Abyssinia, Henry was the 72nd episode of the M*A*S*H television series, and the 24th and final episode of the series' third season. Written by Everett Greenbaum and Jim Fritzell, it was first aired by CBS on March 18, 1975. This highly rated episode remains notable for its shocking ending: the (off-screen) death of Colonel Henry Blake..
The episode centers on Henry leaving the 4077th MASH for the final time. The episode marked McLean Stevenson's departure from the series, and later also became the last episode for Wayne Rogers as Trapper John. Stevenson left to pursue other interests while Rogers, dissatisfied with his role, left over a contract dispute before season four began filming. Rogers' character's departure takes place off-screen prior to the following episode, "Welcome to Korea".
These combined departures and their subsequent replacements also signaled the beginning of a major shift in the overall focus of the series from a comedy to a more balanced comedy-drama.
Everyone is happy when Henry finds out that he is being discharged and sent home, and Hawkeye and Trapper decide to literally send him off in style...
Full Episode Summary
While everyone else is in surgery, a giddy Radar comes in to the OR and quietly gives Henry some news: he has just earned all of his rotation points and is eligible for discharge. It takes a moment to sink in, but when he tells the others, Hawkeye and Trapper congratulate him.
Later in his office, Henry is still somewhat in disbelief; he offers a drink to Radar as something of a celebration, but Radar declines. But as the reality sinks in more, Henry begins to talk about how he misses his family, particularly his wife Lorraine, expounding on her beauty, her "fantastic body", and even what she wears to bed. Listening to his rambling, Radar reconsiders and decides to have a drink.
Henry then has Radar arrange for a call back home to Bloomington, Illinois to inform his wife and family. He and Radar begin to clean out his office, and after finding a picture of the two of them together, they share a sentimental moment in which Radar tells Henry how much he has meant to him. Radar gifts Henry an inscribed cartridge, and Henry returns the favor by spontaneously giving Radar a thermometer that once belonged to his father; Radar soon realizes that the thermometer is not oral.
On the night before Henry's departure, Hawkeye, Trapper, and Radar throw Henry a private going-away party at Rosie's. All four inebriated, they share some pleasant memories and reminisce before Blake says he has go to the bathroom, which is one of four trees behind the bar. Before he comes back, the others prepare a comedic ceremony in which they do a mock "cashiering" of Henry out of the Army. As part of the ceremony, the three present Henry with 'civvies', a brand new double-breasted suit as a parting gift.
Meanwhile, Margaret and Frank are also excited, but for a different reason, as Henry's departure automatically elevates Frank to commander, and they eagerly look forward to bringing the camp back under more military discipline. To celebrate the moment, Margaret pins her father's old silver oak leaf insignia on Frank's collar and addresses him as 'Colonel Burns'. The day of Henry's departure is Frank's first as commander, and he immediately turns into a hard-nosed "boss", yelling at a hungover Radar to play Reveille with a bad cold sore on his lip. After hearing him play, Frank instead starts loudly blowing his whistle to summon the camp to assembly. The camp lines up in formation while a disheveled Hawkeye and Trapper trudge into ranks.
Dressed in his new suit, Blake leaves his tent for the final time and is greeted with a round of applause from the unit. Frank orders everyone to attention in salute, but Henry, in his typical laid-back fashion, tells Frank to "lay off" and to "stuff that whistle someplace". He says some individual goodbyes to many of the members of the 4077th, including Hawkeye who gives him a kiss on each cheek, Trapper who compliments him on the suit, and Father Mulcahy, who blesses him. Klinger, wearing a Carmen Miranda-style outfit he made just for the occasion but didn't have time to zip up, is zipped up by Henry; Klinger then even gives Henry a picture of him in a pink evening gown, which he knew was Henry's favorite.
As he is about to leave, Hawkeye whispers in Henry's ear suggesting that he give Margaret (who was still being called "Hot Lips" at the time) a big goodbye kiss, which he does, generating another rousing round of applause with catcalls from the onlookers. Blake then leaves camp, walking toward the chopper pad with Hawkeye, Trapper, Margaret, Frank, Klinger, Father Mulcahy, Radar while they and the rest of the camp all say their farewells and sing "For He's a Jolly Good Fellow".
The chopper lands with a wounded soldier, which occupies Hawkeye and Trapper; they say their quick goodbyes before tending to the soldier. As he is about to board the chopper, Henry sees an emotional Radar saluting him. He runs back to him to return the salute and tells him, "You behave yourself or I'm gonna come back and kick your butt." He hugs Radar one last time and then boards the chopper, leaving 4077th for the final time.
Later, the three remaining surgeons are in the OR when a visibly shaken Radar slowly walks in. Trapper chides him for not wearing a mask, and Hawkeye jests that he can take it if Radar has his discharge papers. Radar ignores them both as he haltingly addresses everyone there:
"I have a message: Lieutenant Colonel... Henry Blake's plane... was shot down... over the Sea of Japan... It spun in... There were no survivors."
After a moment, Radar leaves, while the rest of the staff continue to work in stunned silence amid a few sobs and the sound of a dropped instrument. Frank and Margaret are noticibly shaken up, Father Mulchay grips his chest. Hawkeye and Trapper briefly look up in disbelief as they continue to operate.
The episode closes with the PA announcer saying, "M*A*S*H 4077th bids Henry Blake a reluctant and affectionate farewell" by means of a light-hearted montage of clips from past episodes.
