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.