Hawkeye Pierce: An Appreciation

An occasional series where we celebrate Jew-ish TV characters of the past
By | Nov 11, 2020
Arts & Culture, Latest

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During this protracted pandemic, many people are watching reruns of their favorite shows such as Matlock, Maude and Perry Mason. Having served six years in the Army Reserve during the Vietnam era, I gravitate toward M.A.S.H., which has impressive character and plot development, despite the fact that only four of the eleven main actors (Loretta Swit, Alan Alda, Jamie Farr and William Christopher) survived the series from beginning to end (1972-1985). Among them, Alan Alda, in the role of the talented surgeon Captain Benjamin Franklin “Hawkeye” Pierce, stands out as the central figure.  

Pierce has some iconic defining traits, which both attract and repel the viewer. First of all, he is a womanizer, or skirt-chaser (the Russian term is babnik), whose goal is to fall into bed with every one of the nurses on the M.A.S.H. staff. Second, he is an iconoclastic, cynical jokester who especially enjoys tormenting two other doctors—Majors Frank Burns and Charles Emerson Winchester III—because the first is a self-absorbed, phony patriot, while the second is a pompous, arrogant snob.  

M*A*S*H (1972) Still

Alan Alda, Jamie Farr, and Loretta Swit in M*A*S*H (1972)

But Pierce also serves as the show’s gateway into Jewish culture. Benjamin Franklin “Hawkeye” Pierce is supposed to come from the fictitious Crabapple Cove in Maine, and, though not a member of the tribe himself, Alda’s origins in the Bronx shine through his portrayal of Pierce in nearly every episode. He weaves Yiddish-isms and Jewish references into some of his best lines, making Pierce the most “Jew-ish” member of M.A.S.H #4077.

In addition, his 60-year-plus marriage to Arlene Weiss Alda, who is Jewish herself, and her profound influence on him, has made him an honorary Jew, even though he was raised as a Roman Catholic. Nowadays as an octogenarian, Alda identifies as agnostic, though he admits praying to God when he is fearful.  

Because of this Jewish connection and the preponderance of Jewish writers on the show (e.g., Allen Katz, Ken Levine, Jay Folb, Larry Gelbart, Everett Greenbaum, John Rappaport, et al), Alda as Pierce is given virtually all the Jewish lines. Pierce seems to be fixated on the Yiddish word for rear end (tuchus), which he uses frequently, even in his professional discussions of anatomy. For example, when he and “Hot Lips” Major Margaret Houlihan are obliged to give each other an inoculation, his flirtatious nature is titillated by the fantasy that they will poke each other in the tuchus and not the arm.  

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Pierce’s Jewish influences go beyond the occasional innuendo. He hyperbolically complains that his Army-issue mattress is “the size of a matzah,” and loves words derived from Yiddish, such as “nebbish” and “nudge,” using them on many occasions.  

Pierce is even impressed by the mock-Yiddish term Ish-Kabible, which while referring to a comedian of the era, also sort of means “I should worry.” He uses it twice throughout the series, once in asking his drinking buddy Trapper John whether they should drink to MacArthur or Ish-Kabible, and then in good humor introducing “Ish-Kabibble and His All-Girl Orchestra.”   

M*A*S*H (1972) Still

Alan Alda, Jamie Farr, and Loretta Swit in M*A*S*H (1972)

Finally, in one of the show’s episodes, which is constructed around a crossword puzzle, Pierce pesters everyone to learn the Yiddish word for “bedbug.” He goes so far as to bother higher-ranking Jewish officers with this query, bringing them to M.A.S.H. #4077 in the hope that they might provide the correct answer. 

In addition to Yiddish words, Pierce is also smitten with Jewish culture, even though the idea seems far removed from the Korean War of the early l950s. When a Jewish soldier comes to the 4077th with a critical wound and thinks he might die, he requests a Rabbi’s visit. Pierce responds that the only clergy they have is the Catholic Father Francis Mulcahy, “but he loves Al Jolson.” In another episode, after hitting his head and suffering a light concussion, Pierce daydreams about eating whitefish at a Jewish Deli in New Jersey—far away, both geographically and culturally, from Crabapple Cove. Lastly, as Hawkeye examines a wounded soldier’s heart and finds it beating normally, he says that now all this patient needs is a bass and a clarinet, and he can play at the Ginzburg family Bar Mitzvah!

B.F. Pierce is a brilliantly developed, multifaceted character, perhaps best analyzed by M.A.S.H.’s  Army psychiatrist, the Jewish Dr. Sydney Friedman (played by Alan Arbus). The doctor’s observation that “while anger turned inward becomes depression, anger turned sideways is Hawkeye Pierce.”

Oh, by the way, the five-letter Yiddish word for “bedbug” is vantz. 

Photo credit: IMDb

2 thoughts on “Hawkeye Pierce: An Appreciation

  1. Gary says:

    Hey! I never knew that my university Russian professor, Dr. Schefski, was Jewish! Now I feel guilty about waiting until the mornings of our quizzes to study vocabulary, on the bus, on the way to school 🙁
    I’ve always been a M*A*S*H* too; and I really enjoyed reading your article!

  2. Paul Schaumburg says:

    I was 12 years old In 1972. When MASH debuted on TV. That also was when the discovery of tons of “You Bet Your Life’ episodes brought Groucho Marx back to TV in reruns. I immediately was drawn to both Hawkeye Pearce and the one, the only Groucho. All these years later, they continue to inspire me and make me laugh. Undoubtedly, they hit at the right time for me and for others. I believe besides the Marx Brothers revival, the aforementioned reference to Jewish writers on MASH played a role. But, let’s face it, half of show biz is Jewish and, as God is my witness, I say that with love and respect! Oy vey! I do think that producer-head writer Larry Gelbart had the biggest part in making Hawkeye a Marxist of the Groucho kind. Just picture it, Gelbart was a kid writer on “Your Show of Shows,” working with Sid Caesar, Imogene Coca, Carl Reiner, Max Liebman, Selma Diamond, and so many others! No wonder, he kept the thread going! What would you expect… chopped liver? … so, may God bless you and and your entire family! Shalom Lecheiem to you!

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