Television

The Death of Henry Blake

M*A*S*H producer Gene Reynolds on facing down viewers’ outrage for killing off a popular character.

A TV displaying Henry Blake
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by 20th Century Fox Television and Getty Images Plus.

This article is part of a series about the 50 greatest fictional deaths of all time. It is excerpted from the Television Academy Foundation’s interview with Gene Reynolds, producer of M*A*S*H, conducted in 2000.

McLean [Stevenson, who played Henry Blake] was never better. He did a great job for three years. But somewhere along the line, I remember him saying to me, “This guy says I could have my own show.” McLean was the kind of guy who, when he was here, he felt maybe he should be over there. A lot of people are like that. Advice is cheap. Whoever you talk to in this town, they say, “I know what you’re doing, but you know what you oughta do … ” So he thought he ought to be a star.

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We were working on the story of McLean leaving. McLean said, “I wanna get off the show,” so we finally made a deal with him: Finish the year. And he agreed to finish the year, and then they would let him go, because he was very unhappy, and we didn’t want to keep him if he was that unhappy. In writing the last story, where his time is up, he’s gonna come home, we said, “What if he went into the drink?” Because a lot of young men from Bloomington, Illinois, did not get home to Bloomington. It was honest to that extent. And so that became part of the story.

We withheld that from the cast because we didn’t want them somehow falling apart or playing that last scene—some actors will do that—they’ll play something they shouldn’t know about. We called the cast aside and [M*A*S*H creator] Larry [Gelbart] had the scene in a manila envelope. He handed the script to them, and it was about the operating theater, and Radar comes in and reads the telegram, reads the wire, that Henry Blake’s plane had gone down in the Sea of Japan.

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I’m sitting in my office some weeks later, and it’s the night that the show is on the air. It’s about 6:30 at night. The phone rings, my secretary had gone home, and I had a terrible headache. I picked up the phone, and a woman says: “I don’t know why you did it. It was not necessary, it’s just a little comedy show. You did not have to do this.” I said, “What are you talking about?” “You did not have to kill Henry Blake.” I say, “Who’s calling?” She says, It’s so and so, I’m in New York City. New York was 9:30, she had seen the show. So she says: “You made a big mistake, it was a rotten thing to do. We’re all crying here, you’ve upset everybody.”

I’m trying to explain the wastefulness of war. I’m trying to come on with this reasonable explanation and so forth. And she says, “I will never watch the show again.”

So I said, “I don’t care.”

She says, “Well, I don’t believe that.”

And I said, “I don’t believe you won’t watch the show again.”

Read more about the 50 greatest fictional deaths of all time, including picks from Stephen King, Hilary Mantel, David Simon, and more.

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