Thursday, January 21, 2010

The Interview: David Pollock

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I knew I wanted this blog's last post (last regular post, at least) to feature something special, and I can't think of anything more special to me than an interview with one of the people who actually worked on M*A*S*H.

The interviewee in question is writer David Pollock, who, in tandem with his writing partner Elias Davis, first wrote for M*A*S*H in the ninth season and stayed with the show until its history-making conclusion, also serving as Executive Story Consultant.

I first got in touch with David back in 2007, when I wrote a piece called "Memories, M*A*S*H" for my Hey Kids, Comics! blog, concerning one of my favorites episodes of the show, the Eleventh Season "Run For The Money."

I asked David for some background info on that particular episode, and he was extremely generous with his time, making the piece a very special one for me. I kept in touch with him ever since, and when I was deciding whether or not to do interviews for this blog, he was the first one I contacted.

I ultimately decided against doing interviews as any sort of regular feature of this blog, but I knew I wanted to do at least one before I yelled "Timmmm-ber!" on this particular Swamp. So let's get to it:

Rob Kelly: How did you end up on M*A*S*H?

David Pollock: Elias Davis and I always wrote together, and we were sort of on the show twice. We wrote one in, maybe around 1974--it never got filmed, it was one of those ones that was set aside, because it never quite seemed to work.

In 1972 we did some Mary Tyler Moore episodes, and then we did an episode of a Don Rickles show. We had come off the Dick Van Dyke show, a later show he did from Arizona--we did from 1972 to 1973, then we did the Mary Tyler Moore shows freelance. We weren't on staff of the show, and we did about four of those.

Somebody recommended us, I guess, so we went in an pitched [for M*A*S*H] to Larry Gelbart and Laurence Marks with about fifteen ideas. I'm not sure whether Gene Reynolds was there or not. And we pitched all these notions, and one of them we had, just to fill up the page, was about a bathtub arriving. I can't remember anything else about it other than the novelty of a bathtub, and that was the one Larry Gelbart picked.

That was the one we had the least research on, it was just the goofiest, so we just wrote a story, and blocked it all out. But it just didn't work--I can't tell you why, but it was never shot.

Then, around 1980, we wrote another episode called "Cementing Relationships", but I'm getting ahead of you.

RK: [Laughs] Yeah--well, around that time, were you guys still freelancing at that point, or had you come on staff? Because you're both credited as Executive Story Consultants, as well.

DP: We did a handful of episodes, just freelance, they kept hiring us to do more. I know we did a two-parter that they ended up slamming together as a one-hour show. Because of the writer's strike the seasons got all sort of wacky.
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RK: That would be "That's Show Biz", where the USO troop shows up.

DP: Yeah, with Gwen Verdon, I think that's around the time we came on staff. We did 19 episodes total.

RK: You've always written with Elias Davis. How did that work? Did you write separately and compare notes, or did you write everything together?

DP: We would sit with two desks, just the way most teams would work, whether we were freelancing or on staff. When we were on staff, we were in the writer's building, with everybody else, and everybody had their own office. Thad Mumford and Dan Wilcox were downstairs. Two desks, shoved face to face--that's just the way ours worked.

We would just start on page one: "Fade In: Interior: Swamp--Day"

RK: [Laughs]

DP: By the time we were writing a script, we would have the story worked out in the room with all the guys: Burt Metcalfe, etc. Even when we were freelancing, we would work the story out with all the writers, or a good percentage of them: some of them might have been out writing something. There were no set rules.

RK: When coming up with stories, the natural inclination must have been to write a Hawkeye-centric story, since he was sort of the star--"First among equals" was the term I think I read once--so did you have trouble coming up with stories for particular characters or didn't it work that way?

DP: You're certainly right in that the Hawkeye character was central to the whole--the sort of drive shaft for the series--but, the Hawkeye issue aside--you wouldn't necessarily steer to one writer or another solely for the purpose of the character. The story itself would dictate, in any given scene, what characters needed to be there.

RK: Okay, so there wasn't a concentrated effort to say, write a Father Mulcahy episode. It was more story driven, and you worked from there.

