Sadly, McLean Stevenson's lasting legacy may be his failures rather than his successes. When he left M*A*S*H
at the end of the third season, he launched into a long list of series that bombed. "I got too big for my britches," he later confessed in an interview. "I thought they loved me
, but they loved Henry Blake."
McLean Stevenson was born in McLean County, Illinois (where his middle name -- his first name was Edgar -- came from) on November 14, 1929. His family boasted a number of successes: father Edgar was a cardiologist, sister Ann Whitney went into acting, his great-uncle was former Vice President Adlai Stevenson (Grover Cleveland's V.P.), and his second cousin was U.N. ambassador Adlai Stevenson II.
Stevenson served in the Navy, then went to Northwestern University's to study drama. Instead of heading to Hollywood, however, Stevenson remained in Illinois, selling insurance and working as an assistant athletics director at his alma mater. He also worked on cousin Adlai Stevenson's failed presidential candidacies in 1952 and 1956 as a press agent.
It was his political cousin who suggested that Stevenson should take a serious look at acting as a job. McLean began working in summer stock regional plays, eventually making his way to New York. He appeared in plays and a few commercials, also landing some guest star roles in series such as Car 54, Where Are You?
and Naked City
. His talents as a comedy writer were noticed, and soon McLean was in Hollywood as a writer on such series as That Was the Week That Was
, Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour
, and The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour
. He frequently performed as an extra in the shows he wrote for.
Stevenson finally stepped in front of the camera as a series regular in 1969 when he was cast as Doris Day's boss in The Doris Day Show
. He played Michael Nicholson for two years, leaving after the plot of the show was overhauled. He then went to 20th Century Fox and auditioned for the part of Benjamin Franklin "Hawkeye" Pierce for the television version of the popular 1970 movie M*A*S*H
. That role went to Alan Alda, a co-star in That Was the Week That Was
from the days when Stevenson wrote for the show. Stevenson was cast as the 4077's commanding officer, Henry Blake.
McLean played Henry, once described in an episode by Hot Lips as "a spineless, mealymouthed, fly fishing impostor," to perfection. In 1973 he won a Golden Globe as Best Supporting Actor for the role. He also wrote an episode ("The Trial of Henry Blake") that netted him an Emmy nomination. His popularity also earned him guest-hosting spots on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson
and celebrity panelists on Hollywood Squares
and Match Game
As the third season of M*A*S*H
went into production, Stevenson announced that he was leaving the show because he was, according to TV Guide
, "Tired of being a second banana." He did not appear in two episodes of the third season, and the shocking season finale saw the beloved character killed off. This was the first time a major character was killed off a series in prime time. (The term "McLeaning" was coined in the industry to describe actors who see their character killed off when leaving a series.)
Stevenson left for NBC, where he continued to guest host for Johnny Carson. His first post-M*A*S*H
series, The McLean Stevenson Show
, debuted on NBC in 1976. It lasted less than one season. His second attempt at a series was In the Beginning
on CBS, in which he played a conservative priest dealing with a liberal nun.
Perhaps Stevenson's most infamous role was as talk show host Larry Adler on NBC's Hello, Larry
in 1979. It lasted 41 episodes, but even a two-part "cross-over" with the popular Diff'rent Strokes
could not help ratings. Over the years, the show has become the brunt of jokes, a symbol of bad television.
Stevenson had two other series attempts. Condo
, from 1983, lasted only four months. A television version of the movie Dirty Dancing
was Stevenson's last venture into series television. He continued to receive guest starring roles in series such as Golden Girls
In the early 1990s, Stevenson turned his attention to a charitable cause that was dear to his heart. As a child, Stevenson had been seriously burned by a Halloween jack-o-lantern. He co-founded, with Dr. Richard Grossman, the Children's Burn Foundation in Sherman Oaks, California. He spent most of the last years of his life as the spokesman for the organization, raising money for the Foundation as well as calling attention to fire hazards for children.
On February 15, 1996, McLean Stevenson was in the hospital for routine bladder surgery. During the procedure he suffered a heart attack and died. He was 66. Coincidentally, just one day later a heart attack claimed the life of Roger Bowen
, the actor who originated the role of Lieutenant Colonel Henry Blake, Stevenson's most famous portrayal.
While the legacy of McLean Stevenson is, to many, a joke and a symbol of unqualified bad career moves, in fact Stevenson left behind a body of comedic and charity work that continues to be enjoyed.
McLean's son Jeff MacGregor
is also an actor and an author.