Hawkeye Pierce and the Rise of the Smart Ass

I blame MASH; not the book or the movie: the television series.  If it hadn’t been for it overstaying its welcome, we wouldn’t be fighting for our lives against the pandemic of pompous asses that have plagued us ever since.

Most people don’t know that MASH the entertainment franchise is based on MASH: A Novel about Three Doctors written by Richard Hooker (H. Richard Hornberger.)  It was a cute little comic novel based on the real-life mayhem at a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital during the Korean War and originally published in 1968.  This was right around the time that Mobile Army Surgical Hospitals in the Vietnam War were up to their elbows in real casualties – almost literally.  Therefore, even though it wasn’t a New York Times bestseller (at the time) it enjoyed a certain success; enough to attract the attention of Hollywood.  Within a year, a mediocre industrial film director named Robert Altman got hold of a screenplay from the book and filmed M*A*S*H with Donald Sutherland and Elliott Gould.  It came out in 1970.  Altman absolutely lucked out with a combination of nouveau cinema camera techniques and worldwide anti-war enthusiasm.  It also didn’t hurt that the movie was black dog hilarious for the time.  It won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival and a handful of Oscar nominations.  Interestingly, it’s only Oscar was for Best Screenplay, written by Ring Lardner Jr.  Television executives have never been accused of not cashing in on a good thing, so MASH, the television series, premiered on CBS two years later — on September 17th, 1972.  Nobody paid much attention to it at first, but then it was rescheduled behind Norman Lear’s All in the Family (the Amos and Andy of the 70s) and a star was born.  His name was Alan Alda.

Before 1972, Alan Alda was a permanent TV guest star and a recurring panellist on I’ve Got a Secret and What’s My Line? – two TV programs that are difficult to explain to a 21st century audience.  His only starring role was as George Plimpton in Paper Tiger (a movie I’m sure has only been seen by me and nobody else I know.)  However, Alda is a good actor and when he landed the role of Hawkeye Pierce (Donald Sutherland in the movie) he must have thought he’d died and gone to celebrity heaven.

He probably didn’t realize how long heaven was going to last.  MASH was on television for eleven years — nearly four times as long as the Korean War itself and about twice as long as it should have been.  I’m sure that more wounded soldiers came through the fictional 4077 MASH unit than actually fought the war – on both sides.  In the end, only Hawkeye and Hotlips (although nobody called her Hotlips anymore) remained out of the original cast, and they were treating industrial accidents from the local Hydunai factory.  Most importantly though, Alan Alda singlehandedly not only destroyed a perfectly good bit of television comic relief but made it socially acceptable to be an utter know-it-all jerk.

Here’s a bit of background.  The book and the movie make clear that Benjamin Franklin Pierce is a good doctor.  He finds himself trapped in a hell-hatched netherworld where doctoring is fast-tracked into something called “meatball surgery” — a lot of blood, stress you could hit with a hammer, and no end in sight.  Pierce and his buddies, however (like young people everywhere) think they can make the best of a bad situation by adding large quantities of alcohol and an active libido.  They believe this will somehow balance the absurdity of war.  The result is a bunch of antics about the Korean War that we’re never going to read in the history books but that probably happened, all the same.  (I’ve heard similar tales out of Vietnam.)  The important point is, never, at any time — in neither the book nor the movie — does Hawkeye Pierce start shooting his mouth off about macro-vision moral values.  He’s just trying to get himself out of the war in one piece, with his sanity still intact.

Back to 1972!  In the beginning, Alan Alda’s Hawkeye was recognizably the same guy from the movie, if not the book.  For example he never delivered Pierce’s signature “Finest kind” line with any believability.  But somewhere after the second season, it all went to his head and he started playing Pierce like a morally superior Groucho Marx with a knife in his hand.  He became a wiseass, and a mean one at that.  Not only that, but he was always right.  The guy ran around like he was the smartest person in the Korean theatre of war, and he was always willing to tell you about it.  There was no problem — medical or otherwise — that he didn’t have the inside scoop on, and it became increasingly apparent that he thought he was surrounded by idiots.  It got so bad that Trapper John got fed up and cleared off without even a “See ya later.”  (FYI Trapper was killed by Adam Cartwright’s grandson, who assumed his identity and took over his medical practice in San Francisco.)  He was replaced by B.J. Hunnicutt, a perfectly bland second banana, who oozed smarm so thick you could cut it with a scalpel.  Pierce may not have chased everybody off the show, but there were more casualties among the actors than there were in the operating room.  The only supporting cast left at the end were Klinger — a TV invention — and Father Mulcahy
— who had to forgive him.

