A tribute today to the Quixotic career of comedic actor McLean Stevenson (Edgar Mclean Stevenson, Jr, 1927-1996). Stevenson’s name has become sort of legendary in show business, a rare case where a performer’s failures came to overshadow his one great success, even in fame. Normally, failure happens in obscurity by definition. Or, we’re given but a single high profile chance to fail, we do, and that’s the end of it. But Stevenson was given many chances to fail, in hopes that lightning would strike twice, and it didn’t. Playing Henry Blake on M*A*S*H proved to be the pinnacle for him. We’ll talk about why that was (and why that wasn’t, in his subsequent endeavors) below.
In show business terms, Stevenson was a late bloomer. He was from a different sort of world, and the authenticity and unique tone which that background lent was one of the keys to his appeal. He was from an important Illinois political family, on both sides. The very county he was born in was named after his mother’s family, the McLeans, who had given the world Senator John McLean (1791-1830), and his brother Congressman Finis McLean (1806-1881). His father’s family were even more prominent. U.S. Vice President Adlai Stevenson (1835-1914) was his great-great uncle, and two time Democratic Presidential candidate and UN Ambassador Adlai Stevenson II (1900-65) was a 2nd cousin.
Many doors were open to McLean Stevenson, but after serving in the Navy, he chose to major in theatre at Northwestern. He drifted from job to job for awhile, including acting as a press secretary to his famous cousin for both his presidential campaigns. A 1961 social function brought him into contact with Sanford Meisner, and this convinced him to return to theatre. He studied under Meisner and Lee Strasberg for a time, and acted in regional theatre and summer stock. Performing in nightclubs and comedy cabarets gave him some traction in sketch comedy, and he broke into television as a writer and performer on That Was The Week That Was, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, and The Tim Conway Comedy Hour. Then came sitcoms.
Stevenson’s role as “Nick”, Doris Day’s magazine editor boss on her ever-shifting sitcom was his big break. He was likable and popular on the show and his weekly presence gave him traction to shoot for other vistas. He quickly found one.
One is amused to learn that Stevenson originally tried for the role of Hawkeye on M*A*S*H, for it reveals the lack of self-awareness that would later plague him. Hawkeye is a rebellious young man’s role; Stevenson was middle-aged then, and as Henry Blake he would become the quintessential American middle-aged man. Everything about the role clicked for him. Roger Bowen had been spot-on in the original Robert Altman film, but Stevenson topped even that. How was that possible? Stevenson had his own assets to bring to the table and he put them into the part, often in subtle, unconscious ways. He was, after all, the cousin of Adlai Stevenson — and who is more evocative of the time period in which the show is set than he? Adlai had run for President during the Korean War! Furthermore, McLean’s father (Edgar McLean Stevenson, Sr) had been a doctor and McLean, Jr had sold medical supplies as a young man. So he knew the lingo, he knew how doctors (or at least one particular doctor) behaved on and off the job. Both of these factors allowed him to invest the role with great specificity and all kinds of original business. The third factor was his own personality. He’d been a popular fraternity brother in his college days. He was extremely likable in a gee whiz all-American way and seemed to revel in American slang and pop culture from the show’s time period, when he had been a young man. He seemed to OWN his dialogue, which he undoubtedly spruced up, as well — he’d been a comedy writer remember (and he actually wrote a couple of M*A*S*H episodes).
So, other than Alan Alda, Stevenson was the breakout star of the show, and hubris set in. He misread the circumstances of his success, all those factors we have named, plus the stellar writing, and his interplay with the other great actors on the show, and left to star in his own program. It’s real easy to backseat drive here. After all, who wouldn’t want to be the undisputed star of your own TV show, one that’s got your name right in the title? Unfortunately, none of his subsequent vehicles provided Stevenson with the right setting in which to shine. Most of them lasted only a single season, and sometimes not even that.
