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McLean Stevenson; Played Lt. Col. Blake in Early 'MASH'

February 17, 1996|MYRNA OLIVER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

McLean Stevenson, best remembered for his role as the laconic, reluctant commanding officer and chief surgeon of CBS television's "MASH" in its early years, has died. He was 66.

Stevenson died Thursday in the Encino-Tarzana Regional Medical Center of a heart attack following bladder surgery, a coroner's spokesman said Friday.

The actor, the son of a cardiologist, earned an Emmy nomination and a 1973 Golden Globe Award for his work as Lt. Col. Henry Blake, head of the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital from its inception in 1972 until 1975.

When Stevenson opted for more lucrative offers, his character was written out of the show in a heart-rending season closer: Blake had finished his hitch in the service and was flying home to Bloomington, Ill., when his plane was lost at sea.

In the fall, Harry Morgan took the reins as Col. Sherman Potter. The series, ranked in the top 10 for nine of its 11 seasons, ended with a two-hour finale Feb. 28, 1983, the highest-rated program in the history of television.

Stevenson went on to his own series--"The McLean Stevenson Show," "Hello, Larry" and "Condo." All were short-lived, and he later conceded that leaving "MASH" was the mistake of his career.

"When I left the show, the mistake was not in leaving," he said for a 1991 retrospective called "Memories of MASH."

"The mistake was that I thought everybody in America loved McLean Stevenson. That was not the case. Everybody loved Henry Blake. So if you go and do 'The McLean Stevenson Show,' nobody cares about McLean Stevenson."

Stevenson, like other MASH actors, praised the writing of the show, which incorporated actual hometowns and some backgrounds of its stars.

"I played my dad," Stevenson said in 1991. "My father was a country doctor, and he was 80 years old when he passed away. I don't think my dad ever charged more than a dollar for a house call and he couldn't balance his checkbook. He was probably the world's worst businessman."

Stevenson was born and grew up in Bloomington, Ill., next door to his cousin Adlai, who twice ran for U.S. president and introduced him to his first Broadway play. The future actor earned a degree in theater arts from Northwestern University and served in, not the Army, but the Navy.

Originally an assistant athletic director at Northwestern and a salesman for hospital supplies and insurance, Stevenson was 32 when the acting bug bit. He schooled himself by acting in commercials, summer stock and comedy clubs.

When Stevenson couldn't get roles in Hollywood, he took some comedy sketches he had written to Tommy Smothers and got hired as a writer on "The Glen Campbell Show." He also wrote for the satirical "That Was the Week That Was" and "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour," finally moving in front of the camera to act in the sketches he wrote.

Stevenson was hired as the brainy, urbane boss on "The Doris Day Show" in 1969 and next became a regular on "The Tim Conway Comedy Hour."

Described by The Times' Cecil Smith as "a dedicated clown" years before the debut of "MASH," Stevenson retained a reputation for his comedic antics and repartee even after his acting popularity declined. He was a popular guest on "The Tonight Show" and continued to work regularly in commercials.

Stevenson made a handful of films including "The Christian Licorice Store" in 1971, "Win, Place or Steal" in 1975 and "The Cat from Outer Space" in 1978.

He was actively involved in the Children's Burn Foundation in Sherman Oaks.

Stevenson is survived by his wife, Ginny; a daughter, Lindsey; a son, Jeffrey, and a sister, Ann Whitney.

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