That wasn’t the worse of it, though.  For at least the last six seasons and maybe more, Hawkeye Pierce acted as if his superior understanding trumped all other ideas and observations.  The show was written so that every week Pierce showed up the blaring inadequacies of everyone around him and made fun of them while he was doing it.  There was no moral question he didn’t have an answer for and no social injustice he couldn’t mend; meanwhile solving serious medical emergencies as an afterthought.  And all of this was delivered with a smart ass insult!  The guy didn’t just take the moral high ground: he landscaped it, built a house and settled in for the duration.

Before Alan Alda, Hawkeye Pierce was the type of guy you wanted to be around.  He was good at what he did and fun in the off hours.  After Alda, Pierce became the quintessential pompous ass, and since he was beamed into millions of living rooms every week (and still is) it’s now socially acceptable.  We’ve all met them.  He’s the guy (and they’re usually guys) who shows up with this whole “Bite me!  I’m smarter than you are.” attitude.  He always has all the answers even though you didn’t ask any of the questions.

Poor Benjamin Franklin Pierce became the prototype of our contemporary oh-so-superior man and unfortunately, since then, they’ve been mass produced.

16 thoughts on “Hawkeye Pierce and the Rise of the Smart Ass

  1. correct. i just about can’t stand Alan Alda. they wrote for him like he was Jesus Christ (many of the pro-Hawkeye episodes where ‘Hawk’ is built up to be a ladies’ man and ‘wonderful human being’ were written by Alda himself). he always says the right thing, never says the wrong thing, and if there’s a dilemma of some kind, Hawkeye will be the guy to figure out what’s causing the problem. only then everybody else puts in their two-cents worth. Hawkeye is drawn as being irresistable to women (yes, this was partly a fantasy show) and ‘nerds’ like Radar, and even Father Mulcahy, would ‘seek out’ Hawkeye so they could ask his holy advice on matters ranging from ‘how to get a woman’ to ‘realizing the truth of world existentialism’. good ol’ Hawk always had the answers (and all the funny lines). some of the scenes where Blake or Potter are speaking of Hawkeye are plain sickening. they lay it on so thick, you wanna gag, and Alan Alda went along with whatever those kiss-butt writers would put in the script. obviously, Alda never said to any of them, “Hey, tone it down. You’re making me sound like I’m God.” that’s exactly what Alda wanted. he really did push Wayne Rogers, McLean Stevenson, and Gary Burghof, right off the show. it’s a wonder Gary lasted as long as he did. they brought in Farrell. i don’t know where the hell they got this guy, but he can’t act worth army beans, folding his arms while smiling that Gomer Pyle smirk of his. if there was any reality to the show at all, the commanding officer would slam Hawkeye hard so that he could only leave his tent to operate or pee. many other people agree with my assessment – and yours, Mr. Fyfe. readers: check the website IMDb and the user reviews for the TV-show M*A*S*H. many folks there have similar viewpoints of Alda and his vain, egotistical, pompous, shallow portrayal of Hawkeye. if nothing else, Alda has made me respect him a whole lot less, if i ever had any respect for him to begin with.

    1. Well said. Since MASH the only time Alda is any good is when he plays a villain. The problem is Hawkeye wasn’t supposed to be a smart ass and Alda made it acceptable.

    2. Interesting you brought up the ‘Jesus Christ’ analogy, since Alda is an Atheist. But I agree with you, and the article expressed my opinion of Alda, and his portrayal of Hawkeye Pierce.

  2. Hi, Mr. Fyfe. I agree with your previous comment. I love your article, ‘Hawkeye: Rise of a Smart-Ass’. Woody Allen has cast Alda in several of his films, as I’m sure you know, and it appears Woody always gives Alda a role where he has to play a shallow, phony, grade-A jerk (type-casting, I guess). No doubt Alda thinks this is great and doesn’t even realize that Woody just might secretly have the same opinion of Alda as you and I, Mr. Fyfe. Thanks again for your cool article. Have a super day! Sincerely, Matthew

  3. Well-written analysis and well-supported opinions that I also happen to agree with 100%, W. D., In fact, I honestly came across your blog by google-searching for “Hawkeye Pierce, Sutherland vs Alda” with the thought of “Alda’s Pierce: Self-righteous Groucho Marx Imitation” in mind for a retry.

