Saturday, August 9, 2014

If Only Clubber Lang Had Taken on Pyongyang...

Im watching a M*A*S*H episode from 1981. Thankfully, MeTV runs restored versions of M*A*S*H that include scenes, or parts of scenes, long ago hacked out by greedier broadcasters squeezing episodes for every last second of commercials. Some of these scenes likely have not been shown for decades—I certainly dont recall a lot of them despite being a M*A*S*H aficionado since the mid-70s. 

Tonight, it was Episode 223, “Give ‘Em Hell, Hawkeye,” in which Capt. Pierce, fed up with year-long peace talks that have achieved nothing, pens a letter to President Truman, narrating it in voice-over as he writes. And as Hawkeye writes his letter, he refers to Harry—in newly restored dialogue—as “Mr. T.”

Now, the actual Mr. T, Laurence Tureaud, took that name in the late 1970s, but he was, by and large, anonymous until appearing as “Clubber Lang” in Rocky III, which debuted over Memorial Day weekend in 1982.

So, clearly, Hawkeye using the name “Mr. T” in an episode filmed nearly a year earlier is unrelated to the yet-to-be celebrity of Mr. T.*

But I can’t help wondering: if Mr. T had only become a Hollywood name a matter of months earlier, he could have actually portrayed President Truman in that M*A*S*H episode (M*A*S*H already had a long history of employing young, ascendant actors in guest roles). I see the episode as a two-parter, in which President Truman, “Mr. T,” responds to Hawkeye with a letter of his own—and, as did Hawkeye, narrating his reply in voice-over as he writers it...perhaps over a montage of his training regimen in the Oval Office, such as jumping rope, using a speed bag, or whatever else passed for hardcore cardio training in the early 1950s. 

Dear Capt. Pierce,
Thank you for your letter pleading for me to end this police action. However, you don’t seem to understand politics. One doesn’t back down from international threats to peace. South Korea was attacked. Attacked! You get it? If that little man, Kim Il-sung, don’t wanna come to the peace table, then I’ll come to him. The United States is ranked No. 1. ONE! That means we’re the best. But that bum has been taking the easy matches, sneak-attacking its peaceful neighbor. I’m telling you and everybody else at the 4077th: the United States will fight North Korea anywhere, anytime, for nothing. No, I don’t hate Kim Il-sung…but I pity the fool, and we will destroy any man who tries to take what we got.  

In closing, my prediction for the war: pain. 

Yours sincerely, 
President T

With aggressiveness that would’ve made Gen. Douglas MacArthur look like a Salvation Army bell ringer and accountability that would’ve left Harry S. Truman resembling a shriveling buck-passer, Mr. T might well have provided a ratings spike and seriocomic possibilities encouraging the stable of M*A*S*H writers to continue for several more seasons—perhaps even long enough to necessitate a romance between Hot Lips Houlihan and SSgt. Rizzo that would have perfectly encapsulated the lunacy of war...not to mention paved the way for either the best or the worst spin-off in television history.

*Far predating this M*A*S*H episode, a Welcome Back, Kotter spin-off called Mr. T and Tina briefly ran on ABC in 1976, but the show was so short-lived and obscure that not even its star, Pat Morita, remembered it. Perhaps if he’d come up with the “Crane” a decade earlier…

(Image from M*A*S*H copyright CBS.)

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