Sunday, June 04, 2006

More on Henry Blake's demise

Several readers wanted more details on the famous O.R. scene in MASH where Henry Blake’s death was revealed. When was it decided? When did the cast know? How much did the cast know? When did they film the scene? Why didn’t they kill off Trapper too because he left the show at the same time? Did everyone feel lucky that there was no ET yet to provide “exclusive coverage”?

MacLean Stevenson announced to the cast and producers that he was leaving several weeks prior to the end of production for that season (the 3rd). Wayne Rogers (Trapper) did not. His parting came after the show had wrapped so producers Larry Gelbart and Gene Reynolds had to deal with his departure at the beginning of the 4th season.

Larry and Gene decided to take the bold step of killing Henry Blake because of the message it sent – people you love die in wars, sometimes in wars that make little sense. They did not do it for the shock value. They were, in fact, somewhat surprised by the enormity of the reaction.

The episode was the last one filmed. The script the cast was given did not have the final scene. All they knew was “O.R. scene to come.” They often received scenes last minute so didn’t think this was anything odd.

They filmed the rest of the show, and got in wardrobe for the last scene. Moments before it was to be filmed, Gene and Larry came down to the set with the pages. The stunned cast had only minutes to digest the news before the camera rolled. The reactions you saw were real. Interestingly, the portion of the scene where Radar (Gary Burghoff) comes in and reads the telegram was not the first take. There was a technical glitch so Gary had to do it again. Imagine making an actor play that moment twice? It’s hard to believe anyone could do it any better.

If any viewer wrote to the show or network protesting the decision to kill Henry and left their name and address, either Larry or Gene wrote them back a personal explanation. Every one and there were many thousands.

And finally, to CBS’s credit, they supported the decision and did not exploit it. But that was way back in the day when the audience decided what was a “very special episode” and not network promo departments.


Mary Stella said...

I don't know if TV Guide has ever done a feature on 100 most memorable scenes, but the death of Henry Blake would have to rank near the top.

The power came in its relative simplicity. No fiery helicopter crash, no blazing guns. The glint of tears behind Radar's glasses, the choke of his voice, the shock on everyone's faces and the echo of viewers' hearts breaking across the country.

Beth Ciotta said...

"Larry and Gene decided to take the bold step of killing Henry Blake because of the message it sent – people you love die in wars..."

My admiration for the producers, writers, and cast of MASH, a show I've loved for years, swells even more. Didn't think that was possible. Thanks for sharing this story, Ken.

Grubber said...

One of the best episodes of TV(not just comedy) ever, in my humble opinion.
Thanks for the insight Ken.

Jaime J. Weinman said...

One more thing about that scene is that it was done in such a way that it could have been cut by stations that didn't want to show it -- it was the closing "tag" scene, and those scenes were, I understand, sometimes dropped by some stations (those tags were sort of like the top two panels of a Sunday comic strip -- optional space). So an affiliate that didn't want to show Blake's death could have dropped that tag and ended the episode with Henry going home.

Rays profile said...

Jaime: Actually, that was taken care of in a later episode when Hawkeye was declared prematurely dead by the Army, and decided to sit the war out. His closing speech was about how no matter who was there, the war and the wounded would continue, and included the lines "Trapper went home, they're still coming. Henry got killed, they're still coming." So eventually, I guess, any station's viewers would have found out.

Blondie said...

I still cry EVERYTIME I watch that episode, and I can't count how many times it's been. I grew up on MASH, (I'll be 40 this year) I remember sneaking out of my bedroom to watch it from the hallway over my mom's shoulder and running back to bed to on the commercials. It is still my number one favirite show of all time.
Thanks for the inside scoop.

no one said...

Mr. Levine,

Thank you for keeping a blog! I discovered it today and have been entertained all morning.

Also, thanks for your work. It's nice to have good television. :)

Dave said...

Thanks for the story behind that. I can't say I was angry, I was young, but it was an impact. Very sad moment.

Kudo's to the team who put it together and to Larry and Gene for their personal attention to their audience.