    Let me please add the following thoughts:

    Although I have found him many times to be charmingly funny, I personally do not believe that Groucho Marx himself, would have been half as funny or one tenth as popular if he had directly moralized about or protested anything in his day. I believe that the highest form of artistic expression, including especially comedy, simply presents the truth to the audience in a clever style and permits them to make seemingly inescapable moral judgments and conclusions regarding things like war and other tragic human activities.

    Often, with great comedy, the conclusion drawn by an enlightened audience seems to be the real unspoken punchline. Based on your description of the book by Hornberger and my own recollection of the movie, both of them seem to have more or less attempted that more subtle thrust as a goal or at least a frequent objective.

    The fact that Alda’s version of Hawkeye Pierce morphed rapidly after the first season into a mechanical imitation of Groucho that as you also pointed out if I can pile-on just a little, seemed to continually protest, preach to and about, chastise, and belittle everything and everyone he encountered, like a chronic, self-indulgent, whiny baby who thought himself superior to and more cool than even the forces and circumstances that brought about his own existence, permanently stifled my objectivity toward any subsequent role that Alda ever played.

    The fact that so many in the mainstream obviously loved Alda’s Pierce so much that they decided to emulate that character until they became that character baffles me to this day. Nevertheless, you are 100% correct that such wise-ass behavior is no longer the nose-punching offense it once was often was. On the contrary, these days it is likely to get someone a free beer – and that is truly sad.

    Again hats off to your treatment of this subject. Like the highest art, it presents the truth and your opinions without sounding near as much like a rant or a sermon as do either the preponderance of Alda’s performances as Pierce or my own characterization of them as I have shared with you here!

    1. Thanks for dropping by Mike. Hawkeye Pierce should be one of the enduring characters of our time unfortunately Alda turned him into a caricature with none of the redeeming qualities.

    1. Also, the popularity of Hugh Laurie’s “house ” just goes to show that you’re too right. That guy is bad pompous , smart ass, know it all pierce on steroids, and people love him. I don’t blame the actors, just us the consumers.

      1. Too right. I never watched House but I can see where he would be the natural evolution of Hawkeye. Like you I do not blame the actors.

    2. Thanks for dropping by. I’m glad I stimulated something. I took some time off but now I’m back with a bit of a new look. I hope you’ll check back again

  4. I commented on this article a while back and I couldn’t agree more. I remember a movie review book that I had in the ;80s (I wish I could remember who wrote it) in which the author reviewed the film MASH. “Donald Sutherland’s Hawkeye Pierce would chew up and spit out Alan Alda’s Hawkeye Pierce in the same mouthful as the other ‘regular Army clowns.'” Clearly he was not a fan of Alda’s Hawkeye Pierce either. Hawkeye Pierce was cool until Alda turned him into a soapbox upon which he could stand to moralize. In fact, after reading the novel, seeing the film and reading Richard Hornberger’s derisive opinion of the t.v. show, I can’t watch it without cringing. Thanks again for sharing this piece, W.D.

  5. I love Hawkeye. Alan Alda had the ability to act in a very compassionate way with his beautiful twinkle in his eyes to the wise cracks. Great combination. He was born for the role and if the original writer Richard Hornberger didn’t like it then his version of Hawkeye may have been more boring. Hawkeye certainly did shine his inner Christ Consciousness with the role and it was beautiful. Jesus isn’t the only character that had the CC in him. All the other characters made the show equally amazing and they all had a wonderful time together, they were like family on and off the show. One of the best shows ever and Alan Alda excelled at writing and directing. I suggest you all go back and watch this amazing show.

    1. I agree with robjam972000, Alan Alda as Hawkeye was fine. If your intent was to get a reaction from people by criticizing a show and it’s main character you have had to ignore a lot about the actors and their talents that gave the show its chemistry. The evolution from the heavily sensored early episodes, through to the later seasons coined the term “dramedy” that had the ability to communicate social issues (as you seem to be doing here) while entertaining. In fact, the show (including the novel and movie) never realistically portrayed military repercussions for the behavior of army personal (including surgeons). It was never meant to and to try and say any single thing caused today’s generations to have narcissistic people is self-serving and requires a level of tunnel vision to believe it. Honestly, do your research and find something positive to say.

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