Alan Alda and Mike Farrell’s competitive friendship altered the course of this memorable M*A*S*H episode

The stars' quarrel behind scenes bled into "Preventative Medicine."

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When Mike Farrell arrived on the M*A*S*H cast, he had big shoes to fill. His task? To craft a character who could compete with Wayne Rogers’ beloved, bygone Hawkeye sidekick, Trapper John. What resulted was B.J. Hunnicutt, a special latecomer to M*A*S*H whose friendship with Hawkeye is so poignant, it becomes the focal point of the series' final moments.

In his book Never Have Your Dog Stuffed: And Other Things I’ve Learned, Alan Alda reminisced about the competitive spirit that sparked the actors’ famed bromance: "When Wayne left the show, Farrell took his place in the tent and as someone I confided in. We had a physical rivalry as well, competing to see who could learn to stand on his hands first. He had studied judo in the Army, and as a pastime, every time I was called to set, he would walk behind me and see if he could trip me and make me fall down."

This joking around undoubtedly carried over into the onscreen chemistry between their characters. It likely also helped that both actors became so involved with their individual characters that they ultimately got involved in the writing of the show to maintain their integrity. As both actors grew closer to keeping M*A*S*H in line with their visions, occasional clashes would occur between the pals.

For Farrell, the most serious disagreement he had with Alda came over a particular script that found B.J. acting severely out of character.

The episode was called "Preventative Medicine" and it aired three seasons after Farrell joined the cast. Most fans know this episode well because it shared a similar plot with a favorite Trapper John episode from season 3, "White Gold."

In both episodes, unnecessary appendectomies are conducted on reckless Colonels, but while "White Gold" saw Hawkeye and Trapper John in cahoots in this more absurd premise, "Preventive Medicine" found Farrell putting his foot down, insisting B.J. would never go against the Hippocratic oath, heightening the tension in the camp both on and offscreen.

For his part, Farrell refused to do the episode as written, and not even Alda could convince him to bend B.J.’s sense of ethics, and the actors ended up on opposite sides of the argument behind the scenes. Coincidentally, in the end, the exact same thing would happen with their characters onscreen.

According to Dale Sherman’s M*A*S*H FAQ: Everything Left to Know About the Best Care Anywhere, "Farrell didn’t think a doctor should do such a thing and fought the production team on having B.J. assist in it. As it turns out, it moved the story to another level, and instead of simply copying the conclusion of another story, found Hawkeye and B.J. on opposite ends of a conflict, and giving them more to do."

After this experience, Sherman noted, "Farrell felt he could ask for changes and guide his character in ways that were not always evident from the writers’ point of view."

As for the friendship between Alda and Farrell after this tiny rift, Alda sets a scene that should set your mind at ease in his book: They reconciled, of course.

In fact, they even had their own makeshift clubhouse of sorts. Alda describes a shed that the cast unofficially claimed as their own. It was a place where things like bedpans and "bloody dummies" were kept between scenes and actors like Alda and Farrell could escape for a quick game of chess between shots.

Alda wrote, "When Mike Farrell wasn’t tripping me, we relaxed there between shots, playing chess. We shared the shed with stacks of bedpans and bloody dummies that were used on stretchers during triage. After a while, the place seemed a little depressing, so I had fresh flowers delivered every week. But apparently, we shared the shed with more than dummies. Every night the mice would come in, eat the chrysanthemums, and pee on our chessboard."

Pungent and poignant, Alda’s look back gives us a tiny peek behind the scenes inside the curious place where one of TV’s most beautiful friendships bloomed. Now you know, theirs is a friendship of ups and downs, of mice and chrysanthemums.

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Xsquid 26 months ago
B.J. Wasn’t there to fill Trapper’s shoes. He there for hawkeye to bounce his monologue off of. A fencepost would have worked.
FAC Xsquid 16 months ago
BJ was so much more than a fence post. He was a temporarily misassigned civilian who had a lifeline to Mill Valley.
RedSamRackham 55 months ago
B. J. never tried to be Trapper & Charles never tried to be Frank. Each actor created a new and different character. Also Colonel Potter was more of a father figure unlike Henry being 1 of the guys. ☺
Jenniferlynn329 57 months ago
I barely REMEMBER any jokes. I only remember the poignant moments.. like Blake bring announced dead because his plane was shot down. And the chicken (aka baby) psych episode. Ok, one funny spot: HotLips stabs Hawkeye in the buttcheek with the needle! But these blurbs are interesting to read about!!
CraigGustafson 58 months ago
There's a response to this article by Ken Levine, one of the writers of this episode.
bemibet 59 months ago
I've always thought that M*A*S*H was the one show that improved every time they replaced a character - Blake to Potter, Trapper to J.J., and especially Burns to Winchester. It was nice to see Hawkeye facing an equal in intelligence and ability instead of always being so much better than Frank Burns.
Wiseguy 59 months ago
It wasn't the character of B.J. I disliked, but the dialog he had to say starting with the seventh season. Everything he said had to be a stupid pun or some gripe against something. I blame the writers and directors more than the actor or the character.
Greg Wiseguy 59 months ago
Explains why the show ONLY lasted 8 more years after BJ joined the cast
Don 59 months ago
Alan's book got one thing wrong: Mike Farrell was not in the Army. He served in the U.S. Marine Corp.
Corey 59 months ago
The reason Wayne Rogers left is because he was tired of being Alan Alda's sidekick.
Greg Corey 59 months ago
Rogers was offered his own series by Stephen J Cannell productions as a P.I. set in the 1920s a very good show that suffered the fate of most period pieces.
Jenniferlynn329 Greg 57 months ago
Then poof! Another show offer. Trapper John MD. (I knew of it but too much hospital drama for a 10yr old.) Wish I could see those shows now, like Quincy, too. I'm all into ShondaLand shows like Grey's Anatomy, here in my 40s.
RedSamRackham Corey 55 months ago
* True! In Altman movie Hawkeye & Trapper were equals BUT the TV sitcom devolved into the Hawkeye show with Trapper being a mere sidekick. No wonder Wayne Rogers left right after McLean Stevenson. ♣
danpenc918 Jenniferlynn329 16 months ago
Wayne Rogers didn't star in Trapper John MD - the age difference was too much. Pernell Roberts took over the character there. Wayne Rogers was on "House Calls"
teire 59 months ago
I liked Trapper and Henry and BJ and Colonel Potter, the tone of the show certainly changed with the cast/character changes. Originally it was more like the movie, then it established its own tone and character. An interesting evolution.
Kristiemiller1969 59 months ago
I love M*A*S*H so much I have the entire series on DVD but I didn't really like it much until BJ and Colonel Potter arrived......there are a few episodes pre-BJ that I love such as "Carry On, Hawkeye" and "Deal Me Out" - which I absolutely love and it is absolutely hilarious but I love M*A*S*H more after BJ and Colonel Potter came on the show
They made it seems more like a military show, the former cast made it seem like a college frat party.
Elaine1Cox KathyMcKinny 57 months ago
Ya...gotta love Hawk having a breakdown every show and BJ crying bout his wife and kid every two seconds
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