M*A*S*H was first a successful film, then a mega-successful television series. Some characters made the transition from the film to the series while others did not.
Henry Blake was a middle-aged doctor assigned to command a mobile field hospital. You’ve seen the television series and maybe the film, so I don’t need to explain the set-up.
Lt. Col. Henry Blake tried, but wasn’t much of a leader. He seemed more interested in his hobbies, and chasing the occasional nurse, than being a spit and polish military officer. Neither version of Henry Blake had much of a backbone and seemed to fold in the presence of a general. These guys weren’t “regular Army” so the world of military regulations and combat were equally frightening to them.
In the original M*A*S*H film, Blake was played by actor Roger Bowen. In the film version, Col. Blake was a secondary character, with Bowen surfacing only when needed. Bowen’s Blake didn’t seem to know about what was going on in his field hospital. He can be seen fly fishing or in bed with his nurse girlfriend. He seems to have been dropped into unfamiliar territory but approaches it with an efficiency that’s aided by his corporal and other staff. Somehow, the hospital functions in spite of both the Korean War and the U.S. Army. This Blake seems more baffled than bumbler. The world flew past Bowen’s Blake without him noticing half of it.
McLean Stevenson, did a three-year hitch as Blake in the television series. Stevenson was more bumbler than he was baffled, going more for comic effect. Stevenson seemed to delight in being playing Blake as way in over his head and embracing physical comedy in his character. The TV Blake freely admitted his flaws, like making command decisions, drinking a lot, and even being unfaithful to his college sweetheart wife. His Blake tried to do the right thing, he provide supplies to the local orphanage, against Army regulations, and overlooked many of the shenanigans of Hawkeye and Trapper. He and Radar had a special relationship, almost like uncle and nephew, although Radar was constantly trying to sneak things by the Colonel.
Stevenson grew tired of being the third banana on the show and left for greener pastures, although many failed series, and a few films later, he admitted that leaving the series was a bad decision. His most frequent role was that was on The Tonight Show, as either guest or guest-host. He and Johnny had a unique relationship, easy banter and Stevenson was always armed with stories, usually involving something silly he had done.
Bowen alternated between television and film, mainly in small comedic roles. He was a co-founder of Second City, the comedy group formed in Chicago, that produced many big name comedic talents. Bowen started out wring material for the group, and went on to write eleven novels. He was said to consider himself mainly a writer who moonlighted as an actor, and was a featured player on several television series in the 1970’s and 1980’s.
Each Blake worked well for what was required. Bowen’s Blake was befuddled with the world functioned around him. The film was a black comedy and often left things to the imagination or simply a lot of jagged edges in Robert Altman’s chaotic story. The TV series was very straight-forward, each story neatly wrapped up in weekly 23 minutes installments. Stevenson’s Blake was complicit in the loony affairs; the affable commanding officer that served as the buffer between Hawkeye/Trapper and Hotlips/Frank Burns.
The two Henry Blakes served different purposes, but each actor created a memorable version of the commanding officer as a tower of confusion in a very difficult situation. Stevenson died on February 15, 1996 of a heart attack. Bowen died on February 16, 1996 of a heart attack. Within one day, both Henry’s were felled by heart attacks. Interesting.