“M*A*S*H” fans’ hearts broke everywhere when the show decided to kill off fan-favorite Henry Blake during the shocking Season 3 finale “Abyssinia, Henry.”
Creator Larry Gelbart discussed the controversial decision and why it was the right way to end Blake’s run on the show.
While “M*A*S*H” incorporated comedic elements, it was ultimately a show about war. And wars are rarely funny and don’t always have happy endings. The creators wanted fans to experience the loss associated with war, so they ultimately decided to kill Blake off.
Actor McLean Stevenson, who played Henry Blake, had grown unhappy on the show and wanted to leave to pursue other opportunities. The creators and also the network granted his wish. But Gelbart and fellow creator Gene Reynolds used his exit to drum up emotion.
“Gene and I thought we should use the departure of the character in some meaningful fashion. ‘M*A*S*H’ was not about everyone having a good time,” Gelbart said. “‘M*A*S*H’ was not about happy endings. We decided his character could, not should, could die. The expression ‘Abyssinia, Henry’ comes from a Flapper era, 20s era. Abyssinia [means] ‘I’ll be seeing you.’ Kind of corny. But then again, Henry Blake was kind of corny. “
‘M*A*S*H’ Cast Didn’t Know Henry Blake Would Die
Only one cast member knew Henry Blake would die beforehand, and that was star Alan Alda. The show’s creators swore the writers to secrecy. They even ripped out the last page of the script so the rest of the cast wouldn’t know. Gelbart acted as director for the episode, and the cast filmed all the other scenes before they learned of Blake’s death.
“The reason we kept it a secret, the primary reason, is to keep our actors from being influenced by that information,” Gelbart said. “If they started filming the show knowing Henry was a dead man by the end of the episode, their performances would have been quite different. It would have colored their performances.”
The cast was stunned when they learned about Blake’s death. Stevenson didn’t say a word afterward and later went to his trailer and cried, skipping the wrap party.
“It’s not often in your life that you see people stunned,” Gelbart said. “And they really could not believe what was on the page.”
The episode ended with Henry Blake’s helicopter going down off the coast of Japan, off-screen. The characters learn the news and are shocked by Blake’s death. But as doctors, they’re forced to continue with their jobs despite their grief. The moment went down as one of the most memorable in the show’s long run.