DP: You're talking about Elias and I, no. You have to remember, there were two stages, two huge stages for the writing on episode--you can't just sit down and start on page one, because you don't even know what the story is yet.

You have the story first--just the story, what's going to happen--forgetting any dialogue, and forgetting who says what. Its just "What the heck is this thing going to be about?"

And its more collaborative at this point--its not only Elias and I, as I recall those days, it would be, in one room--which was Burt Metcalfe's office--Room 29, in the writer's building on the second floor--a rather functional, unglamorous room, it would be all of us sitting around on couches and chairs. It would be Elias and I, and Burt, with Burt sort of running the thing, John Rappaport, Dennis Koenig, Karen Hall, Dan and Thad...and you're starting with nothing, absolutely nothing.

But as you know, the show would do research--starting way back, Burt and Larry would interview doctors, doing research, getting any anecdote, and those interviews would be recorded, and they would be transcribed. And, as you can imagine, you'd get a lot of useless information--it might be interesting, but its not anything you could use to make a funny television episode.

So you might get a copy of these things, and in the course of the meeting, someojne might throw something in--somebody just threw in, one day, a MASH doctor remembered, in the course of telling a story about a big operation he just happened to mention, that they got a shipment of fresh eggs, and that was all we pulled out of there--eggs.
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RK: Yeah, that's in "A Holy Mess"--while Father Mulcahy is dealing with a solider who wants sanctuary, the other story is about a shipment of eggs.

DP: Oh yeah, right. That just came out of an offhand comment, while relating what the MASH veteran, the doctor on the phone, thought was a bigger story, about an operation.

I know a story that we did was based on the fact that I just happened to read a 1953 almanac, that the Korean War was going badly, and back in the States--sort of like Afghanistan now, people were tired of it--Truman needed support, or maybe it was Eisenhower--that they had decided to offer a prize to any North Korean who surrendered.

RK: Wow, I didn't know that was a real thing!

DP: Yeah, it was a real thing--but it was just two sentences in an almanac, and we contrived a whole story around that. I remember the PR guy was played by Jeffrey Tambor. We ran into him years later on the street and we were talking about that. We exaggerated it, of course--we had him giving away a Philco radio or something.

RK: [Laughs] I'm stunned that had any reality behind it.

DP: Yeah, a guy actually flew his plane into South Korea. So, from that, you pull that fact out, and then we just sit around the room and try to come up with a story. Then you try and break it into little scenes. I think we then had a story about Winchester becoming involved with a French lady--and I think those two stories were a and B stories in the episode.

RK: Yes, "Foreign Affairs." [Laughs]--I know all these titles off the top of my head.

DP: [Laughs] Yeah, and we wrote that--our French was so terrible, that we wrote it all in English and the had someone translate it into proper French.
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RK: That's one of my favorite episodes, because Winchester didn't get many romantic storylines, so it was a nice insight into his character.

DP: Yeah.

RK: At the point you and Elias came on the show, in the ninth season, M*A*S*H was about as popular as any TV show has ever been. I'm wondering, was there a lot of network interference, or did CBS sit back and just accept as much M*A*S*H as you could produce?

DP: I think the latter--I don't remember any...the network representative for the show was Darrell Hickman, the actor who played Dobie Gillis, and he used to come around and see how things were going. If there was interference, it would never come to Elias and I, that would've been directed to Burt.

RK: So there was never any problem with plots? I've read about the early years, where Larry Gelbart had problems with certain stories or scenes. But that was when the show wasn't as popular.

DP: My sense of it was, they just stood back, and let it sail through.

RK: You would think. Did you follow M*A*S*H as a viewer, before you came on it?

DP: I didn't watch it every week, but I was pretty familiar with it.

RK: Do you have favorite episodes, either ones you didn't write or ones you did?

DP: In terms of ones we didn't write, a particular favorite of mine, and I sense it was a favorite of the other guys, since we talked about it a few times, was an episode from the first four years...it had to do with an army general who arrives, a tough blood and guts kind of guy. And he sleeps with Margaret, and then dies...

