TV trivia 101: “What is the highest rated TV show in history?" It is, of course, the final episode of the classic series M*A*S*H. The below article is not about that specific M*A*S*H episode, but it is about another episode of the series, which is just as good, if not better.
M*A*S*H is one of the most popular, beloved series in television history. Not quite a comedy, not quite a sitcom, it was often categorized as a "black comedy" or a "dramedy". M*A*S*H ran for 11 seasons- from 1972 to 1983. The irony of a series about a war (the Korean War) that lasted three years, taking 11 years to end on TV, has often been pointed out.
Like it or not, (any many do not), M*A*S*H did give us some amazing episodes and performances.
After a few early episodes, the show soon turned to a more moralistic tone, pointing up how bad and pointless war was. It soon became fairly apparent that M*A*S*H was actually an allegory about the Vietnam War, which was still going on during the show's early seasons. This defining pacifist tone was, of course, embraced by the show's many fans, although it turned off others, who refused to tune in. M*A*S*H was one of the first overtly political shows in TV history.
As an interesting sidebar, the original book's writer, Richard Hooker, has pointed out how much more liberal the lead character Benjamin “Hawkeye" Pierce is in the show than he was originally written in the original book and it's sequel. Although the series is definitely left-leaning, the M*A*S*H books were actually quite right-leaning and conservative. In the M*A*S*H sequel book, Hawkeye is portrayed as "kicking the bejesus out of lefties just to keep in shape".
But politics aside, by 1975, M*A*S*H was a huge hit on CBS, popular with the public and critics alike.
For the show's first three seasons, McLean Stevenson played the lovable, easy-going, lieutenant-colonel Henry Blake. But after three years on the show, Stevenson informed the show's producers that he had had enough and wanted to leave the show. Stevenson was tired of playing second fiddle to the show's two leads, Alan Alda (Hawkeye) and Wayne Rogers (who played Hawkeye's best buddy, “Trapper" John). And so, by mutual agreement, it was decided that Stevenson's character would be written out of the series at the end of season three.
As usual, the cast received the week's script a few days in advance. It was read by all that Henry Blake would be leaving to show in the season's final episode entitled "Abyssinia, Henry". It was thought to be a typical “Good bye, Henry" type episode filled with the typical final episode hugs, kisses, and embraces. Henry leaves the M*A*S*H base and flies home safely -case closed.
But no. The writers of the show had a twist added.
Colonel Henry Blake, it was decided, was to be tragically shot down, by an enemy plane, and killed on his way home. Alan Alda was the only actor in the cast who was informed of this surprise tragic ending before the climax scene was shot. The writer of the episode, Larry Gelbart, kept the final page of the script locked in his desk until the moment of the scene's shooting. The reason for the switch was that the producer's wanted to get an honest reaction from the cast, in hearing the news of their close friend's death. The ruse worked- incredibly so.
In watching this final “Henry" episode, we see "Radar" (Gary Burghoff) muddle slowly into a busy operating room, seemingly in a state of shock, and sadly announce that "Colonel Henry Blake's plane was shot down over the sea of Japan. It spun in. There were no survivors."
As the camera slowly pans the room we see the male surgeons dazed, as if they had truly lost a beloved friend. Loretta Swit, the show's female lead, is seen openly weeping as are several other nurses in the room. It is, unequivocally, one of the most heart-wrenching, touching, surprising, scenes in television history. The genuine sad surprise of the moment was totally captured by the shocked cast. Interestingly (and amazingly) a second take of the scene was shot and was even better, because at the end of the stunned silence, an off-camera person dropped a surgical instrument. The sound of the object being dropped somehow improved the effectiveness of the scene. And it was the second take that was used in the final cut of the episode.
"You son of a bitch", said Gary Burghoff afterwards to writer Gelbart, "You'll probably win an Emmy for this!" But no Emmy went to the writers or to Stevenson himself. Gene Reynolds, the episode's director, did, however, garner an Emmy for "outstanding direction of a comedy series" for the 1975 season.
After the show aired, the M*A*S*H writers were barraged by tons of angry mail from upset fans. Larry Gelbart and Gene Reynolds made sure they personally answered every single letter, saying they were trying to make "a real-life point about the horrors of war." However, the show's creative team made a vow that they would never again have any character leave the show in such a tragic fashion.
As a gag, McLean Stevenson made a guest appearance on The Carol Burnett Show later that week. He is shown appearing on a smoking raft hollering "I’m okay! I’m okay!"
A funny gag- maybe. But the cast of M*A*S*H were genuinely hurt and shocked by the "death" of their close pal, Henry Blake. The end-of-season wrap party for the cast of M*A*S*H for the 1975 season was abruptly canceled. After the sudden "tragic death" of Henry Blake, no one felt in the mood for a party.