You just can't take this kind of emotional trip with reality shows.

Anonymous said...

I remember when this happened. I was just in junior high school at the time, and wasn't able to see the show "live". When people at school were talking about it the next day, I was completely stunned.

That show still has an impact on me, even today.

Diane said...

I just saw this last night on the Hallmark Channel . . . and I can confirm the closing scene still carries a big wallop

Anonymous said...

I only just watched this episode again a few minutes ago, and am still struggling to hold back the tears. This is one of the few moments in television that I have felt this way about the death of a character. The impact of that final scene is something that never diminishes no matter how many times you see it. I don't think McLean Stevenson had any idea how beloved his character was when he made the decision to leave.

Anonymous said...

i just watched a clip episode on hallmark a few minutes ago, and the bulk of the last 15 mins are taken up with a quick run-through of that episode. even in clip form, it makes me cry like i knew henry blake personally. i'm 40 this year, and grew up watching MASH. i've seen every episode so many times, and the death of henry blake just reduces me to tears. such a fantastic cast, such incredible writing. thank you, thank you.

Robyn said...

I remember the first time I saw the scene, I was shocked and saddened. Every time I've seen that episode afterwards I want to stop Henry from leaving, "no don't go, please stay".

I discovered your blog days ago when I was researching something on Mash since hubby and I are watching the first 3 seasons on DVD. A Google search brought me to your site and I haven't left since.

George G. Krozser 3td. said...

Mash fantastic show can't believe its so long ago. That scene makes me cry too. I sometimes think there should have been more to it. Like what they would have all said. But less is more

Unknown said...

I hated it when it happened. As a young man l couldn't imagine why. Now as a grown man l can honestly say it was ground breaking and heart felt. My generation had never seen anything like it and l'm glad l saw it.

Kristen Curry said...

Hi. I have been thinking of this for years and I'm so glad to find a MASH writer out there to thank. (yay, internet!)

In college, a whole bunch of us jammed into the TV lounge to watch re-runs of MASH. Most of those kids had never seen the original.

I remember vividly sitting there, with all the students, and their absolute shock when Henry died and I remember feeling so deeply grateful that MASH had managed to do that. To convey to so many people what it felt like to lose someone you love in a war.

My dad died in Vietnam in 1969 and I never knew another kid who had that experience except my brother. I remain overwhelmed with gratitude for that episode. In a tiny way it made me feel less alone.

My father's name was Richard John Curry.

It never occurred to me to contact the producers. Thank you for sharing your story of how this decision was made.

I remain grateful for the creative boldness that led to such a darkly beautiful moment.

Anonymous said...

I didn't like it when it happened, and I still don't like it, and you heard that from an Army Vet. Gelbart and Reynolds got their point across regarding the deaths of decent people in wartime, but I thought their decision to kill Henry Blake was a bad one.

Richard said...

I am an Army Vet and even though I appreciate the point that Gelbart and Reynolds wanted to make when they chose to kill Henry Blake, I didn't like it and I still don't like it. I suspect that their decision still is rather controversial.

Unknown said...

I have watched MASH over and over, and I never grow tired of it. I still cry over the scene where Henry is pronounced dead. However, the addition of Harry Morgan as Sherman Potter, was fantastic. The character was a perfect replacement, and gave the show an entirely different dimension.

Anonymous said...

I served in the Army, and I know exactly why Gelbart and Reynolds chose to kill off Henry Blake. Nevertheless, I didn't like it then, and I still don't like it. And I suspect Gelbart and Reynolds did not succeed in changing the minds of the people who didn't like Henry being killed off. Yes, the show went off in an entirely new dimension when Harry Morgan's Sherman Potter arrived on the scene to succeed Blake as the CO of the 4077th, but it wasn't the same. I preferred Blake to Potter who was a good character but hardly a perfect replacement. As the series went on, I thought that Potter was too corny.

Anonymous said...

Potter was full-blown army whereas Blake was not. That's why I preferred Blake.