The cast of M*A*S*H didn't learn of Col. Blake's fate until just before the scene was shot
The ending to season three was so earth-shattering to the cast, producers kept it a secret.
Widely regarded as one of the best shows television has ever seen, M*A*S*H was never afraid to push the envelope. Though a comedy series at heart, the nature of the show's setting played into the storyline frequently, with life and death situations, life-saving prodecures and very tough goodbyes.
Like any show that has success, there are times when actors want a break from the norm, to pursue other opportuniteis for their career. This was the case for McLean Stevenson, who played the beloved Lieutenant Colonel Henry Blake for the first three seasons.
Not wanting to return for a fourth season on M*A*S*H, a plot was created to write him out of the show, one that was a surprise to most of the cast.
In an Archive of American Television interview from 1998, producer and co-creator Larry Gelbart acknowledged there was an opportunity, with the character of Blake, to do something that turned heads. Gelbart and co-creator Gene Reynolds both agreed something drastic would play out upon Stevenson and his character leaving the show.
"Gene and I thought that we should use the departure of the character in some meaningful fashion," Gelbart said.
The storyline up until the end of the episode was a happy one that saw Blake get discharged, allowing him to head back to his family in the States. The producers wanted a more realistic feel to the departure, knowing that not everyone who went to war came home.
"M*A*S*H was not about everybody having a good time, M*A*S*H was not about happy endings, and we decided that his character could, not should, but could die," Gelbart said.
Knowing how big of a change this would be for the show, season three's final episode was titled "Abyssinia, Henry" which is lingo from the 1920s era meaning "I'll be seeing you," says Gelbart, who acknowledged the corny meaning behind the title fit well with the character of Henry Blake.
"We assigned the script to a writing team who had done a lot of work for M*A*S*H," Gelbart recalled. "We wanted it to essentially be a goodbye episode in which people shared their feelings, no big tension no big storyline and we said we wanted him to die at the end... and we swore them to secrecy."
The ending that sees Col. Blake killed off was set to be so earth-shattering for the cast, that the producers didn't tell them their plans. Alan Alda was the only cast member that knew the way Blake was set to be written off the show was via death, in an off-screen plane crash after being discharged.
They kept it a secret by totally leaving out that portion of the script.
"When [the writers] brought the episode [script] in, we detached that page and did not distribute it. We rehearsed the episode, we shot the episode... The reason we kept it a secret was to keep the actors from being influenced by that information. If they started to film the show knowing that Henry was a deadman by the end of the episode, their performances would've been quite different."
Thus, the crew shot every scene prior to the one on the withheld script. The cast was ready to call it a "wrap" on season three of M*A*S*H when Gelbart informed them they weren't actually done yet.
"Gene and I took the cast over to one side and sat them down and said 'look, we're going to do something that you don't know about.' I had this manila envelope with the last page in it that they'd never seen... It's not often in your life that you see people stunned... They really could not believe what was on the page."
The cast went back into the studio to film the final scene of season three, where Radar comes into the operating room with a telegram saying, "Lieutenant Colonel Henry Blake's plane was shot down over the sea of Japan. It spun in. There were no survivors."
In one of the most gut-wrenching episodes of the series, the cast, including Stevenson himself, didn't know the fate of Henry Blake. The move resulted in thousands of letters from fans, describing their displeasure with how Blake was written off.
Though it caused headlines, angered fans and saddened Stevenson, so much that he didn't go to the cast's "wrap party," Gelbart stood by his decision to send off Henry Blake the way he went.
"I think it was a very grown up thing to do and very sensible thing to do."
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I don’t know how often plane crashes occur, but it seems somehow sadistic that that anyone involved in the ending did it for dramatic effect, sadly.
Personally it must’ve left everyone with a sick feeling in their stomach, not a pleasant way to end the series.
thought that Col. Potter was more strict, but later on in the series after I got to know him, I liked col. Potter better than Blake. I also liked BJ and Winchester better than Trapper and Burns, but I was disappointed later in the series and Radar left due to a discharge, but Klinger did an excellent Job filling right in as Radar's "replacement". I'm sure by now I have seen every episode and watched MASH through to the end of the series seeing Cpt. PIerce being transported off on a chopper.
But it was an interesting and good decision to have a main character killed. They were in a war.
Also, though, I’d love to see the Marcus Welby’s, Medical Center’s, et al, for whatever reason, there are certain dramas that just don’t draw viewers. I can’t understand it. Hill Street Blues for example, which is in my top three of all-time favorites list runs — or at least ran — on H & I in the middle of the night. St Elswhere, another great show of the time, is rarely in syndication. Partially, because whoever doesn’t want to have to pay royalties, partially because they want to sell exclusively on DVD or streaming, or partially because the master copies or so degraded or lost. You can definitely see the degradation of the old Hill Street Blues episodes, for example, which were all shot on film.
