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

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When it comes to TV theme songs, few are as famous as the title tune that graced the opening credits of both the feature film and TV series "M*A*S*H." But "Suicide Is Painless" is more than just a catchy song -- it's a theme with a great backstory.

[Related: 'M*A*S*H' finale: The inside story behind TV's most-watched episode]

As the show celebrates the 30th anniversary of its legendary finale, here's a look back at how this iconic intro came to be.

Robert Altman brought "M*A*S*H" to the big screen

In 1969, Robert Altman was hired to direct the big-screen version of "M*A*S*H," based on Richard Hooker's 1968 novel, "MASH: A Novel About Three Army Doctors." Although as many as a dozen other filmmakers reportedly turned down the job before him, Altman ultimately signed on to helm the dark comedy about "Hawkeye" Pierce, "Trapper" John McIntyre, and the other members of the Mobile Army Surgical Hospital during the Korean War.

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

Although a composer doesn't usually begin work until the start of postproduction, Altman brought in Johnny Mandel at the get-go. The two had collaborated on the movie "That Cold Day in the Park" and had established a friendship beyond their working relationship.

[Related: Where is the cast of 'M*A*S*H' now?]

Robert Altman asked for the "stupidest song ever written"

In addition to having Mandel write the entire original score for the film, Altman asked him to write the music for the scene known as "The Last Supper." As the action plays out, Capt. Walter "Painless Pole" Waldowski crawls into a casket to commit suicide as his 4077th cohorts feast on a da Vinci-esque dinner at a long table. It was up to Mandel to write a song that could be played on an acoustic guitar and sung by Ken Prymus, who played Private Seidman. And Altman gave him one guideline, as the composer revealed in an interview with Jazz Wax: "It's got to be the stupidest song ever written."

Initially, Altman took it upon himself to write the dumbed-down lyrics for the tune, but according to Mandel, he returned a few days later and confessed, "I'm sorry, but there's just too much stuff in this 45-year-old brain. I can't write anything nearly as stupid as what we need." Instead, he asked his 14-year-old son, Michael, to take a stab at some inane words that would then be put to music. According to some sources, the younger Altman cranked out the assignment in just five minutes.

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

"Suicide Is Painless" is a legendary success

Mike Altman's effort would prove to be a most fruitful burst of creativity. The song soon became the title track for the film. And when a small-screen adaptation came along in 1972, the tune served as the theme song for that as well. As Robert Altman told Johnny Carson during a "Tonight Show" interview in the '80s, he made only $70,000 for directing the feature-length version of "M*A*S*H." Thanks to residuals, though, his son had already seen more than $1 million in royalties at that point.

The tune has also received its fair share of accolades over the years. In 1988, the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers honored Mike Altman and Mandel with the ASCAP Award for Most Performed Feature Film Standards. And in 2004, "Suicide Is Painless" ranked 66th on the American Film Institute's 100 Years ... 100 Songs list. Plus there have been countless covers done of the track by everyone from easy-listening artist Ray Conniff to jazz pianist Bill Evans to shock rocker Marilyn Manson.

"Suicide Is Painless" lyrics:

Through early morning fog I see
Visions of the things to be
The pains that are withheld for me
I realize and I can see

That suicide is painless
It brings on many changes
And I can take or leave it if I please

The game of life is hard to play
I'm gonna lose it anyway
The losing card I'll someday lay
So this is all I have to say

Suicide is painless
It brings on many changes
And I can take or leave it if I please

The sword of time will pierce our skins
It doesn't hurt when it begins
But as it works its way on in
The pain grows stronger watch it grin

Suicide is painless
It brings on many changes
And I can take or leave it if I please

A brave man once requested me
To answer questions that are key
Is it to be or not to be
And I replied "Oh, why ask me?"

Suicide is painless
It brings on many changes
And I can take or leave it if I please

'Cause suicide is painless
It brings on many changes
And I can take or leave it if I please

And you can do the same thing if you please

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