RK: Yes, "Iron Guts Kelly."
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DP: "Iron Guts Kelly"--that was great. They got James Gregory to play him. That was a great show. In fact, I go back and lecture to comedy writing classes and the University of Michigan, and I play that episode.

As for the ones I wrote, I don't know if I have any particular favorites. One of the ones we won a Humanitas Award, was "Where There's A Will, There's A War", that had to do with Hawkeye writing his will, but there we were using a format that Larry had hit upon years earlier, where Hawkeye would write a letter to his Dad, and using that as a framework, you'd see the scenes he was writing about.
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In the later years, when we were really hard-pressed for new stories, we used that framework, that construction, so we just piggy-backed that device for that show. I always liked that one.

There was another one we won another Humanitas for, called "Who Knew?"

RK: Yes, the one where the nurse gets killed.

DP: Boy, you really do know these...

RK: [Laughs] Yeah, I can't tell you how many times I've seen these--I've pretty much been watching them non-stop since I was they went into syndication, and then the DVDs.

I've been trying to avoid asking you any uber-MASH Nerd-type of questions, but there's one thing I've always wondered about, and its related to an episode like "Where There's A Will..."--in a show like that, where you've got flashbacks to different time periods--you flash all the way back to when Col. Potter had just arrived at the 4077th--was there ever any consideration given to the idea of bringing back some of the old characters, like Henry or Trapper?

DP: [Pauses] The practicalities of that...you pretty much have to deal with the hand you have. You could conceivably do it--other actors have reappeared in a show--but you're trying to find parts for all these characters--that's hard enough!

RK: [Laughs] Right.

DP: Then to go out and try and bring Henry Blake in, when you've got Jamie Farr sitting there at the table read, reading the script, thinking "Jesus, I've only got one line on page fifteen, two lines over here on page thirty-one, and they bring Henry Blake back?"

RK: [Big laughs] That's what I figured that's probably what it was.

DP: You've got a budget, a certain amount of money, and you're trying to keep all the actors happy--it was such a big cast it was tough to work everybody in as it is. You have to find something for all these people, so it would've been pretty hard to do that.

RK: I think maybe, because of the internet and the way TV has changed, there's much more of a vocal fanbase for any given show, you have more of that obsessive following than you did when M*A*S*H was on. Fans follow shows so much more closely now, and there's so much more feedback.

Joss Whedon, on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, would bring back a character for one line--one line!--in a dream sequence or something, and that would be kind of a gift to the die-hard fans. But that wasn't something you saw on TV a lot in earlier years.

DP: We never were aware to catering to any fans. Nor were we aware of the idea of coming up with an anti-war message every week, we were just trying to come up with a good story for each show. The rest never really occurred to us.

RK: How did you make sure to get all the military and medical details right? Did you ever start a show with a military-specific premise then try and make sure you got it right?

DP: We had an Army guy that we would call with military questions. You'd always do the story first--you'd have a wacky thing. There was always supply screw-ups, so you'd call the Army and say "How could this happen?", and they'd tell you, to make it sound real.

And then medically--there was a doctor, Dr. Dishell--who you could always call say, "Walter, here's the thing--we need to have this happen", and we need to make the dialogue sound real. It didn't have to be real, but it had to sound real. So he would just say, "Here's what you gotta do--you'd need a sponge, you'd need this, you'd need that..." We'd leave all that stuff blank and fill it in later.

RK: [Laughs] Regarding the final episode, as it approached...how was that constructed? You had to end the war, obviously, and every character has their own final storyline, but were there things you all wanted to make sure you got in there?

DP: We all sat around--it was arrived at the same way--with all of us in a room, and as I recall, Burt had some pretty strong ideas, and there Alan [Alda] was present. It was started pretty early, and shot out of sequence, and Alan had a lot of input into it.
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Alan was also one of the writers, Dan and Thad wrote as a team, Elias and I wrote as a team, Dennis wrote by himself, as did John, and Alan wrote with all of us. We all wrote independent of each other, and the final show was broken down into half-hour increments. Elias and I wrote the first half-hour--we had the outline by then, and it was just writing the script. Alan's way of working was just talking into a tape recorder, and then he'd move on to the next group, and that's how the writing was done.

