When actor Alan Alda completed his 11-year, 251-episode run on the hit TV show M*A*S*H, the only wardrobe mementos he took from Stage 9 at 20th Century Fox studios were a dog tag necklace and a pair of scuffed boots.
Now, more than 50 years later, the five-time Emmy Award winner who became a household name for his portrayal of Capt. Benjamin Franklin "Hawkeye" Pierce, is putting both items up for auction with all the proceeds benefiting the Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University on Long Island. The single-lot auction will take place on July 28 via Dallas-based Heritage Auctions.
Alan Alda was only 36 years old when he reported to the set of the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital in the summer of 1972. Upon arrival, costumers handed him a pair of scuffed-up combat boots, inside which someone had written in black marker the name of his character: "HAWKEYE."
He was also given a pair of dog tags, two tiny rectangles made of nickel and copper that were once worn by actual soldiers named Hersie Davenport and Morriss D. Levine.
Alda noted that he was grateful the dog tags didn't say Benjamin Franklin Pierce of Crabapple Cove, ME. That would have made them mere props that couldn't have carried the weight of war. Wearing those real dog tags, the genuine article, "seemed like a handshake," Alda said.
Until recently, he knew nothing about the two men whose names are on those dog tags — one, a Black soldier from the South; the other, a Jewish soldier from New York City.
"Yet every day for 11 years, putting them on over my head and wearing them, I had a very close connection with them," Alda said. "I always wondered what their lives were like. Were they alive, or were they dead? How had they served? They were real people to me, even though I didn't know anything about them other than their names. But to this day, I remember the names very well, and that's why it meant a lot to me."
Heritage Auctions learned that Hersie Davenport, a native of Mississippi, was 34 years old when he enlisted on July 14, 1942. Davenport, a private first class, served as an engineer and was discharged on Dec. 15, 1945. Records show he died on April 24, 1970, and is buried at the Mountain View Cemetery in Oakland, CA.
Morris D. Levine's name was misspelled on his dog tags, with a superfluous "s," and his service records were destroyed in the July 1972 fire that consumed millions of military personnel files housed at the National Archives and Records Administration in St. Louis.
According to the auction house, the scant information that survives shows Levine was born on August 8, 1907, and that he enlisted in the Army when he was 35, serving as a corporal until his honorable discharge three years later on November 15, 1945. Levine died on June 9, 1973, and is buried at the Long Island National Cemetery, not far from where Alda lives today.
M*A*S*H chronicled the daily lives of a rag-tag bunch of doctors and support staff stationed in Uijeongbu, South Korea, during the Korean War (1950–53). A record 106 million fans tuned in to watch the two-hour M*A*S*H finale on February 28, 1983.
And for the next 50-plus years, the dog tags and combat boots that he wore during every episode would be relegated to the far reaches of Alda's closet. He joked that the items were not items you would display on your mantle.
"Then I realized that they could come to life again to be used to help the Center for Communicating Science because, probably, somebody would be interested in having a memento of the show," he said. "I can't think of a better use for them."
Alda helped establish the Stony Brook Center for Communicating Science in 2009. He believes that scientists need to do a better job speaking about their work, and this requires combining the skills of improvisation with good message design. Alda brought improvisational exercises to classrooms at Stony Brook and to institutions around the world.
As a result, the center has trained more than 20,000 scientists in nine countries, as well as Harvard and Cornell universities, the National Institutes of Health, the Environmental Protection Agency and even the US Department of Defense.
The current bid for Alda's memorabilia is $23,000. You can track the progress of the auction at this link.
Credits: Dog tags and boots images courtesy of Heritage Auctions, HA.com. M*A*S*H TV cast publicity photo by CBS Television, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.