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 3 days ago
This show ended, and left a large hole in my life
mememememe66 8 days ago
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 8 days ago
It wasn't a crash, it was shot down by the North Koreans. That was actually pretty common.
EdCaf mememememe66 8 days 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 8 days 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 9 days 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 10 days ago
This was on Cher's show, not Carol Burnett.
TlorDagama 10 days 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 10 days 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 8 days 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.
kb7rky 10 days ago
One of the saddest moments in all of television.
DanDo77 11 days 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 10 days ago
I agree; the first several seasons were too farcical for me, and I prefer the later seasons.
FSLynley 11 days 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 11 days ago
I agree! I thought to myself, what the hell happened? Gigantic goof ME TV !😭
Brassboy77 FSLynley 10 days 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 12 days 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 ?!

JHP 12 days ago
after all these years

still cant watch it:(
Charleshorse 12 days 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 12 days 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 8 days 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 12 days 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?
The words look like English, but darned if I can find a coherent thought.
right, considering the education of today's generation, in surprised they can can make a coherent statement, long story short hot lips thought Henry Blake unfit for command did everything in her power to get him, out so her frank could take command, incompetent as doctor and an officer. anyhow research it and watch the episode online if you can.
LouR GeorgeKolter 12 days ago
And you still are not putting together a coherent thought. It's not education, it's just lazy. Try practicing punctuation next time. I have a headache.
lynngdance GeorgeKolter 12 days ago
Quick translation: “Long Story Short; Margaret thought Henry Blake to be Unfit for Command and she did everything in her power to get him out, so that Frank Burns could take Command instead. Anyhow, research the episode and/or watch it online if you can.”

There. I’m no English expert. (Alas, I am one of the people of “today’s generation who can’t make a coherent statement”) but I think that this is slightly more readable.
I have to disagree. I watch M*A*S*H daily. It’s one highlight of my day on this station. We don’t need two episodes of Perry Mason daily. Let’s move on from Andy Griffith after 60 years already. That show is broadcast on at least six stations daily. Matloch, In the Heat of the Night, all the old Westerns. Nostalgia can be a great thing but thousands of shows are not being shown.

I’d rather see Marcus Welby and Medical Center and other similar shows ad nauseam for awhile, then replace them as well.

The new marathon of shows on Sundays is brutal.

Please, no more police, lawyer, courtroom, first responders shows.

Toon In With Me, lose the awful hosts and just play the “toons” weekdays. Where’s Rocky & Bullwinkle, Fractured Fairy Tails, Jonny Quest, go lower and show the Archies.

Seems the station is against spending the money for access for rights to ANY new programming.

I’ve had my rant and I’ve vented. Absolutely nothing personal intended.
gockionni GulfCoastMike 10 days ago
Yes! Fractured Fairytales…and Roger Ramjet & Dudley Dooright
cdianes GeorgeKolter 10 days ago
Do you not know that men do not have "maiden" names? You were talking about Larry who played Frank on M.A.S.H. "Maiden" is for women who get married and take their spouses last name instead of keeping their maiden---last name before marriage. Please use it correctly next time.
Andybandit 12 days ago
I did not like that episode. I wish they didn't have to kill Henry off.
CoreyC Andybandit 12 days ago
The producers wanted to kill Henry Blake to show the cruelties of war.
Michael 12 days 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 12 days 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 12 days 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 12 days ago
His airplane was shot down over the Sea of Japan. Airplanes being shot down are part of war.
LouR Michael 12 days ago
An airplane problem? LOL!
McGillahooala 12 days 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 12 days ago
His 2 part intro was pretty good. "What say you, Ferret Face?"
tootsieg McGillahooala 11 days ago
I agree. I watch the earlier seasons and that is about it. I enjoy Trapper and Henry.
MrsPhilHarris 13 days 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 13 days 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.
justjeff Pacificsun 12 days ago
I disagree. Killing off a familiar character - no matter how unpleasant - can often send the show in an entirely new direction which sometimes works, sometimes doesn't.

John McIntyre's Lt. Muldoon was killed off in the first season of "(The) Naked City", because McIntyre wanted to return West. Jean Hagen exited "The Danny Thomas Show" (a/k/a "Make Room for Daddy") and Danny became a widower.

The character of soccer player Eddie LeBec was killed off on "Cheers". Charlie Sheen's character of Charlie Harper was killed off on "Two and a Half Men". Many later shows did the same. One recent example is Taraji P. Henson's character in "Person of Interest".

Additionally, many of these shows ran for more seasons without that missing cast member.

Whether for storylines, characters proving unpopular, performers leaving under various circumstances there are always some fans who are hurt, angered and unforgiving - but remember... it's all fiction anyway. In some parallel universe those characters were probably brought back in a "dream sequence" like Bobby on Dallas...
Pacificsun justjeff 12 days ago
It’s always good exchanging with you, and because your comments are well thought out. You don’t make them lightly. 😉 All due respect for your point of view. We don’t come here to 𝒂𝒓𝒈𝒖𝒆 but to expand the discussion. 😉

I'm not affected by TV that much, accept for a favorite show, and that’s long under the bridge in terms of what’s been established. In this case I was even using my dad’s reaction. Mine isn’t a blanket statement against doing away with characters. Some are cheats (like with Dallas) and some are due to health. And others, for the evolution of storylines. Fair enough, as many characters end up among the dearly departed.

