday-night lineup, where it followed "All in the Family" and preceded "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," "The Bob Newhart Show," and "The Carol Burnett Show." For the rest of its 11-season run, it finished outside the top 10 shows of the season just once.

Another fact that might surprise fans: The "M*A*S*H" series finale wasn't the last episode of the series that the cast and crew filmed. "As Time Goes By," which aired as the penultimate episode of the series, was filmed after the feature-length series finale installment.

Alda talks about filming the last episode:

And just as the characters did in "As Time Goes By," the show's cast got together and created a real "M*A*S*H" time capsule. Farr tells Yahoo! TV that each actor included not only a few favorite mementos from the set but also handwritten notes about the show and what it had meant to them.

"We were deluged with radio, newspapers, magazines, television, international television press. … There were over 400 people on the set when the director yelled, 'That's a cut, print it.' You couldn't even move around on Stage 9," Farr says. "So, it's the end of the series, and besides trying to do the show, besides trying to tell everybody how much we loved each other, I had this idea. I said, 'Why don't we do this, why don't we put a time capsule on the grounds of the 20th Century Fox lot? And we'll have Alan Alda's wife, who's a photographer, photograph it. We'll do it at midnight when nobody's around,'" says Farr. "I said, 'We'll put it in this waterproof container, and then after many years, we'll let everybody know that this time capsule was there, and they'll dig it up. It'll be a great story.'

[Related: The true story of the 'M*A*S*H' theme song, 'Suicide Is Painless']

"We did indeed do that, and we tried to find a place where we thought it would be the safest place that we could bury something, without the worry of renovation. We thought, how about right by the commissary? They're not going to touch that. So midnight, we came; somebody dug a big hole. We had a big ceremony. We had champagne. The whole thing was photographed. It was incredible. We were all excited. We can't wait -- 20, 30 years from now, we'll tell everybody. Shortly after we left the show and left the lot, they did do some renovating, and the first place they dug up was exactly where we buried this thing!"

Alda talks about shooting the time capsule scene:

And the capsule, which Farr describes as a waterproof metal container with, appropriately enough, a big red cross on it?

"The [construction worker who found it] didn't know what it was, so he just threw it away," says the actor, whose Klinger got married in the finale and starred in the "AfterMASH" spinoff series, which ran for two seasons. "That was the end of that story."

 

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