When the classic dramedy M*A*S*H premiered in 1972, the USA was heavily involved in the Vietnam War. And throughout the first year of the series, US troops continued to fight in the unpopular and heavily politicized battle against foreign communism.
M*A*S*H took place at a fictionalized mobile army surgical hospital during the Korean War in the 1950s. The series juxtaposed comedy and tragedy in a wholesome way. And viewers grew attached to the quirky characters who were both friends and soldiers.
However, M*A*S*H did more than just show the brighter side of wartime. It also acted as a “commercial” to end it. Loretta Swit, who played Maj. Margaret Houlihan, told Fox News that its content did justice to the times. But every time a castmate left, she worried about the future of the series.
“[As actors], we kept growing and changing… but the producers never tried to replace a character. They brought in a new one instead, so it was like a shot of adrenaline,” the actress explained. “Whenever someone left, I thought, ‘That’s it, we’re done.’ But that wasn’t the case. It’s part of life! People come and go. Some stay. Some die… I thought the term ‘sitcom’ terribly described what we did. It was so much more than that.”
And one particular character’s write-off sent fans into a panic. When Henry Blake (McLean Stevenson) died in a season three plane crash, fans were furious. People had grown emotionally attached to the Lt. Colonel, and they didn’t want to see him go. So with the country being fresh out of a war that left over 58K US soldiers dead, the producers took all that anger and used it as a way to show people the reality of war.
“We received so much mail from fans saying, ‘How can you do that?’” she remembered. “The producers responded, ‘Use that energy against the war. The war is what killed him. We didn’t.’ I think ‘M*A*S*H’ never stopped giving that lesson, that war is not a fun thing… We always showed where the humor came from. The boys drank a lot, I had an affair with a married man, Radar [Gary Burgoff] always slept with a teddy bear — we always showed the madness. We were never a commercial for the war. It was a commercial to end it.”
M*A*S*H Star Alan Alda Was the First to Learn the Fate Of Colonel Blake
The cast members of M*A*S*H were (and still are) best friends. So when Colonel Henry Blake was written off the show, everyone was shocked and upset. But Alan Alda served as an actor, writer, and director for the series. So he had an early heads-up. As for everyone else, they learned about the colonel’s fate just before shooting the final scene.
“After three years of showing faceless bit players and extras portraying dying or dead servicemen, here was an opportunity to have a character die that our audience knew and loved, one whose death would mean something to them,” said M*A*S*H producer Larry Gelbart.