The issue with MASH is that it was already a poignant storyline. Every episode revealed some sacrifice. The second issue is that it represented a very real experience for people. Which meant the writers were toying with viewers memories! My dad lost his best friend in WWII, and though he was well functioning, he never got over it.

Television is about 𝒆𝒏𝒕𝒆𝒓𝒕𝒂𝒊𝒏𝒎𝒆𝒏𝒕. And entertainment is about lifting people up. And it's a writer's responsibility (in terms of craft) to figure out how to do that, and set a fair balance. But the medium is also about escapism. To free viewers just a bit from every day reality! To that purpose is to bring about a certain amount of joy.

And I do think fans paid their dues, suffering along with all those characters and tragic outcomes. You could pick out any one single episode to see how horrific the situation was.

The alternative point to be made by the writers, who were also 𝒗𝒆𝒓𝒚 aware of putting that series into the history books, was the idea of the redeeming value of human sacrifice. Except for the surgical successes (obviously evident by their purpose) what 𝒘𝒆𝒓𝒆 those redemptions?? Or was it to say the experience was all about waste? That’s not quite fair. Otherwise viewers might as well listening to the lyrics of the opening theme, as well as to the music.

Generating entertainment has a secret, which I believe even AH honored. And that is that something has to be given back to the audience/viewer in exchange for their emotional investment. And in the case, HB was too good (meaning, character-wise, as a representation) a fictional person to receive the fate that he did, which the series didn’t deserve. Which is what the fans reactions proved.
madvincent Pacificsun 12 days ago
well i have to tell ya, that is the ONLY MASH episode that got a tear out of my eye........
wanderer2575 Pacificsun 12 days ago
Yes, there was plenty of hurt and death among other episodes, starting with "Sometime You Hear the Bullet" midway through the first season. But they all involved guest stars for one episode, so we never got the chance to know them and therefore really feel for them. To really bring home (pardon the expression) the horrors of war, one of the regulars had to be killed. And I think Henry Blake was the right choice of character to be killed. Not because of any knock against the character or the actor, but because we knew all the regulars well and I think Henry Blake was the one we most wanted to see go home. Nobody wanted to be there but everyone else settled in as best they could. Not Henry -- he was never comfortable being there, and he certainly was never comfortable with command. His death hit with an impact that the death of any of the other regular characters would never have achieved. And whether we viewers like it or not, the producers wanted that impact. To that end, they made a good choice.
JHP madvincent 12 days ago
yep even 5 years from now - at least for me
Pacificsun wanderer2575 12 days ago
Your rationale is expressed well. And if one agrees with the right intention in the first place, is clearly justified. Meaning in terms of the right character for the right reason. Sharing your perspective, is appreciated!! And respected!!

Television has always been an intimate medium, because it's a source (meaning presentation) that's invited in the homes (and families) of viewers. Mixed audiences too. It’s not like a theater, where a movie has a bit of promotion. AH, being the exception. So the theater-goer has the option of choosing what emotional risk they want to take (via the experience). And for the reason of choosing a movie then they accept that any character can be killed. And the outcome is unpredictable. They "pay" for that.

The approach MASH took, was so emotionally charged (meaning a sensitivity that pointed to their own purpose) is that they couldn’t even let the cast OR the actor-character see the last page. If it was such a noble effort, then why? Well to avoid being leaked, obviously. But also because it was a violation of the viewer’s trust. And maybe to some extent, their own. Notice how the series never let anything happen to Radar.

Which asks the next question: what would make the producers/writers assume that the viewers didn’t already know the horrors of war?? It had been driven home for four seasons. Meaning, it's okay to knock off guest-stars who might not matter as much. (That's not very authentic). Or is it not enough to watch the “chicken” episode. Where the mother smothers her child to prevent noise leading the enemy to their hiding place, to kill all of them. (Is the message there, that a single sacrifice is for the good of the many). Or is MASH paying the price of trying to walk the line between comedy and tragedy in the first place. A lot fans see the difference between how the series started, where comedy (pranks) were justified. And how it turned into a pulpit for preaching. But I don't think any viewer was dumb enough to miss the fundamental message. Which is a show that in the beginning, could only be sold to the network, as escapist fare. And certainly, there were already enough military dramas out there (H& I is filled with them) making their own point about the tragedy of war. But that's what viewers tuned in for, and expected.

This was a television show with evidence of grandeur, making a statement at the expense of their audience. And exactly because of how it came about. Which is something that really doesn’t happen in many other formats.

Only the viewer can decide whether of not the decision was fair. And that depends on how the world is viewed in the first place. Whether people should be celebrated for the extreme sacrifices they make. Or, if in the end, that it doesn’t matter at all. Because that’s a pretty heavy message to be sharing through the intimacy of television. Where these characters (and actors as well know) end up turning into virtual friends. And become important to us, for acknowledging their death (whether before or behind the scenes) whenever we mourn their loss.
justjeff Pacificsun 12 days ago
I certainly enjoy our exchanges as well, and your reply is a most thoughtful perspective...

However, we may both have overlooked the most significant [and blatantly simple] reason for the writers killing off the Henry Blake character: War is hell.

In battle conficts, there are no guaranteed outcomes, happy endings are elusive and often one moment of triumph can turn into a tragedy in less than a heartbeat.

While you and I can believe each of our respective positions is the right one - only the writers can (or could have) eluded to their true reasoning for their decision... and it's doubtful this "debate" will ever be settled in a scholarly manner.

This is why I now think the "war is hell" motif might hold greater sway as to the pontificated "why"..
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