Family & Companions
Affable comedic actor McLean Stevenson was most widely known for his portrayal of Col. Henry Blake on the wartime ensemble dramedy "M*A*S*H" (CBS, 1972-1983), a ground-breaking show he left in order to pursue a series of his own. After receiving his start on the stages of New York and as a writer for such shows as "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour" (CBS, 1967-69), he landed his first regular cast role with a spot on the series "The Doris Day Show" (CBS, 1968-1973). After two seasons on that show, and with his professional stock on the rise, Stevenson chose to abandon his role on "Doris Day" for the groundbreaking series "M*A*S*H" in 1972. Although his endearingly goofy portrayal of Blake earned him accolades and scores of TV fans, the actor soon began to chafe under the increasingly large shadow of the series' primary star, Alan Alda. Stevenson left "M*A*S*H" in 1973 in order to receive top billing on "The McLean Stevenson Show" (NBC, 1976-77). It would be only the first of several failed attempts by the actor to headline a series. Stevenson's late-career work consisted largely of guest turns on sitcoms and appearances on a number of game shows, prior to his passing in 1996. Although he later admitted that leaving "M*A*S*H" had been a mistake, Stevenson never lost sight of the fact that he had secured himself a place in the pantheon of all-time great TV characters with his pitch-perfect embodiment of Col. Henry Blake.
Born Edgar McLean Stevenson, Jr. on Nov. 14, 1927 in Normal, IL, he was the son of a local cardiologist and a distant cousin of Vice President Adlai E. Stevenson and his son, presidential candidate Adlai E. Stevenson, II. After graduating from the revered preparatory school, Lake Forest Academy, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy for a stint, prior to enrolling at Illinois' Northwestern University, where he earned his B.A. in theater. From there, it was on to several odd-jobs, including a period at a radio station, work as a clown on a Dallas-area TV program, and as a medical supply and insurance salesman. He briefly dabbled in the political arena when he helped his cousin Adlai, Jr. with his election campaigns in 1952 and again in 1956. Later, acting on his cousin's advice, Stevenson made the move to New York City, where he began studying with acting luminaries such as Lee Strasberg and Sandy Meisner. During this time, he also worked and performed with a comedy revue called "Upstairs at the Downstairs" and later went on tour in the title role of "The Music Man" in 1962.
Despite frequent work in summer stock productions and relative success on the stages of New York and in commercials, Stevenson began to make more headway as a writer, utilizing his comedy revue background to great effect. Following his run in "The Music Man," he picked up scripting work on the U.S. adaptation of the popular British topical comedy show "That Was the Week That Was" (NBC, 1964-65). Occasionally, Stevenson was given the chance to perform on the news-of-the-day satire, as did fellow New York stage actor, Alan Alda. Looking to expand his professional horizons, he made the transition to Hollywood in 1968, where he landed a writing job writing on "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour" (CBS, 1967-69). Before long, Stevenson's acting opportunities picked up as well, and he made a guest appearance in an episode of "That Girl" (ABC, 1966-1971) in 1969. Now on a roll, he parlayed that into a regular berth on the sitcom "The Doris Day Show" (CBS, 1968-1973), where he was cast as Ms. Day's bumbling boss at a San Francisco magazine publishing company. At the same time, Stevenson also appeared on the short-lived variety show "The Tim Conway Comedy Hour" (CBS, 1970).
While still working on "Doris Day," Stevenson picked up his first two TV movie roles in short order. First came the romantic comedy "My Wives Jane" (CBS, 1971), starring screen beauty Janet Leigh, followed immediately by a turn as a minister who marries a pair of teenagers expecting a baby in "Mr. and Mrs. Bo Jo Jones" (ABC, 1971). That same year, a very busy Stevenson enjoyed his feature film debut with a small role in "The Christian Licorice Store" (1971), the story of a rising tennis star (Beau Bridges) derailed by life in the fast lane. With his services much in demand, and his satisfaction on "The Doris Day Show" in decline, Stevenson took a chance when he left the sitcom for a new series that promised to be a considerable gamble. That show was "M*A*S*H" (CBS, 1972-1983), a comedy drama based on the 1968 novel and hit film of the same name, the latter directed by Robert Altman. Shot in a single-camera style and with decidedly more edge than traditional half-hour sitcom fare, it was set at a mobile surgical unit during the Korean War. Stevenson played Col. Henry Blake, the camp's easy-going commanding officer, who would have much preferred to be on the golf course back home than near the front lines. Luckily, Blake could always count on company clerk Radar O'Reilly (Gary Burghoff) to keep things running somewhat smoothly amidst the fog of war.
