Being a war-time dramedy, M*A*S*H had dozens of characters come and go. One character got such a heartbreaking exit, however, that fans sent hate mail to the writers.
The 1975 Season 3 episode Abyssinia, Henry was the final time that McLean Stevenson played Lt. Colonel Henry Blake. The hilarious doctor had become a favorite for audiences, but after 72 appearances, the execs thought it was time for him to leave the 4077th. So, they gave him a heartbreaking episode that led people to believe he was getting a happy ending—then came a twist.
As the story opened, Henry’s friends learned that he was getting an honorable discharge. After giving years to the service, he was going home to be with his wife and children. The story truly played up Henry’s excitement. He started planning all the places he would go when he was back in the United States, and he called his family to deliver the news. He gave his fellow surgeons bittersweet, personal goodbyes, and he stepped into a helicopter. While the characters and fans alike hated to watch him go, they all rooted for him.
But the ending came with tears. Radar, one of Henry’s closest friends, somberly walked into the O.R. and shared that Henry’s helicopter was shot down. No one aboard survived. Shortly after, the letters came rolling in. Why couldn’t they let Henry make it home?
‘M*A*S*H’ Stars Didn’t Know Henry’s Fate
Fans weren’t the only people shocked by Henry’s exit, either. The writers wanted to keep the reactions as real as possible, so they didn’t tell the other actors about the helicopter crash. Instead, they let them realize what was happening as they filmed the episode. Not even Stevenson knew his character was going to die.
“M*A*S*H was not about everybody having a good time. M*A*S*H was not about happy endings,” producer and co-creator Larry Gelbart once shared, according to Movie Web. “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.”
Gelbart did, however, let lead star Alan Alda in on the secret. Alda was one of the people who received hate mail. In an interview with The New York Times, Alda recalled a man writing that he had to console his “sobbing” 10-year-old son following the death. But Alda supported choice. M*A*S*H intended to show the horrors of war.
“It was one of the ways for the adults in the audience to realize that another aspect of war is that things happen that you don’t expect,” he explained.
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