We can contrast it with Radar. He gets a discharge to help his mother, meets a woman on the way home, and lives happily ever after.
I don't think they could have killed iff a character by mortar fire or a sniper or shelling. That would be too much.
Frank goes home, likely a medical discharge
Towards the end of the episode Frank calls the 4077th and speaks to Hawkeye:
Hawkeye after his conversation with Frank tells B.J: " The army , in its infinite wisdom...
has not only cleared Frank of the charges...
they have assigned him to a veterans hospital in Indiana...
and promoted him to Lieutenant Colonel."
Frank transferred out -Charles transferred in. Funny start to Season 6, without much fanfare.
Probably worst of all, was Hawkeye. He went from a fun-loving, wise-cracking woman-chasing boozer, to this philosophical, esoterical, bitterman with a suddenly sardonic wit. I found him to be insufferable after Season 4.
Overall, I definitely started feeling a little squeamish about the show when BJ replaced Trapper because I felt it was the writing on the wall for what was to come. Sure enough, the dominoes continued to fall. Then Henry left, and I rode with Potter a bit. But by the second episode Winchester was on, I exited stayed left. I didn’t even more than maybe 10 or so minutes of the final episode, and have no desire to ever do.
I don't think the producers had the "right" to kill off a beloved character who by his decision to leave wasn't doing so out of spite. Actors after putting in so much hard work and talent, have the right to determine their career destiny.
My father who served in WWII and was well versed in the Korean Police Action, was very level headed when it came to television (a medium in which he worked). But was personally upset by losing Henry Blake who had come to symbolize the medium between both the humanity and brutality of war. To those serving, trapped against their will, HB was a symbol of hope and payment that should've been honored.
So, that reason is certainly the logical one, given M*A*S*H’s dedication to keeping their show as similar as possible to the realities of war.
The second reason you gave that having Henry killed off, and the way he was, for posterity and the show’s creators fails.
The show’s creators certainly did not put (re-)write the script for the shocking fatal ending to massage their respective egos by creating a “legendary” episode. Quite the contrary.
They took a huge risk by both having Henry killed, and having Henry killed in the manner he was.
They could have lost so many fans who were so upset with the ending of that episode, that they quite possibly would have stopped watching M*A*S*H altogether.
Co-creator Larry Gelbart acknowledged that this concern was well-founded in a later interview, recalling the time after the days after that episode aired I think it was both, the best wasn’t for posterity and the show’s creators certainly didn’t do it to massage their respective egos by creating a “legendary” episode. Quite the contrary.
They took a huge risk by both having Henry killed, and having Henry killed in the manner he was killed.
So many fans could have been so upset with the ending of that episode that they quite possibly could have stopped watching M*A*S*H altogether.
So while saying that he alone had received thousands of letters from viewers expressing their disdain for the Season 3 finale, their was no doubt others in M*A*S*H’s production crew received a huge amount as well.
So, we now know that this second part was unequivocally not done for a reason. The question now turns to just what is it? The answer is clear.
It is an unintended problem and incredible RESULT of a reason.
For example, The FCC might have taken issue with the suits at CBS over the episode where Henry was killed, had they shown zoom shot video of a prototype ICBM going right through his nuts.
The input is good for expanding a person’s perspective, and in quoting interviews, lends credibility to specifics being offered. Appreciated!
What happens in producing any series, is (1) working in the moment unaware of any self-consciousness (perhaps, except for the movie) as a means of setting the foundation. True, the creators/producers needed to have a vision to follow a consistent theme. And JustJeff convinced me that it’s summarized by this phrase: “War is Hell.”
(2) You’re right, they took a chance killing off a friend, not just the enemy, and not just the anonymous innocents who were drafted. But a meaningful connection, that by its very representation was more significant than all the others. Though they never could have done that with particulars (by the same token) meaning, Hawkeye (because the series is basically seen through his eyes). Or BJ, or Radar. They just couldn't have gotten away with that. Reality check, please 😉
So they made a choice between doing something for the good of the series (meaning it’s story point) hoping that fans would carry along the show. And in the Eighties, there happened to be more viewers who literally lived through Wars. So they could see the sheer destruction and waste involved.
If the producers got tripped up at all (meaning that I am evolving my perspective) it was in mixing the tragedy with the insanity (including humor). Which by most consideration probably didn’t even belong in the middle of a very active war zone. It would be questionable how much relevant shennagins really did happen. But which they got away with, (in truth) by making the characters “pay” for those indulgence (and which created their plot lines). And that is a plot device used in writing/justifying points of fiction.
Possibly our opinions of this day, also come from a shifting viewpoint of how we see war. And how carefully we measure our involvement. And how much we value those who makes the sacrifices involved. It’s how hawks and doves are divided, but that just means that maybe there IS no division, because we can agree on a single thing. That “War is Hell!” No matter the circumstances.