After a shaky first season, "M*A*S*H" went on to become one of television's most beloved series, and as such, it afforded its stars with other opportunities. In another made-for-TV movie, Stevenson joined the ensemble cast of "Shirts/Skins" (ABC, 1973), in which a group of basketball buddies turn their weekly stress-relieving game of hoops into a bizarre treasure hunt contest. Back in theaters once more, he picked up a supporting role in the little-seen comedy "Win, Place or Steal" (1975), starring Dean Stockwell, Russ Tamblyn and Alex Karras as a trio of unlucky friends scheming to rip off their local racetrack. Back on the set of "M*A*S*H," however, discontent was brewing. Despite the show's success, and the fact that Stevenson had written a well-received episode and won a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actor in 1973, both he and co-star Wayne Rogers were ready to leave by the end of the third season. Primarily, he and Rogers - who played surgeon "Trapper" John McIntyre - had grown dissatisfied with the series' narrative focus on the character of Hawkeye Pierce (Alan Alda). Both left the show in 1975. In one of the series' most heart-wrenching moments, the ending of Stevenson's farewell "M*A*S*H" episode stunned viewers - as well as the actors, who were given the scene's script only moments before filming - when the plane taking Blake back to the U.S. was shot down over the Sea of Japan. There were no survivors. The death of Col. Blake would continue to make Top 10 lists of the most shocking moments in television history decades after it aired.
Looking to headline his own project - the primary reason for his "M*A*S*H" departure - Stevenson got what he wanted, for better or worse, when he became the star of "The McLean Stevenson Show" (NBC, 1976-77). However, the comedy about a middle-class dad running a hardware store and raising kids did failed to click with audiences and was unceremoniously cancelled during its first season. Although the series proved not so popular, the actor still was. Knowing this, NBC invited Stevenson to guest host "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson" (NBC, 1962-1992) several times during the mid-1970s. Stevenson later returned to theaters with Sandy Duncan and Harry Morgan - the latter of whom had filled his shoes on M*A*S*H - in Disney's "The Cat from Outer Space" (1978). That same year, CBS - his former network home - lured Stevenson back to series television with "In the Beginning" (CBS, 1978), in which he played a conservative priest attempting to run an urban mission with a liberal nun (Olivia Barash). Sadly, the culture clash comedy enjoyed even less success than "The McLean Stevenson Show" and was excommunicated, almost immediately.
Still determined to launch a successful McLean Stevenson-centric comedy series, NBC unveiled "Hello, Larry" (NBC, 1979-1980), featuring Stevenson as a radio talk show host raising his family as a single father. Rather than cancel the show after its initial weak ratings, the network propped it up by introducing Stevenson's character on their popular sitcom "Diff'rent Strokes" (NBC, 1978-1986), thereby allowing for cross-over ratings. The ploy failed miserably and the show was cancelled after two seasons, becoming widely regarded as one of the worst shows ever aired on television. Now actively looking for steady work, Stevenson became a familiar face on the TV game show circuit of the 1970s and 1980s, appearing frequently on daytime programs such as "The Hollywood Squares" (NBC, 1965-1982) and "Password Plus" (NBC, 1979-1982). He also played a colonel who exposes a space scandal in the sci-fi comedy "The Astronauts" (CBS, 1982), a series pilot that was never picked up by the network. After multiple attempts by the other networks, it was now ABC's chance to give Stevenson a shot, which it did with "Condo" (ABC, 1983), a situational comedy that cast Stevenson as a WASP-ish dad clashing with a Latino family that moves in to the condominium unit next door. As with his previous efforts, the show lasted barely a season.
Stevenson made an increasingly rare appearance when he played Andrew Jackson in the "Davy Crockett" episode of Shelley Duvall's "Tall Tales & Legends" (Showtime, 1985-88). Trying to make magic a second time by adapting a hugely popular film into a television show, Stevenson had a last go at a weekly series with "Dirty Dancing" (CBS, 1988-89), in which he played Max Kellerman, father of smitten neophyte dancer, Frances "Baby" Kellerman (Melora Hardin). This, too, failed to strike a chord with viewers and was soon dropped from the weekly lineup. After one more supporting role in the teen comedy TV-movie "Class Cruise" (NBC, 1989), Stevenson became noticeably less visible on television. He hosted the golf/country music series of specials "The Crosby Clambake" (The Nashville Network, 1991-93) for three years, prior to taking on a supporting role in the miniseries "Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City" (PBS, 1993). Sadly, the latter proved to be his last role, when Stevenson died of a heart attack in February of 1996. He was 68 years old.
Cast (Feature Film)
Special Thanks (Special)
Cast (TV Mini-Series)
Decided to become an actor after Adlai Stevenson, a relative, had invited him to a party in NYC
Stage debut in summer stock production of "The Music Man"
Writer and occasional performer on "That Was the Week That Was" (NBC), castmates included David Frost, Buck Henry and Alan Alda
Wrote for "The Summer Smothers Brothers Show" (aired from June to early September)
Appeared regularly on the short-lived "The Tim Conway Comedy Hour" (CBS)
Feature film debut, "The Christian Licorice Store"
TV-movie debut as a minister in "Mr. and Mrs. Bo Jo Jones" (ABC)
Began making regualr appearances on "The Tonight Show" (NBC), eventually became a frequent guest host substituting for Johnny Carson 58 times
Left "M*A*S*H" to pursue other opportunities; character of Henry Blake killed in plane crash
Final film appearance, "The Cat From Outer Space"
Starred as a priest in the short-lived CBS sitcom "In the Beginning"
Final TV appearance, "Armistead Maupin's 'Tales of the City'"