Friday, October 2, 2020

McLean Stevenson

Edgar McLean Stevenson, Jr. was born in Normal, Illinois on November 14, 1927.  He came from a political dynasty, as his second cousin, Adlai Stevenson, Sr., served as Vice-President under Grover Cleveland.  Ironically though, McLean's father was a doctor.

After graduating from high school, McLean enlisted in the Navy.  Not the Army.  When his tour was completed, he enrolled in Northwestern University, earning a Bachelor's Degree in Theater. 

McLean began his professional career in Dallas, where he played a clown on local television.  On the side, he sold medical supplies and insurance, before returning to his political roots.  In 1952 and 1956, Adlai Jr. made two unsuccessful runs for the White House, with McLean serving as Press Secretary during both campaigns.

In the 1960s, McLean returned to show business.  He made his theatrical debut in a 1962 production of The Music Man and was a regular performer in summer stock productions in Indiana.  Having started to build an acting resume for himself, he moved to New York City and soon found work on the Broadway stage.  Before he became a household name however, he appeared as a contestant on the game show Password, a series which, years later, he would return to as a celebrity panelist.

The Doris Day Show (1969).
In addition to performing, McLean began writing for television, on such series as The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour and That Was The Week That Was, a show that featured Alan Alda.  He also found work in commercials, including these spots for Kellogg'sLibby's Fruit and Winston Cigarettes

By now, Hollywood had noticed, and McLean began getting series work.  After a guest star spot on That Girl with Marlo Thomas, he became a series regular on The Doris Day Show.  Here's a clip of the two of them from that series.

Then in 1972, he was cast in the role that he is most famously known for, Colonel Henry Blake on M*A*S*H.  Although the series would eventually be recognized as one of the top sit-coms in television history, it was almost canceled after its first year.  As the series went on however, McLean began to resent his second-banana status, preferring a series of his own.  By this point he was also a substitute host for Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show, and he felt that more lucrative offers would present themselves.  So in 1975, as M*A*S*H completed its third season, McLean decided to leave the series. 

M*A*S*H (1974).

Producers Larry Gelbart and Gene Reynolds felt that McLean's departure should be used to make a commentary on war.  "Guys just didn't all get to go back to Bloomington, Indiana," Reynolds said.  Rather than allowing Colonel Blake a safe return home from the war, his character was killed off en route.  Here's a clip of that final scene, and here's Gelbart discussing their decision.

Hello, Larry (1979).

After he left the series, McLean starred in a number of sit-coms, none of which would last more than a season.  The most famous of these is Hello, Larry, which saw McLean as a radio therapist raising two teenage daughters on his own.  It was never a huge hit for NBC, so in an attempt to bolster the ratings, they did two cross-over episodes with the more successful sit-com Diff'rent Strokes.  Ultimately, Hello, Larry was canceled.  I will say this for the show however.  It had a great theme song. Forty-some years later, it's still stuck in my head.  You can watch it here.  The series also starred future Real Housewife of Beverly Hills Kim Richards, prior to her multiple plastic surgeries and stints at Betty Ford.

Throughout the 80s, McLean guest starred on a number of popular primetime series, including The Golden Girls and The Love Boat.  He also returned to his game show roots, appearing as a regular panelist on The Match Game, as well as Password and a celebrity edition of Family Feud.  

Dirty Dancing (1988).
In 1988, McLean was oddly cast in a primetime network TV version of the popular Patrick Swayze film Dirty Dancing.  You read that correctly.  I did know that the series existed until now and all I can say is wow.  You can check out the intro here.  Look for a young Melora Hardin (The Office) reprising the Jennifer Grey role. 

It would be McLean's final series.  In 1996, he checked into Encino-Tarzana Regional Medical Center to undergo bladder surgery.  During his recovery, he suffered a fatal heart attack and passed away on February 15.  He was 68 years old.

McLean was interred at Forest Lawn Hollywood Hills in Los Angeles.

Courts of Remembrance
Columbarium of Valor
Niche G64649

Abyssinia, Henry.

  • McLean wrote two episodes of M*A*S*H, including one titled "The Trial of Henry Blake."  In the episode, the character of Frank Burns states that his family came to America in 1927.  This would seem to be an in-joke by McLean, who was born in 1927.

  • On his departure from the series, McLean stated "I made the mistake of believing that people were enamored of McLean Stevenson when the person they were enamored of was Henry Blake." He also said "I've never been able to work with a group that's as talented or scripts that are as good.  I did some terrible shows.  But nobody made me do it.  I did everything by choice."

  • Shortly after Henry Blake was killed off, McLean reprised the character on The Cher Show.  If you've never seen the clip, check it out here.

  • In 1978, McLean appeared with his M*A*S*H successor Harry Morgan in the Disney film The Cat From Outer Space.  Check out the trailer here.

  • McLean died one day before actor Roger Bowen, who originated the role of Colonel Blake in the original M*A*S*H feature film.  Both died of a heart attack.

No comments:

Post a Comment