Discharge papers for Col. Henry Blake arrived at the close of the 1974-75 season for M*A*S*H in the episode Abyssinia, Henry. McLean Stevenson’s kindly and bumbling character, beloved for his humanity in the face of armed-services strictures, was ecstatic to return home (and to depart the small screen in hopes of gracing the larger one). Viewers felt the tug of emotions when the cast gathered around Blake’s helicopter to see him off. And moments later, when Radar stumbled into the surgical tent to announce that Blake’s helicopter had crashed into the Sea of Japan, audiences experienced the sudden loss of a dear friend.
In preparation for this rare serious moment in a show noted for cynicism and rapier wit, M*A*S*H writers kept the cast in the dark about the episode’s final moments for as long as possible to try and make their reactions –immediate and stricken–as natural as possible. Indeed when the cast received the scripts for the episode the final page had been removed, it wasn’t until all shooting had been completed for the episode that the scene was filmed.
One of the most enduring shows in TV history (it lasted three times longer than the Korean War itself), M*A*S*H had already established a new level of trust between writers and viewers. Blake’s demise moved that bond to a special place. As for Stevenson’s post-M*A*S*H ventures, well, let’s just say Hello, Larry never quite inspired the same devotion.
The Last Word: “M*A*S*H demonstrated that, in the 1970s, comedy could be television’s chief vehicle for social criticism.” –TV critic Horace Newcomb