When it comes to TV theme songs, few are as famous as the title tune that graced the opening credits of both the feature film and TV series M*A*S*H. But Suicide Is Painless is more than just a catchy song — it's a theme with a great backstory. Here's a look back at how this iconic intro came to be.
Robert Altman brought M*A*S*H for the big screen
In 1969, Robert Altman was hired to direct the big-screen version of M*A*S*H, based on Richard Hooker's 1968 novel MASH: A Novel About Three Army Doctors. Although as many as a dozen other filmmakers reportedly turned down the job before him, Altman ultimately signed on to helm the dark comedy about "Hawkeye" Pierce, "Trapper" John McIntyre, and the members of the mobile army surgical hospital during the Korean War.
Although a composer isn't usually brought on until a film's post-production begins, Altman brought in Johnny Mandel from the get-go. The two had collaborated on the movie That Cold Day in the Park and had established a friendship beyond their working relationship.
Robert Altman asked for the 'stupidest song ever written'
In addition to writing the entire original underscore for the film, Altman asked Mandel to write the music for what is known as The Last Supper scene. As the action plays out, Captain Walter "Painless Pole" Waldowski crawls into a casket to commit suicide as his 4077th cohorts feast on a Da Vinci-esque dinner at a long table. It was up to Mandel to write a song that could be played on an acoustic guitar and sung by Ken Prymus, who played Private Seidman. And Altman gave him one big note, as the composer revealed in an interview with Jazz Wax: "It's got to be the stupidest song ever written."
Initially, Altman took it upon himself to write the dumbed-down lyrics for the tune, but according to Mandel, he returned a few days later and confessed, "I'm sorry, but there's just too much stuff in this 45-year-old brain. I can't write anything nearly as stupid as what we need."
Instead he asked his 14-year-old son, Michael, to take a stab at some inane words that would then be put to music. According to some sources, the younger Altman cranked out the assignment in just five minutes.
Suicide Is Painless is a legendary success
Mike Altman's effort would prove to be a most fruitful burst of creativity. The song soon became the title track for the film. And when a small-screen adaptation came along in 1972, the tune served as the theme song for that, as well. As Altman told Johnny Carson during a Tonight Show interview in the '80s, he only made $70,000 for directing the feature-length version of M*A*S*H. Thanks to residuals, though, his son had already seen more than a million dollars in royalties at that point.
The tune has also received its fair share of accolades over the years. In 1988, the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers honored Mike Altman and Mandel with the ASCAP Award for Most Performed Feature Film Standards. And in 2004, Suicide Is Painless ranked 66th on AFI's 100 Years...100 Songs list.