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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cindygrace 4 months ago
This show ended, and left a large hole in my life
mememememe66 4 months ago
Realistic???
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.
EdCaf mememememe66 4 months ago
It wasn't a crash, it was shot down by the North Koreans. That was actually pretty common.
EdCaf mememememe66 4 months ago
Also, it didn't "end the series", it just ended the 3rd season. Col. Potter replaced him as the commander of that MASH unit
MichaelFields 4 months ago
It made it more realistic I mean sure they had laughs but it was war and in war not everyone comes back alive or the same, I mean they showed sometimes people in the hospital missing a eye, or something but you did not know them so it was not like a person you cared a lot for, but when Henry passed, it brought it home, war is hell and even the best of us can not be saved. That hit me so hard when I saw it, and I am glad they did that. One thing I would like to ask or know is, after Radar says that you hear someone drop a instrument, was that real or just part of the show as it felt like it was a real reaction.
RichLorn 4 months ago
I don't believe in sad endings. My theory is Henry survived the crash but was horribly disfigured, and quietly re-enlisted as Sergeant Luther Rizzo.
JohnBates 4 months ago
This was on Cher's show, not Carol Burnett.
TlorDagama 4 months ago
I rarely watch MeTV anymore, I watch a couple of things on MeTV+ in the morning(The Saint and Burke's Law) and that is about it. The number of commercials has become insufferable,the phony Medicare help, attorney ads and various other useless items. Thank God I kept my DVD collection up to date, I can watch whole episodes of Mission Impossible, Checkmate and the like without dealing with that nonsense.
ruswilinc TlorDagama 4 months ago
And how about that pretending that the 6-8th seasons of Andy Griffith show don't even exist. Every time they wrap season 5 they skip back to the beginning again. Do they hate Howard, Emmett and Millie? Do they think if there's no Barney it isn't legit?
EdCaf TlorDagama 4 months ago
That's what happens when it's free. The commercials don't bother me a bit and I like that MeTV plays compete episodes and lets the credits run at normal speed on a full screen. Not many TV stations do that any longer.
wanderer2575 EdCaf 2 months ago
Indeed. Try watching it on TV Land and you'll see how much worse it can be.
kb7rky 4 months ago
One of the saddest moments in all of television.
DanDo77 4 months ago
Although I really liked colonel Blake and was disappointed when I heard the news and I thought col. I
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.
MaryMitch DanDo77 4 months ago
I agree; the first several seasons were too farcical for me, and I prefer the later seasons.
FSLynley 4 months ago
Thanks MeTV for having too many ads to show the final scene from the 2nd MASH episode tonight. It’s the most memorable scene in the episode, where BJ meets Frank Burns, and calls him Ferret Face. Did you really need to show another Drug ad?
retired2019 FSLynley 4 months ago
I agree! I thought to myself, what the hell happened? Gigantic goof ME TV !😭
Brassboy77 FSLynley 4 months ago
You may want to consider a DVR, like TIVO antenna only DVR, if you receive MeTV via antenna. No, I don’t work for TiVo, but I have one.
David 4 months ago
So after him making the decision to leave the show after 3 seasons......quite an expensive career decision, as it turned out.....Stevenson didn't attend the wrap party ?!
Wow.

JHP 4 months ago
after all these years

still cant watch it:(
Charleshorse 4 months ago
I've seen each episode of MASH at least ten times and all I can say is, "Is it that time already?" By that I mean this episode marks the end of the very BEST episodes of MASH ( season 1-3 ) the loss of Col. Blake and Trapper :( But I'll keep watching
Rick 4 months ago
My big problem with the episode is that nobody would have been shot down over the Sea of Japan - there was no fighting going on there (as can readily be imagined in a war between North Korea and South Korea).

