Was it a comedy/drama or was it a drama/comedy? (I’ve given my take on that question in a previous blog you can check out here.) Whatever the answer, none can deny it was one of American television’s greatest shows. I’m talking about M*A*S*H (1972-1983) the groundbreaking series set in a mobile army surgical hospital in South Korea during the Korean War (1950-1953).
One of the most popular characters of the series was Lt. Col. Henry Blake, the somewhat bumbling, frequently befuddled commanding officer of the 4077th M*A*S*H unit. He was played by McLean Stevenson, who at some point in the show’s third season (1974/75) wanted out. He wanted to pursue more lucrative offers, one of which was NBC dangling the possible replacing of Johnny Carson on the Tonight Show when Johnny retired. Of course, McLean would have to leave CBS and M*A*S*H to come to NBC and star in a show tailored just for him for that offer to come true.
Johnny didn’t retire until 1992 and none of the shows Stevenson starred in lasted very long. Was it one of the worst career blunders in television history? Maybe. I’ll let others debate over that.
Stevenson was able to convince the producers to let him leave the popular series. In fact, he was given a season finale send off that has gone down in television history. The episode is called Abyssinia, Henry. The entire episode was built upon the excitement of Henry being able to go home, to get away from the war, to be with his wife and kids again, to pick up the pieces of his life.
A hilarious drunken party was held. Memories were shared. Henry got himself a spiffy new suit. He may have crossed the line with his goodbye to Maj. Margaret Houlihan (Loretta Swit), a character who was still in her “Hot Lips” phase. I mean that kiss might not fly today. And there was that touching moment when he stopped himself from climbing on the helicopter to come back and give his company clerk “Radar” O’Reilly (Gary Burghoff) a personal goodbye.
Then back on the chopper and off for home.
However, and this is a spoiler if you’ve never watched the show or know nothing about it – where have you been?! – Lt. Col. Henry Blake never made it home.
This is where the episode became cemented in television history.
The producers had decided that Henry should die. It was their way of reminding the audience that war is hell. It’s senseless. And people die needlessly. This was a message the producers stressed when answering angry letters written by fans who were so upset by the death of such a beloved character.
Larry Gelbart, who was one of the main creative forces behind the show, directed this episode. He kept the tragic ending from the cast and crew during the rehearsals and filming. He didn’t want the actors knowing of Henry’s death as that knowledge might change their performances. They were all fine actors, but knowing the story would have such a sad ending might have taken some of the joy away from the meat of the show.
When it came to time to do the last scene, Gelbart called the main cast together and gave them the final part of the script. The cast members were stunned. The scene was shot. It was set in the operating room, just the same as when the episode opened. This time, however, instead of entering to tell Col. Blake that he had earned his points and was being discharged, Radar came in with a much, much different message:
“I have a message. Lt. Col. Henry Blake’s plane was shot down over the Sea of Japan. It spun in. There were no survivors.”
He turned to leave as the camera panned across the stunned silence of the OR. A scalpel is dropped which momentarily breaks the silence while at the same time it accentuates it.
Damn. When TV is done right, it is so good.
Packing Pea… Oh, wait! I was going to nitpick this scene, wasn’t I? I almost forgot.
Look, it boils down to three words: “It spun in.”
It’s a phrase that has not sat well with me for a long time. I mean, it is a telegram message, presumably from Army Command, that Radar reads to the hospital staff, right? Written by some clerk to inform Col. Blake’s former command of his death. Why describe how the plane crashed? Why say, “It spun in?” Saying the plane was shot down and there were no survivors would suffice. It would have been efficient. It would have been more military.
I just don’t think someone would take the time to paint a picture. His plane was shot down. No one survived. Why say any more?
It’s that line that takes me out of the scene. Admittedly, it doesn’t take me out by much, but I hear the voice of the show’s writers in those three words. And it has bugged me.
That’s the thing about nits, they bug you until you pick them.
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Warehouse Find is the official blog of NostalgiaZone.com, where you can find books, games, toys, cards, and a huge selection of Golden, Silver, Bronze, and Modern Age comic books. Jim also has a podcast called Dimland Radio. He’d love it if you checked it out. It’s available on iTunes.