The teen boy who co-wrote the M*A*S*H theme song once got a response to his message in a bottle

What's more priceless, penning the lyrics to an iconic theme song or sending a message in a Seven-Up bottle that actually garners a response?

The first time we see Charles Winchester III in the M*A*S*H episode "The Smell of Music," he is playing a French horn poorly.

Careful and forgiving ears would recognize that the tune he’s playing is the M*A*S*H theme song "Suicide Is Painless," which audiences, of course, had just reheard when the episode started.

We’ve told you before that this iconic theme music has a sweet father-son backstory. But we’ll recap here just to get you up to speed.

When M*A*S*H movie director Robert Altman was working on the movie theme with composer Johnny Mandel, he had the song title already, and all he needed were "really stupid" lyrics.

Unable to write the lyrics as stupidly as he wanted them to be, Altman turned to his teenage son Mike, who quickly filled in lyrics that pleased his dear old dad.

Altman was so pleased, in fact, that when his movie was nominated for a bunch of Oscars, he was disappointed that the theme song didn’t also get a nom.

He couldn’t help but wonder what it would’ve been like to share that award-winning experience with his son. Surely, priceless.

"It would have been great to be nominated the same year, together," Robert told The Vancouver Sun in 1971.

For Mike, there was, perhaps, a greater reward from his songwriting than a trophy. Cash money.

He actually earned a cool million off the song, which was many times more than the $70,000 his dad earned for directing the M*A*S*H movie.

We know that Michael Altman knew cash made for a great reward, because years prior to co-writing the M*A*S*H theme song, the boy sent out a message in a bottle with his Cub Scout troop in 1964.

Not convinced the message itself would elicit a response, to entice the finder, the young boy included a cash reward — a shiny quarter.

Remarkably, his ploy worked. Fifteen months after he dropped his Seven-Up bottle in the Willamette River in upstate New York, he received a letter in the mail from another kid across the country.

According to The Albany Democrat-Herald in 1966, his bottle was found in Vancouver, Washington, nearly 3,000 miles away!

"Last Saturday I went shooting along the Columbia River," the response to Mike’s message in a bottle read. "I was walking down the bank and saw a Seven-Up bottle and picked it up so I could shoot it. When I saw the note, I took it out and read it. I was very surprised. I sat down when I got home and wrote to you. By the way, I’m 14 years old, and I’m giving you my picture."

You’ll notice his new pen pal didn’t mention the reward, but we hope Mike promptly sent the quarter to the other boy.

Did you ever send a message in a bottle?

Or perhaps better question: Did anyone ever respond to your message in a bottle?

We imagine the experience of getting the response was as priceless for Mike Altman as the experience of being nominated for an Oscar the same year as his dad would’ve been for Robert Altman.

Watch M*A*S*H on MeTV!

One Full Hour

Weeknights at 7 PM

*available in most MeTV markets
Are you sure you want to delete this comment?


Post a comment
CouchPotato19 20 days ago
Nope. Never sent out or received a message in a bottle..........but I'll send an S.O.S to the world.
LoveMETV22 22 days ago
Another Interesting message in a bottle story:
F5Twitster 23 days ago
"Remarkably, his ploy worked. Fifteen months after he dropped his Seven-Up bottle in the Willamette River in upstate New York, he received a letter in the mail from another kid across the country.

"According to The Albany Democrat-Herald in 1966, his bottle was found in Vancouver, Washington, nearly 3,000 miles away!"

There's a very good reason the bottle was found in Vancouver Washington: there is NO Willamette River in New York State. It's in OREGON and is a tributary of the Columbiam, which straddles the line between the two states.

WHY do I keep wasting my time reading this rubbish written by people who haven't the vaguest idea of what they're talking about?
Michael F5Twitster 23 days ago
I only glanced at the article. So I saw "Wilamette" and "Seattle" and it made sense to me.

