Edgar McLean Stevenson, Jr. (November 14, 1927 – February 15, 1996), better known as McLean Stevenson, was an American actor most recognized for his role as Lt. Colonel Henry Blake on the TV series M*A*S*H.
Stevenson was born in the town of Normal, Illinois, in McLean County. He was the great-grandson of William Stevenson, second cousin, once removed, of Presidential Candidate Adlai Stevenson II. He was also the brother of actress Ann Whitney. His father, Edgar, was a cardiologist. The Stevensons were a political family: Adlai Stevenson II's grandfather Adlai E. Stevenson I had been Vice President of the United States under President Grover Cleveland. Adlai Stevenson II's father, Lewis Stevenson, never held an elected office, but served as Secretary of State of Illinois. Adlai Stevenson II's son Adlai Stevenson III represented Illinois as a state legislator, U.S. senator, and was an unsuccessful candidate for governor of Illinois. Adlai Stevenson IV was a TV reporter.
After serving in the Navy, he attended Northwestern University, where he graduated with a bachelor's degree in theater arts and was a proud and well-liked Phi Gamma Delta (Fiji) fraternity brother. Afterwards he worked on a radio station, played a clown on a live TV show in Dallas, became an assistant director at Northwestern, and sold medical supplies and insurance. Afterwards he worked as a press secretary for his cousin in the presidential elections of 1952 and 1956. He formed the "Young Democrats for Stevenson".
In 1961, his cousin invited him to some parties, where he met some business luminaries. He followed his cousin's advice to look for a show business career. He auditioned and won a scholarship to the American Musical and Dramatic Academy. His teachers included the well-respected Lee Strasberg, Sandy Meisner, David Craig, Lehman Engel, and Sue Seaton.
Stevenson made his professional career debut in The Music Man in 1962 and appeared regularly in Warsaw, Indiana, in summer stock productions. After this he appeared in New York on stage and television commercials. He also performed on Broadway. However, he began to establish himself as a comedy writer, writing for the seminal That Was The Week That Was, in which Alan Alda appeared, and The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. He performed occasionally on both shows.
During this period, he also appeared in television commercials for products like Winston cigarettes, in which he was shown sprinting around a parking lot of Winston delivery trucks and painting over the product slogan, replacing the "like" in "like a cigarette should" with the grammatically correct "as."
After guest-starring on That Girl with Marlo Thomas, he was cast in The Doris Day Show in 1969, playing magazine editor boss Michael Nicholson until 1971. Originally, he auditioned for the role of Hawkeye Pierce in M*A*S*H, but was convinced to play Henry Blake instead. This role shot him to stardom. He eventually wrote the episode "The Trial of Henry Blake," and provided the story for another, "The Army-Navy Game." He received an Emmy nomination for his writing.
Stevenson found his greatest success on M*A*S*H. The series quickly became one of the most popular situation comedies running, and would eventually become recognized as one of the top sitcoms in television history. Despite the show's success, Stevenson began chafing (as did Wayne Rogers) at playing second fiddle to the wisecracking Hawkeye (played by Alan Alda), and asked to be released from his contract during the show's third season. The show's writers reluctantly penned him an exit in the final episode of the 1974-75 season, in which Lt. Colonel Blake was discharged, only to board a plane that was shot down over the Sea of Japan, killing everyone on board (a development added after scripts were distributed so the show's actors would display genuine emotion as if they had been truly unaware of that part of the storyline). Stevenson would later admit that leaving M*A*S*H was a mistake, and he was also upset by the fact that his character's death prevented him from returning to the show.
In an interview, Loretta Swit shed some light on the subject of why McLean left the series at the height of its success. She said Stevenson wanted to be number one and felt pushed down as one of an ensemble of eight. Swit said that before Stevenson left the series he told her, "I know I will not be in anything as good as this show, but I have to leave and be number one."
Stevenson appeared as a guest panelist for several weeks on Match Game's CBS daytime version in 1973, and again in 1978 on the daytime and nighttime syndicated version. In 1981, Stevenson became a regular panelist on the Match Game's syndicated version. Host Gene Rayburn described Stevenson as someone "responsible for the demise of several television shows" just before handing Stevenson Match Game hosting duties for a day. Stevenson remained a panelist until the show was cancelled in 1982.
After his departure from M*A*S*H, Stevenson's acting career began to decline. He starred in a series of sitcoms, none of which lasted more than approximately one season. They included The McLean Stevenson Show (1976), In the Beginning (1978), Hello, Larry (1979-80) and Condo (1983). All four sitcoms were dismissed by audiences and lambasted by critics.
Stevenson guest-starred as Stan Zbornaks' brother Ted on the hit show The Golden Girls in 1987. Stevenson also guest-starred in shows such as Square One TV, The Love Boat, Diff'rent Strokes, Match Game (where he served as a regular panelist), Hollywood Squares and The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. His screen credits include the Disney movie The Cat from Outer Space as a friend of Dr. Frank Wilson (played by Ken Berry) along with his M*A*S*H replacement Harry Morgan. He also was a co-host of the syndicated daytime talk show America, which lasted 16 weeks between September 16, 1985 and January 3, 1986. He was referenced in the "Good Idea, Bad Idea" segment of an "Animaniacs" episode.
Stevenson was recovering from surgery in a Los Angeles hospital on February 15, 1996, when he went into cardiac arrest and died. M*A*S*H writer Larry Gelbart later said that Stevenson had left too soon twice in one lifetime. Roger Bowen, who had played Henry Blake in the movie M*A*S*H, also died of cardiac arrest the day after Stevenson’s death.
Stevenson is interred in Forest Lawn - Hollywood Hills Cemetery in Los Angeles. He was survived by his wife Ginny, daughter Lindsey and son Jeff MacGregor (from a previous marriage).
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