Every day when he arrived on set to film “M*A*S*H,” Alan Alda donned scuffed combat boots and placed a pair of dog tags around his neck to get into character as surgeon Benjamin Franklin “Hawkeye” Pierce.
The actor, now 87, wore the boots and dog tags for all 11 seasons of the popular show, which followed a mobile surgical hospital during the Korean War. The accessories meant a lot to him, and they were the only items he kept when the show ended 1983.
Now, after holding onto them for the last 40 years, Alda has decided it’s finally time to let them go. The boots and dog tags will be part of a Heritage Auctions sale later this month.
Proceeds from the sale will benefit the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science, which is part of Stony Brook University in New York. The center, which Alda helped launch in 2009, helps scientists improve their communication skills and learn how to talk to non-experts.
When Alda first began wearing the dog tags, he realized they bore the names of real soldiers; the costume department hadn’t created them for the show. The U.S. Army had issued them to Hersie Davenport and Morris D. Levine, two men who enlisted in their 30s and were both discharged in 1945, according to the auction house’s research. Levine died in 1973, while Davenport died in 1970.
“Thinking about these men wasn't some kind of acting exercise,” Alda wrote in a letter that will accompany the items at the auction. “They were on my mind because I was literally in their shoes and wearing the metal tags stamped with the minimal words and numbers that served as their identity.”
According to a statement from the auction house, Alda was glad the dog tags didn’t say “Benjamin Franklin Pierce,” which would have “made them mere props that couldn't have carried the weight of war.”
The boots have black laces, rubber soles and leather uppers. Inside each shoe, the word “Hawkeye” is handwritten in marker. The origin of the boots is unclear, but Alda said in an accompanying video that he felt connected to whoever first wore them.
“That feel of the leather on my foot, the comfort of being in the shoe did something ... I don’t know, a mysterious thing,” he said. “It makes you feel more at home in the character.”
When filming wrapped up, Alda chose to keep these two items because they were the “things that meant the most to me,” he said in the video.
The auction house was thrilled that what Alda chose to keep was “something that endured with him episode after episode, season after season, throughout the entire run of ‘M*A*S*H,’” as Joshua Benesh, Heritage Auctions’ chief strategy officer, tells the Associated Press’ Jamie Stengle.
Alda not only starred in the show, but also wrote and directed some of its episodes—including its last, “Goodbye, Farewell and Amen,” which was the most-watched episode of any broadcast network television series in history. For his efforts, Alda won five Emmy Awards and was nominated for dozens more. He also won six Golden Globes for his work on the show.
To this day, the show remains popular, even among younger audiences. Why? Because the series’ main premise—of “finding humor and finding ways to cope in the midst of madness”—will always be relevant, as Ryan Patrick, who co-hosts the “M*A*S*H Matters” podcast, told Smithsonian magazine’s Chris Klimek last year.
“The series has never really dated,” he added. “The themes of the show are universal, and they stand the test of time.”