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Old 16 March 2009, 07:22 AM
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Ambulance Col. Blake's death -- a surprise?

As most M*A*S*H fans know, after McLean Stevenson announced early in 1975 that he would be leaving the show at the end of the year, the producers wrote his character out of the series by giving Col. Blake enough points to be rotated home in the final episode of the third season ("Abyssinia, Henry"). That episode had a surprise ending, with Radar entering the OR in the very last scene to relay the tragic news that Col. Blake's plane had been shot down over the Sea of Japan.

It's something of a legend that the cast of the show did not know what was going to happen in that final scene -- they were simply assembled for one last take at the end of the episode and did not know what coming until Gary Burghoff (Radar) delivered his lines. For example, the IMDb entry for that episode states:

In a surprise twist at the end of the episode, the characters learn that Blake's plane was shot down en route to Japan, and everyone aboard died. This was kept a surprise from the cast (with one exception, Alan Alda) until the moment when Gary Burghoff's character ran into the operating room to announce the news. The producers' intent was to capture the cast's genuine shock and surprise, and to remind the audience that war takes friend and foe alike.
However, in The Complete Book of M*A*S*H, Jamie Farr (Klinger) says just the opposite -- that the cast may not have known how the episode was going to end while they were filming it, but when they assembled for the final scene they knew what was coming and had discussed it with director Larry Gelbart in advance:

[T]he last episode of the third year ... when we read the [script] page and found out that Henry died, we were all stunned, and Larry [Gelbart] asked for comments and a lot of people had their say. But I didn't say anything because I didn't think they would really care what I had to say. I happened to agree with doing it, but I didn't say a word.

The whole thing about Henry's death was very hush-hush. I had already finished my scenes and was at home waiting for a call about the [end of season] wrap party. Loretta [Swit] was finished also. Then I got a call from the studio asking me to come in for an added scene, and they said Loretta was coming, too. I asked if I needed the pages ahead of time -- if I had to study any lines -- and they said no, not to worry, it was a quick scene in the OR and just to come on in. I said fine. I came down and they called all the regulars into a corner and Larry had a big manila envelope and he pulled out these [script] pages. We couldn't believe what we had read. We blocked it without saying a word so the crew wouldn't know anything until we actually did it.
Another M*A*S*H page on the web supports this second version:

With ample time to prepare a "Goodbye Henry" show, it was decided that Henry Blake would be discharged and sent home for the Season Three finale, which aired on Tuesday March 18, 1975. In the final scene of his last episode, "Abyssinia, Henry," Radar tearfully reports that Henry's plane had been shot down over the Sea of Japan, and he was killed. The scene was the last one shot of the entire episode, and the page of script that reveals that development was only given to the cast moments before cameras rolled.
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