I didn't notice the mistake that it had been dropped in New York.
Moody F5Twitster 22 days ago
I agree with you. My guess is that they saw the newspaper Albany Democrat-Herald & assumed it was New York not Oregon. You would think that common sense would tell them that a bottle couldn't travel by water from NY to Oregon. A simple internet search would clear up any confusion. But I guess that would require effort on their part. smh
bnichols23 F5Twitster 8 days ago
"in OREGON and is a tributary of the Columbiam," -- "It's Columbia." -grin-
Steve126 24 days ago
Unfortunate title for the song. Suicide is definitely NOT painless for those left behind to mourn. No need to glorify this song MeTV.
What if there is no one left behind to mourn? That is why others have suicidal thoughts. They don't have anyone and are lonely. They think: "Why should anybody care if I'm alive or dead? I don't have anybody to think/feel this way about me." They have no one to talk to. So, suicide is the only solution/answer they have. There are two sides to this. Those that suffer from loneliness and depression, feel that suicide is the only answer.
Have you known someone who has done so? I have. It's times like this, when one finds out just how much someone claims to care. When the true colors of the alleged mourners come through. When this friend took their life, our so called "mutual friends," didn't shed a tear, didn't say how sorry they were when they passed. (This happened when I was a teenager.) A couple had the nerve to say they were glad they were gone!
So, don't automatically assume that there will be mourners left behind, when someone says goodbye to this Earth. Because chances are equally good there will be those left behind that don't give a pile of manure that they're gone.
harlow1313 Steve126 21 days ago
I, being a bit quirky, welcome songs about controversial subjects that provoke consideration.

While I am not suicidal, I can well imagine a health decline that could make me feel differently. I wish to have the control of that option. I support assisted suicide.
Stephanie, you make a nice contribution to this site. Lots of trivia and interesting tid-bits. Even when people disagree with you, as I may have on occasion, it gets the blood pumping or challenges accepted notions.

Best wishes to you.

I accept the notion that we humans are very self-centered. It is difficult not to be. Even generosity can be traced back to our own reward of good feelings. Note that, still, I admire generosity. But I recognize my own self-interest when I am charitable. I suppose It is innate in humans, but it works for our greater good.
Thank you harlow1313 for saying this. It really does help. I will try to keep {and the others who have been kind to express similar thoughts,} words in my mind more often. More positive thoughts, hopefully, helps to negate the possible passing of any negative ones that could pass through the portal of my cranium. Thanks again!
I apologize. Just realized that last sentence, could be considered a "run on sentence!" I would like to apologize to my mother, who was a 2nd grade teacher. Sorry, mom! R.I.P.
Runeshaper 24 days ago
I don't recall if I've ever sent a message in a bottle, but it must be fun enough to wonder if it will ever be found and even more exciting for someone to write you back! (-:
Pacificsun 24 days ago
I realize the story is more about the message in the bottle. I get it. And the accidental genius of a teenaged son. But as an additional comment, I'm not so sure Altman's approach to a recurring opening theme song was that productive if he was "looking for something stupid." It's a pretty serious subject. And beyond that, isn't something to be romanticized or even fanticized with the help of some "catchy" (or at least memorable) song.

My hunch is that it wasn't nominated as a song at all because of the subject matter. Perhaps the Industry not wanting to give it much play. Causing people to seek out the song and by default the lyrics, adding it to their state of melancholy mind.