[Later] There was sort of a feeling among some of the writers that, while it was a nice episode, the dramatic comedy quotient tilted too much in favor of the dramatic--it wasn't as funny as some of the other episodes. That was always how I felt about it, and I think Elias felt that way.

RK: That show set a record--that will surely never be topped--as the highest-rated single show in TV history.

DP: A 77 share.

RK: Yeah. I remember being in Sixth Grade when that aired, and every kid on the playground--every kid--was talking about watching the show that night.

DP: The show had a party [the night of the final episode airing] at a Moroccan restaurant, here in LA, on Westwood Boulevard, and I remember driving there, and there was nobody on the streets--no traffic--everyone was home watching it.

RK: In the intervening years, do you keep in touch with any of the people from the show?

DP: Yeah, over the years, we'll have lunch with Burt, or we'll run into Thad and Dan, you know, you bump into people--its a big town, but its a small town, too. Oddly enough, tonight there's a big memorial service everyone is going to for Larry Gelbart.

RK: Well, I want to thank you for talking to me for the blog, David. I really appreciate it and thanks for all your wonderful work on M*A*S*H.

DP: You're welcome, Rob, my pleasure.


It was a huge thrill for this M*A*S*H fan to get to talk to the David Pollock and learn a little bit about what it was like to work on the show. David was very generous with his time and a total delight to talk to, and I couldn't think of a better way to wrap up this blog.

...and that does wrap up AfterM*A*S*H.blogspot.com, for now at least. I was hesitant for a long time to even start this, realizing I had to make sure I had the time to do it right--the show deserved no less than my full effort.

I thank all of you who discovered the blog early on and stuck with it as we worked our way through all eleven seasons and assorted M*A*S*H bric-a-brac. It's been a lot of fun reading everyone's thoughts about any given episode.

And who knows? Maybe I'll have the chance to talk to some of the other people who made M*A*S*H. And if I do, rest assured you'll see those interviews here. (That's one of the things I love about blogs...they're never really quite finished, if you don't want them to be!)

In the meantime, I highly endorse the all-encompassing M*A*S*H blog Finest Kind for your daily online M*A*S*H fix. Its a great site, as obsessive about the show as I am.

So, until we meet again, thanks again everyone and be sure to watch the M*A*S*H re-runs...rest assured, they're on somewhere, on some channel, right now!
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That was how I intended to wrap up the blog, but some of you M*A*S*H fans just won't let me do that. In fact, the regular commenter known as What The Parrot Saw, in a very Klinger-esque move, generously sent me a bootleg(shhhh!) disc of all but two episodes of AfterM*A*S*H, shows I have not seen since they aired over twenty-five years ago!

I've had fun watching these shows over again, so I decided that, yes, this blog will keep going for a little while longer--I'll be doing posts focusing on AfterM*A*S*H!

Not knowing these shows backwards and forwards like I do M*A*S*H, I need some time to watch and absorb them all. So this blog will be taking a little break while I do that, and will return February 28--the blog's one-year anniversary--where we'll talk about AfterM*A*S*H and the further adventures of Col. Potter, Klinger, and Father Mulcahy!


4 comments:

Radar Hat said...

Rob,
In the truest sense of the phrase - it's impossible to put into words how appreciative I am of all the work you've put into this. It has been an awesome journey, as well as a fun one, watching it unfold throughout 2009.

M*A*S*H as a show - as a cultural entity - deserves a portal as thorough as this site for the fans. Thank you, sir, for providing it.

Phil

Russell said...

Nicely done, Rob, nicely done.

BTW, I *just* tonight got back from a business trip to Detroit where I drove through Toledo. I stopped off and bought you some stuff from Tony Packo's, and will be sending it to you soon. :-)

What the Parrot Saw said...

Great interview, Rob! I've interviewed musicians for print and it can be a little difficult when you know their work well!

Looking forward to your take on AfterMASH. :-)

Don Reed said...

I just received a copy of David's "Bob and Ray" and am very much looking forward to reading it.

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