Not even McLean Stevenson knew that his beloved character would be killed off.
Loosely based on the historic 8055th MASH unit, M*A*S*H (Mobile Army Surgical Hospital) is an American media franchise consisting of a series of novels, a blockbuster film and a hit television series which ran from 1972 to 1983. Widely regarded as one of the best television shows ever, let alone one of the best medical drama series, the characters deftly handled harrowing situations, often with comedic precision. Despite the phenomenal success of M*A*S*H and after only three seasons, McLean Stevenson (Lt. Col. Henry Blake) decided it was to time to pursue other opportunities. So, a plot was created to write him out of the show.
Producer and co-creators Larry Gelbart and Gene Reynolds wanted the departure of such a beloved character to be meaningful. The episode storyline up until the end would be a happy one with Blake getting discharged and heading back home in the States to his family. However, the producers wanted something more realistic, knowing that not everyone who went to war came home. It would be one of the most gut-wrenching season finales ever televised.
Years ago, Gelbart had this to say about season three’s final episode titled Abyssinia, Henry:
“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. Abyssinia, Henry which is lingo from the 1920s era meaning ‘I’ll be seeing you.’ We assigned the script to a writing team who had done a lot of work for M*A*S*H. 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 Secret That Shocked Everyone, Including Cast Members
The producers wanted the ending to be earth-shattering, even for the cast. However, Alan Alda (Hawkeye Pierce) was the only cast member who knew Blake would perish in an off-screen plane crash. Not even McLean Stevenson, who played the character, knew he would be killed off. According to Gelbart:
“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.”
After the crew shot every scene prior to the withheld script and the cast was ready to call it a wrap, Gelbart informed them they weren’t actually done.
“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.”
In the final scene, Radar enters the operating room with a telegram and says:
“Lieutenant Colonel Henry Blake’s plane was shot down over the Sea of Japan. It spun in. There were no survivors.”
That final scene made headlines, angered fans, and saddened Stevenson so much that he didn’t attend the cast’s wrap party.