Ever wonder who all those nurses were running in the M*A*S*H opening credits?
It pays to be the fastest.
The individual shots of the M*A*S*H opening credits are ingrained in our mind. Two helicopters fly over mountains. A battered military ambulance speeds past tents. Soldiers run behind camouflage netting. A pack of nurses sprints towards the camera — their dog tag flapping against their uniforms, their hands holding their floppy hats on their heads as the choppers whip up a wind.
You've probably seen it countless times. At some point, you perhaps asked yourself — wait, who are those nurses exactly?
None of them are major characters. A couple of them show up in others episodes. One is only seen in this particular shot. For years, the identity of the frontrunner remained a mystery.
Let's take a look at their story. The moral of this story? It pays to be fast.
1. …and they're off!
First, let's examine the shot itself and its origins. The clip seen in the credits is the second half of the full shot. The first half can only be found in the opening moments of the second season episode "Sticky Wicket." Hawkeye, Radar, Trapper and Ugly John play cards. Radar's acute senses detect incoming choppers. As the helicopters arrive, the medical staff races to help the arriving wounded. Here were see our five familiar women bursting out of the "Nurses" tent.
2. Gwen Farrell
Let's take a look at the women, working left to right. Gwen Farrell can be seen in at least a dozen episodes of M*A*S*H, playing nurses of various names — Wilson, Baker, Able, Gwen, Butler. Here she is in "Springtime," answering Radar's medical questions about diseases.
3. Kathy Denny Fradella
Next, we come to the fastest and most mysterious of the running nurses. Her identity perplexed fans for ages. In 1978, a viewer in San Diego wrote into the "TV Talkbalk" column of The Los Angeles Times. "Can you tell us who she is? My husband is quite taken with her," the M*A*S*H fanatic asked. The newspaper replied: "Even 20th Century-Fox, where the series is filmed, doesn’t know. That opening sequence was filmed seven years ago when the series began. The studio had an “extra call,” with the union supplying several extras for nonspeaking roles in backgrounds scenes. Several girls were picked for that opening scene and instructed to run toward the cameras. After they were paid, that’s all they did that day." Fortunately, the mystery nurse saw the piece. She revealed herself to be Kathy Denny Fradella of Van Nuys, California. She wrote back and explained, "[The producer] lined up about 20 girls and we literally raced for the job. I had run in high school, so I was more than eager to compete." She burst ahead of the other extras every take — take after take. It helps to run those sprints!
4. Marcia Gelman
Gelman is blocked from view by the faster nurses in most of the shot, but we can see her distinctive hat. That hat helps us spot the extra in a couple episodes. Here, we see her very, very briefly in "The Sniper," when Frank tries to settle down an antsy, worried tent full of medics under fire.
5. Sheila Lauritsen
Lauritsen, second from the right, seems to be giving it her all in that sprint. She bites her lower lip and pumps her arms frantically. Perhaps that effort paid off, as the actress found the most screentime throughout the first two seasons. She pops up quite often as "Nurse Sheila." She particularly gets a lot of screen time hanging on the arm of Hawkeye at the bar during "Henry in Love." Blake briefly introduces her as either "Lt. Stern" or "Lt. Sterner." She also helps celebrate Frank's birthday in another episode.
6. Lori Noel
Finally, on the far right, we have Lori Noel. She was merely an extra huffing it for that one shot, holding on to her hat. Years later, she recalled the experience: "The piece of film in the credits was shot before the first program aired. The director picked several of us to run up the hill towards the fictional helicopter. I ran as hard as I could and was still nearly last. We had to shoot this scene five or six times. None of us received residuals — who knew it would still be aired after all these years." She did learn some valuable skills from the gig. M*A*S*H brought in a technical advisor to demonstrate using surgery tools. Noel was a natural, which earned her work passing instruments to surgeons on Marcus Welby, Emergecy! and The Bold Ones.