But it was an interesting and good decision to have a main character killed. They were in a war.
EdCaf Rick 4 months ago
What makes you say that? The Sea of Japan is between the Koreas and Japan and the US shuttled people all the time between S. Korea and Japan. I don't think it's a probable thing but it most certainly could've happened.
GeorgeKolter 4 months ago
after Blake killed off and trapper left didn't get much better, after hot lips got married burns went crazy, not only did they didn't kill him off, he got promoted a and assigned aa Va hospital back home wonder how many fatalities it had under his charge? burns and hot lips harrased him through the whole 3 seasons by trying to force him removed so the incompetent burns would take charge, then they wrote out radar then major winchester better than burns I saw burns character in other shows such as Adam 12 and mannix, before he changed to Larry his maiden name was LAWRENCE. hope schedule change after labor day and return gomer Pyle and green acres back on don't need news anyhow western fatigue setting in, change afternoon lineup please?
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DavidZarrick lynngdance 3 months ago
Hell, after that remarkable performance, you should become a translator of every language in the world — from Mandarin to Mumbo Jumbo-Attempted English and everything in between. That was incredible. 👏
I agree with most of what you said, but it’s kind of the nature of the beast when you’re “free” TV. I realize there’s commercial overload, but none of the sponsors generate any serious revenue.

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.
DavidZarrick cdianes 3 months ago
He definitely didn’t know until you just now told him. George has had a really bad day. 😢
lynngdance DavidZarrick 3 months ago
Thank you 😆😊😄
Andybandit 4 months ago
I did not like that episode. I wish they didn't have to kill Henry off.
CoreyC Andybandit 4 months ago
The producers wanted to kill Henry Blake to show the cruelties of war.
Michael 4 months ago
Of course it was a shocking ending. But he didn't die from the war. He succeeded at getting to the point of going home, and died from an airplane problem.

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
LoveMETV22 Michael 4 months ago
Although Frank's last appearance was in Season 5 Margaret's Marriage. The season 6 opener has him in Seoul on R&R ( in mention only, with all his distraught behaviors LOL)
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.
CoreyC LoveMETV22 4 months ago
It was to give Frank Burns departure a little dignity since he was downgraded to an incompetent fool. Larry got tired of the role cause unlike the other characters Frank Burns were not allowed to evolve.
Rob Michael 4 months ago
His airplane was shot down over the Sea of Japan. Airplanes being shot down are part of war.
LouR Michael 4 months ago
An airplane problem? LOL!
DavidZarrick Michael 3 months ago
Not to nitpick, but getting shot down over the Sea of Japan probably qualifies as a bit more than a “problem”.
McGillahooala 4 months ago
The first three seasons are good. The show goes down hill after that. I did not find BJ to be an entertaining character and Colonel Potter was good but he was no Henry Blake.
LouR McGillahooala 4 months ago
His 2 part intro was pretty good. "What say you, Ferret Face?"
tootsieg McGillahooala 4 months ago
I agree. I watch the earlier seasons and that is about it. I enjoy Trapper and Henry.
Could not agree more. I did not find BJ very good at all, not just as a replacement for Trapper, just not very good period. Like you said, Potter was solid, but couldn’t hold Henry’s jock strap. Klinger was cute when he played just a bit part goof trying to get a Section 8, but was no Radar by a country mile. Winchester, the intellect and always serious stuff shirt and stodgy curmudgeon, was the complete antithesis of everything Frank was — in all the worst ways.

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.
MrsPhilHarris 4 months ago
Now and again I watch episodes of the first few seasons of MASH, and I usually skip that scene. I prefer to think he went back to Illinois, Lorraine and his kids.
Pacificsun 4 months ago
IMO, it's a double-edged sword which is kind of a cop-out. Were the producers writing for their faithful audience, who'd become friends with the characters? Or for posterity knowing that episode would become legend? Surely, there was enough tragedy spent throughout many episodes that MASH was already making it's point.

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.
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DavidZarrick Pacificsun 3 months ago
I think it was both, the first by intent for their audience. A noble thing to do, and consistent with the way the entire show had played out until that time.
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.
DavidZarrick justjeff 3 months ago
Exactly. I just echoed your sentiments in a response to another’s reply. The show’s main mission was to keep it as close as possible to the realities of war. Of course, this was not done without limitations.

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.
DavidZarrick justjeff 3 months ago
I agree with everything you said but the one about “the happy endings”. From what I hear soldiers get them all the time.
Pacificsun DavidZarrick 3 months ago
I do enjoy the very thoughtful conversations here on the Threads! And appreciate the time you put into sharing. Spoiler Alert to save you the time, I've come to agree! Suspense over!

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.

Point taken.
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