By the way the melody is beautiful because of the cord changes. It really didn't need any lyrics at all. Some songs carry their point through emotion, alone.
Larry Pacificsun 24 days ago
I adore M.A.S.H. because of not only the writing was superb, but the actors who created & played them each brought heart, love & truth to each one. God Bless them all and some, R.I.P. "Goodbye, Farewell, Amen"!
Andybandit 25 days ago
A teen boy co-wrote the Mash theme. That is cool.
stephaniestavr5 25 days ago
I wonder if The Police ever sent or found a Message in a Bottle, or if someone they knew had sent/found one? That could've been their inspiration for their song.
JimmyD stephaniestavr5 21 days ago
According to Wikipedia there was no actual "message in a bottle" that inspired the song. Sting wrote it as a story about a castaway looking for love and and finally getting a response of "a hundred billion bottles" in reply.
RobertM 25 days ago
Someone made a geographical error--the Willamette River is in Oregon.
Moody RobertM 25 days ago
Correct! There is no Willamette River in New York & even if there was how would it get to the other side of the country in just 15 months?
Westernchick Moody 25 days ago
So much for it traveling 3000 miles! LOL
WordsmithWorks 25 days ago
I read somewhere that the theme was instrumental because the lyrics were too much of a downer.
Load previous comments
WordsmithWorks daDoctah 25 days ago
Of course, who could forget the lyrics to "I Love Lucy" as sung by Ricky Ricardo himself?
Pacificsun daDoctah 24 days ago
Just asking, how about Perry Mason. Am curious!
Pacificsun Westernchick 24 days ago
Oh the Odd Couple is great. Listen to this one!!
VanessaTara daDoctah 23 days ago
star trek, original series had lyrics
harlow1313 25 days ago
We sent a message in a cup attached to three helium balloons. Sadly, the ballon strings became entangled in a neighbor's television antenna. Being small boys, we ran away and hid.
😂 What great story! Did you ever admit it was you?
My cousin, Donnie, was my partner in crime. My family was visiting West Virginia from Pennsylvania, so I went on the lam, leaving Donnie to take the fall.

Being a fugitive, I can not cross into West Virginia. A knock on my door, and my first thought is "bounty hunter!"
🤣Poor Donnie. Probably still reeling from the whole nasty affair.
I'm afraid so. Our family refers to our crime as "The Incident." Donnie received state ordered psychiatric treatment, but he was never quite right. He is now a conspiracy theorist living in my Aunt's basement.
Maybe he is a flat- earther.
LoveMETV22 25 days ago
Good Episode. Love the title. Was the episode when BJ and Hawkeye go on a bathing strike in hopes of getting Charles to stop playing his French Horn.
I think that was the same ep. where the bonfire was built. BJ/Hawkeye were given a public bath, and someone drove over Charles FH with the jeep! {Perhaps I've "MASH"'ed two episodes together, but at least I got the scenes right! There was a public bath/horn flattening in one, and a bonfire in another.}
Yes, the public bath and horn flattening were "The Smell of Music". The bonfire episode was
"The War of Nerves" The 4077th has a bonfire originally to burn some contaminated clothing, the camp adds other items. Col Potter disagrees but Sidney Freedman convinces him to allow them as a way to relieve stress. (Good episode).
cperrynaples 25 days ago
The only guy I knew who sent a message in a bottle was Sting...LOL!
LoveMETV22 cperrynaples 25 days ago
It was a good movie too. "Message in a Bottle" (1999) with Kevin Costner, Robin Wright and
Paul Newman and others.
It wasn't a Sting solo, he recorded it with with The Police.
"Message In A Bottle"

Just a castaway
An island lost at sea
Another lonely day
With no one here but me
More loneliness
Than any man could bear
Rescue me before I fall into despair

I'll send an SOS to the world
I'll send an SOS to the world
I hope that someone gets my
I hope that someone gets my
I hope that someone gets my
Message in a bottle
(Message in a bottle)

A year has passed since I wrote my note
But I should have known this right from the start
Only hope can keep me together
Love can mend your life
But love can break your heart

I'll send an SOS to the world
I'll send an SOS to the world
I hope that someone gets my
I hope that someone gets my
I hope that someone gets my
Message in a bottle
(Message in a bottle
Oh, message in a bottle
Message in a bottle)

Walked out this morning
Don't believe what I saw
A hundred billion bottles
Washed up on the shore
Seems I'm not alone at being alone
A hundred billion castaways
Looking for a home

I'll send an SOS to the world
I'll send an SOS to the world
I hope that someone gets my
I hope that someone gets my
I hope that someone gets my
Message in a bottle
(Message in a bottle
Message in a bottle
Message in a bottle)

Sending out an SOS...
Are you sure you want to delete this comment?