The McLean Stevenson Show (1976-77)
Set in Stevenson’s home turf of small town Illinois, Stevenson’s first starring vehicle built on his track record playing an ineffectual, frustrated authority figure, casting him as a hardware store owner with a family of deadbeats that drove him up the wall. I’ve watched the first episode of this show and thought it was quite funny, the writing very good. The chemistry of such things is very delicate though. Not all of the cast is memorable or stellar, which may be why only ten of its projected 13 episode first season made it to air. Paul Williams wrote the theme song, “Hello, Mac” (Stevenson’s name on the show is “Mac” — just like his offscreen nickname).
In the Beginning (1978)
This one intrigues, and seems like another promising gamble. Norman Lear produced this show about a conservative Catholic priest who is assigned to a ghetto parish, where he constantly butts heads with a liberal nun (Priscilla Lopez) who is from the ‘hood. Also in the cast was Jack Dodson (Howard from The Andy Griffith Show). This one only lasted five episodes and none are available to watch so one can only speculate about why it failed. Conservative characters are unlikable — they’re always the bad guys in stories. Hasn’t anyone ever noticed that? Yet, occasionally it’s been attempted to put a character like that at the center of a sitcom and it seldom works. Some audiences might have been uncomfortable seeing characters who were clergy in this kind of show at the time, as well. And, lastly, part of why Stevenson’s comedy works, I think, was that his character was usually at heart an easy-going softy, so that when he got frustrated and angry it was not just relatable but unthreatening. But when a conservative gets pissed off — that’s never pretty.
Hello, Larry (1979-80)
Ironically, despite being in all likelihood the worst of his post-M*A*S*H shows (by far), Hello, Larry was also his biggest post-M*A*S*H success, running two full seasons. It became ostracized as his most famous bomb, but ironically it was far from his worst bomb, at least from the standpoint of ratings. Got that? Largely, I think, because it was a TERRIBLE show. Other than M*A*S*H, this was the only other show of his I ever watched back in the day, and it was just dreadful. Stevenson played a wisecracking call-in radio host (the same scenario as Frasier, which is a much better show by several orders of magnitude) but the writing was just dreadful. Kim Richards, star of several Disney movies, played one of his daughters; Joanna Gleason played his producer; Shelley Fabares (later of Coach) played his ex-wife. At a certain point the show was scheduled after Diff’rent Strokes (equally awful yet inexplicably successful) and they actually did some crossover episodes. At the time, Hello, Larry became a sort of lightning rod for Johnny Carson’s jokes about how terrible NBC network head Fred Silverman was doing at his job (after demonstrating a near Midas touch at the other two networks earlier in the decade). I recall Carson joking one time that they were changing the name of Hello, Larry to Goodbye, Freddy. But it became Goodbye, Larry soon enough.
This one follows the lead of In the Beginning by casting Stevenson in a fairly unsympathetic light as a sort of A.R. Gurney WASP who moves with his wife to a condo because business losses force him to sell his fancy house in the suburbs. His next door neighbor in the condominium, played by Luis Avalos, is a character not unlike Sherman Hemsley’s in The Jeffersons, a guy who has recently risen in class through business success. They naturally feud for all sorts of reasons, but since one of them is that Stevenson’s character is a racist, it’s hard to want to tune in. Part of the show’s engine was a Romeo and Juliet trip — their character’s children are secretly in love. But I’ve watched some of it on youtube. It’s pretty bad. Not Hello, Larry bad, but then what is? But bad enough not to need to watch any more of it.
Dirty Dancing (1988-89)
This dramedy was of course based on the blockbuster Patrick Swayze movie. Stevenson (no longer in the starring role) plays Max Kellerman (the Jack Weston role in the film). Paul Feig was also on the show! It only ran one season.
Stevenson was a busy guy before, during, and after this period. He was often a game show panelist (The Match Game, Hollywood Squares, etc), was a frequent guest on The Tonight Show (and even guest hosted sometimes), was on The Love Boat three times etc etc etc. He co-hosted a talk show from 1985 to 1986. His last role was in the 1993 Armisted Maupin mini-series Tales of the City.
He died of a heart attack following bladder cancer surgery in 1996 at the age of 68, one day before the other Henry Blake, Roger Bowen.