The scene in which Radar informs everyone of Henry's death marked the first time in television history that a major character of a network series was killed off in such a tragic manner. When Stevenson decided the third season of M*A*S*H would be his last, producers Gene Reynolds and Larry Gelbart decided to make a statement regarding the unexpectedness and horror of war, especially with the Vietnam War still fresh in the people's minds; they wanted to establish a connection, and to point out that, as Gene Reynolds said, "people like Henry Blake are lost in war".
In Suzy Kalter's book The Complete Book of M*A*S*H, Jamie Farr (Klinger) relates his own version of the events leading up to the scene in which Radar announces Henry's death. Farr stated that creator and writer Larry Gelbart showed a very top-secret script of the scene to the cast but not to the crew, who remained uninformed until the scene was filmed. Farr then went on to say that the first take "was a blockbuster", with gasps being heard from the crew, but they had to shoot a second take due to a technical problem.
McLean Stevenson was still on the set as the final scene was filmed. A season-ending cast party was planned, but filming the scene put so much of a damper on the cast's mood that the party was cancelled, and Stevenson abruptly left the set. Stevenson would later state in an interview that he was deeply hurt that his character's death was not revealed until just moments before filming.
Reception and impact
Viewer reaction was mixed, but intense. The producers received hundreds of letters, mostly from angry viewers who argued that Blake's death did not belong in the show, citing their collective belief that M*A*S*H was a comedy and not a drama; many of these same protesters vowed they would never watch the show again. Initially, Gelbart and Reynolds hand-wrote letters to answer the feedback, but eventually, due to the overwhelming response, a form letter of explanation was approved explaining the rationale of their decisions.
Negative reaction also emerged from higher up, as CBS and 20th Century Fox expressed their displeasure at Henry's death. CBS' disapproval was so great that when the episode was rerun, the network ordered the final scene to be edited out. In contrast, the unedited scene has always been shown in syndication, and was intact in the DVD release of the series' third season in 2003.
The night after the episode aired, the situation was parodied when McLean Stevenson briefly appeared on an episode of Cher's musical variety series (not on Carol Burnett's show, as is the popular belief); the brief cutaway showed Stevenson, in costume as Henry, rowing a raft alone and shouting into the camera, "Hey, guys, I'm OK. I'm OK!!"
Following the airing, despite protests from the producers and the cast (including newcomers Mike Farrell and Harry Morgan), CBS executives decided to move M*A*S*H from it's solid Tuesday night slot to a weaker position on Friday nights. This move caused M*A*S*H's ratings to slip out of the top 10 for its fourth season. By December of 1975, CBS moved the series back to Tuesday nights, where it would remain until near the end of season 6, when it was permanently moved to Monday nights. After returning to Tuesday nights M*A*S*H went back into the Top 10 in the Nielsen ratings, where it remained for the rest of its run.
While "Abyssinia, Henry" is well known as McLean Stevenson's departure from the series, it would also prove to be Wayne Rogers' final episode as well. During the 1975 summer break between filming, Rogers, disliking the fact that Trapper John had become less of an equal and more of a "second banana" to the more popular Hawkeye, decided to leave the series as well. When 20th Century Fox attempted to sue Rogers for this supposed breach of contract, it was discovered that Rogers, citing an unfair morals clause, never signed his original contract, and the lawsuit was dismissed.
Season four introduced Henry and Trapper's replacements: respectively, regular Army Colonel Sherman Potter (Harry Morgan) as the new commander, and the more down-to-earth family man Captain B.J. Hunnicutt (Mike Farrell) to replace Trapper. Another change to the composition of the show occurred in the elevation of recurring cast member Jamie Farr to "co-star" status, his name now being featured in the opening credits.
When the cast returned to begin filming season 4 in the late summer of 1975, there were other changes in the offing besides to the cast. Overall, the show began to take on a more serious tone as a comedy-drama series, departing from its status as a mere sitcom. The individual effects and psychological damages of war were explored more often. Korean culture was also portrayed in greater depth, while the "boorish military mindset" was given somewhat less attention.
Compounding these changes, in late April 1975, a month after "Abyssinia, Henry" aired, and before the fourth season began in September, the South Vietnamese capital of Saigon was captured by the People's Army of Vietnam and the Viet Cong, marking the formal end of the Vietnam War.
As of May 2020, according to user reviews on imdb.com, "Abyssinia, Henry" is the highest rated episode of the entire series with a rating of 9.5 (out of 10) . Tuttle ranks second at 9.0, while the series finale ties with five other episodes for third with a rating of 8.8.
- The episode's title, similar to the former name of the country of Ethiopia, was actually a play on words meant to sound like "I'll be seein' ya, Henry".
- McLean Stevenson passed away from a heart attack on February 15, 1996 at the age of 68. Ironically, Roger Bowen, who played Henry in the 1970 MASH movie, also died of a heart attack at age 63 the day after Stevenson died. Because of this macabre coincidence, Bowen's family did not make the news of his death public until a week later, so that his obituary wouldn't be mistaken for a garbled version of Stevenson's.
- After Wayne Rogers left the series, he would later portray another doctor, Charley Michaels, on the 1979–1982 CBS series House Calls (adapted from the 1978 movie starring Walter Matthau). Rogers succumbed to complications from pneumonia in Los Angeles, California, at the age of 82, on New Year's Eve 2015, one year to the day before the passing of fellow M*A*S*H cast member William Christopher.
Guest stars/Recurring cast
- Jamie Farr as Klinger
- William Christopher as Father Mulcahy
- Uncredited appearances: (all seen at the farewell gathering)
- Todd Susman is heard as the P.A. announcer only in the final sequence, introducing the montage of Henry Blake clips.