The M*A*S*H casting director hatched this scheme to make sure McLean Stevenson got on the show
Plus: Mike Farrell was almost cast in M*A*S*H's pilot.
The M*A*S*H cast has long been revered as one of TV's most memorable ensembles. However, according to casting director Eddie Foy III – who notably cast the show's pilot – M*A*S*H never would've been as big as it was without that perfect cast. In fact, he confessed that at first, the TV show didn't even come close to the charm the movie had on the big screen. Foy told the Archive of American Television about his initial doubts trying to find the right folks to make up the 4077th:
"I never really thought the pilot had what the picture had, so we started getting some very good actors in, and all of a sudden, the pilot came alive because of the cast.”
Eventually standing among that original cast was McLean Stevenson, the actor who played Henry Blake, the easygoing commander of Hawkeye's unit who could often be found in a bucket hat covered in fishing barbs. But unlike others on the cast, Foy revealed that Stevenson didn't have a typical audition to land what would become his best-known role. In fact, it took quite a lot of finagling for the casting director to get the actor considered.
Foy said Stevenson's casting went down like this: The casting director really wanted Stevenson to join M*A*S*H, so he said he hatched a scheme to make sure to get him involved in the show. Foy said, "I remember McLean Stevenson, I got McLean to do [the show]. In fact, we snuck him in on a picture called Mr. and Mrs. Bo Jo Jones, where he played an eccentric minister, and we showed it to Gene Reynolds. He said, ‘I love the guy.’ And we did it purposely to get him onto M*A*S*H."
So rather than calling in Stevenson to audition, Foy went to the trouble to cast him in something else, just to prove he'd be a good fit on M*A*S*H.
And of course, Foy's scheme worked, and Stevenson joined Loretta Swit, Alan Alda, Gary Burghoff, Jamie Farr and the rest of the crew in that pilot episode, and it's all thanks to a teeny tiny part as a minister in a TV movie that married off Desi Arnaz Jr. to Christopher Norris.
M*A*S*H fans likely know that name, too. Norris has her own connection to M*A*S*H beyond being married by Stevenson in that 1971 TV movie. Norris later joined the cast of the M*A*S*H spin-off Trapper John, M.D., playing a nurse named Gloria "Ripples" Brancusi. We can't help but wonder if Mr. and Mrs. Bo Jo Jones served as her audition for that show, too?
Curiously enough, Foy revealed in his interview that there was one other person he wanted to get involved with M*A*S*H right from the pilot: an actor you might be familiar with named Mike Farrell. For the pilot, Farrell didn't make the cut, but we all know that he would eventually make it into M*A*S*H's ranks to become one of Hawkeye's greatest friends, B.J. Hunnicutt. Foy said, "Interestingly enough, I had always wanted Mike Farrell from the get-go for M*A*S*H." It's likely that Foy's suggestion of Farrell early on influenced the decision to introduce the M*A*S*H actor once Wayne Rogers left the show.
Can you imagine what M*A*S*H would've looked like with Farrell in it, right from the start? What about absent McLean Stevenson? It just goes to show that the M*A*S*H TV show owes a lot to the diligent casting of Eddie Foy III.
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When the show killed off Blake, my dad (who was an ultimate Fan of the show) actually cried. And I think it's because Blake put so much humanity into the role!!