After the M*A*S*H finale, maybe the most memorable episode of the most memorable TV series was the one in which Col. Blake was supposed to go home.
McLean Stevenson was Henry Blake, who in M*A*S*H, the TV series, was an Army reservist called up to serve in the Korean War as a doctor. He was in charge of the 4077th.
Stevenson decided to leave M*A*S*H after the third season when the series enjoyed the fifth highest ratings in the country. Writing a character off a show can be a simple task, especially for a popular part like Henry Blake. Just send him home.
But M*A*S*H writers had another idea. This was a comedy/drama, but in the final scene about Blake, it was heart-breaking drama.
The Hollywood Reporter did an oral history on the award-winning show back in 2018. They talked to the surviving cast members of M*A*S*H. Stevenson died in 1996. He was only 68.
Saying Goodbye to Henry Blake Gutted M*A*S*H Cast
And cast members still remembered how they felt when writers gave them the dialogue for the final scene with Blake. The episode was called “Abyssinia, Henry.” It ran on March 18, 1975. Remember, on the show, Henry Blake was going home, back to Illinois to his wife and son, who had been born while he was in Korea. The 4077th were happy for him. The night before Blake left, Hawkeye, Trapper John and Radar threw a going-away party for him.
Blake, before he boarded a chopper the day of his departure, changed into a civilian suit. His friends sent him off with a round of applause. He gave Hot Lips a long kiss goodbye. Blake saluted Radar and off he went.
Then, M*A*S*H and the 4077th go about the business of tending to the wounded. Radar walks into the operating room, without a mask, and announces that Blake’s plane had been shot down over the Sea of Japan. There were no survivors.
Cast members didn’t know how the final scene in the operating room would play out. Writers gave them a page of dialogue at the last minute.
Producers Wanted to Show Reality of War
Gene Reynolds, one of the executive producers of M*A*S*H, said the decision to kill off Blake was deliberate.
“We all lamented that death on the show was as impersonal as it was on the news,” Reynolds said. “He added: “We thought everyone should feel a personal loss. We wanted to say a lot of boys don’t make it home.”
Loretta Swit, who played Hot Lips Houlihan, said, that in hindsight, it was best that the cast didn’t know days beforehand about the decision to have Blake die.
“They didn’t want us to suffer through a week of rehearsal,” Swit said. “That was gracious. Of course, Mac was as torn apart as we all were. His character dies, and he was that character.”
Gary Burghoff Said If Stevenson Objected to Ending, He Wouldn’t Do Scene
Gary Burghoff, who portrayed Radar, said he felt “devastated by the cruel finality of it all.”
Burghoff said: “I took Mac aside and said, “If you don’t want me to do this scene, I won’t.” I was hoping the shock of it would get him to change his mind. “No, you have to do it!” he said. “Don’t you remember the promise we all made to each other?” He was referring to always showing the reality of war whenever possible.”
M*A*S*H fans sent hundreds of letters to complain about the ending. Or, they applauded it.
“We got so much mail,” said M*A*S*H executive producer Burt Metcalf. “Some people thought it was great and others were very upset. “You made my little kid cry!” “You did it as vengeance!” We got a letter from a 15-year-old girl who said she understood our motives. (She wrote) I feel that I have joined that all too non-inclusive fraternity of those who have lost a dear one overseas.” I thought that was such an incredible observation by someone so young. That was the response we were hoping for.”
In a double whammy for the show, it also had to absorb the loss of Wayne Rogers, who was Trapper John. Rogers didn’t decide to leave until after season three, so his departure from the show couldn’t be planned with an entire episode. In the premiere of season four, Hawkeye learned that Trapper John had been discharged. He rushed to tell him goodbye but missed him at the airport. Instead, he welcomed B.J. Hunnicutt as the newest doctor. Harry Morgan, as Sherman Potter, took over the 4077th.
And M*A*S*H rolled on.