My dad directed 'M*A*S*H' — his humor, hope and optimism is what America needs right now

Zan Dubin-Scott, Opinion contributor
·7 min read

Sure, that last presidential debate was calmer. But is anyone not seriously on edge right now?

The stomach clutcher is just days away. The United States just hit its highest daily number of coronavirus cases since Day One. Racial upheaval. Climate change. A time of historically high unemployment.

Help?

To cope, some of us have turned to a comforting fictional face from the past, which had me turning to my late dad.

Capt. Benjamin Franklin Pierce, aka actor Alan Alda's beloved "Hawkeye" of TV's "M*A*S*H," with his kindness, optimism and, above all, humor, not only provided a "blueprint for survival" during COVID-19 for one doctor but also planted the seed for her career.

“Hawkeye taught us that when your world is disintegrating, it is not only possible but utterly necessary to crack a joke,” Jillian Horton wrote in an op-ed about the show based on the film that premiered 50 years ago this past March.

Horton tweeted that her column unleashed a flood of positive response: “People — including me — are hungry to be reminded of all the good in the world.” And I couldn't help but respond, too. My dad, who directed "M*A*S*H," would have loved her piece.

Dad, aka Charles S. Dubin (Charley), in fact directed more episodes of the show than any other of its directors, the beloved Alda included. In fact, I think it was a perfect fit, as he taught me all I'll ever need to know about humor, hope and optimism.

Humor and hardship

Born in 1919, Dad worked as a comedic actor before turning to directing and often talked about his early fondness for vaudeville. He especially loved the broad, bawdy stuff — vaudeville was rooted in coarse, farcical humor — and while a great father and family man, if an extremely busy one, he used to tell us dinner table jokes that, if sometimes groaners, I can't really repeat here. I'm beyond certain he would have taken wicked pleasure in the dark COVID-19 memes I can't stop sharing.

Zan Dubin-Scott and Charles S. Dubin in Los Angeles, around 2010.
Zan Dubin-Scott and Charles S. Dubin in Los Angeles, around 2010.

He also brought his humor to work when it was needed most, just like Hawkeye, knowing how to easy-does-it under pressure. He used to tell my brother, Shep, and me stories about his made-up Mr. Rumplepotspoop, who would reassuringly tell us to "keep cool, calm and collected" when faced with the boogey man. He talked about moments on the set when everybody tensed up with the prospect of going over time and over budget. "Guys, it's just make-believe," he'd tell everyone. Indeed, Alda emailed me this message when dad died in 2011 at 92:

“I was very sorry to hear of your dad's death. All of us who knew him remember him with great affection. As skilled as he was at his work, he was always good humored and kind, no matter how late it was or how badly things might be going on the set. He always delighted us with a joke when frustration was high. He was the calm in the center of the storm. And his modest goodness was a model for all of us.”

Dad didn't have the worst life but experienced his share of hardship. He might have developed his Mr. Rumplepotspoop alias while watching his dad attempt to beat his sister for playing the violin poorly.

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Grandpa Max, a successful bread baker, had emigrated from Russia to America after escaping the czar's army by walking across Germany and sleeping in its graveyards by day. My dad had to temporarily drop out of college to care for his mother, who died of heart disease at 55.

And Dad was blacklisted three times (my mother once) in the 1950s. He used to tell the story of answering the door, with me in his arms, for a subpoena server. I was six months old. Some of his blacklisted brethren killed themselves.

After NBC fired him from a steady job, he managed to survive professionally by temporarily directing commercials, which didn't require an on-screen credit, but he was on-and-off terrified for himself and his family for years. And he desperately wanted to do what he loved, to direct.

Dad's beliefs in a better America, the ones that got him in trouble with the shameful House Un-American Activities Committee, are part of what made "M*A*S*H" such a meaningful joy for him. Along the way in Hollywood, again wanting to continue to work and provide for his loved ones, he directed what he thought were overly violent crime shows, such as "Kojak." While perhaps tame by today's standards, he called this kind of thing the true obscenity. But "M*A*S*H," of course, was an unabashed anti-war statement. He had managed to find a way to express some of his deepest ideals, let alone sleep at night, while making a living. With humor!

Charles S. Dubin in Malibu Creek State Park, Calabasas, California, in February 2008.
Charles S. Dubin in Malibu Creek State Park, Calabasas, California, in February 2008.

Remember when Hawkeye said, "If we don't go crazy once in a while, we'll all go crazy"? How about, "The way I see it, the Army owes us so many coffee breaks, we should get 1954 off"? Or Maj. Margaret "Hot Lips" Houlihan: "Oh, go salute yourself"? (OK, so not all jokes age that well, but we all loved them at the time.)

Second chances can happen

On a more serious note, I can't help but think of another work that reflected Dad's outlook: "Cinderella." He produced and directed the 1965 TV movie of Rodgers and Hammerstein's musical with Lesley Ann Warren, who shall forever be the one and only Cinderella for many of us.

Charles S. Dubin with Lesley Ann Warren as Cinderella, around 1965, in New York City.
Charles S. Dubin with Lesley Ann Warren as Cinderella, around 1965, in New York City.

Warren tells the loveliest story. Dad cast her after seeing her in a play on Broadway. But, only 17 at the time, she flubbed the audition with Richard Rodgers. "I was so terrified," she has said. But Dad wouldn't let that stand. He asked the famous composer to give her another chance, which Rodgers did by teaching Warren to sing "My Funny Valentine," seated at his own piano.

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A star was born.

Second chances. Hope. Dreams. Goodness and optimism, the sort I hear in my favorite "Cinderella" song, "Impossible." Take off your jaded glasses and stream a bit of it right now. I cry every time I watch. You know the plot, but during this scene, the shimmering Fairy God Mother transforms the ash-streaked girl into a princess with a flowy white dress, a bejeweled crown and sparkly glass slippers she can scarcely believe are real.

"But the world is full of zanies and fools/

"Who don't believe in sensible rules/

"And won't believe what sensible people say.

"And because these daft and dewy-eyed dopes keep building up impossible hopes/

"Impossible! Things are happening every day."

A gonzo election. A raging pandemic. Racial upheaval. Climate change. A bleak jobs picture.

Hey, Hawkeye. Hey, Dad. Hey, Cinderella. I hope to never forget the words from that song I know by heart.

"Impossible! Things are happening every day."

Thank you, Dad. I love you.

Zan Dubin-Scott, a former staff writer/reporter with the Los Angeles Times, runs ZDS Communications, a public relations agency. Follow her on Twitter: @zandubinscott

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: My dad directed 'M*A*S*H': His humor, optimism can get us through 2020