McLean Stevenson got caught in Henry Blake's shadow
Thousands of fans protested his exit from M*A*S*H.
One of the first M*A*S*H episodes to drive home how essential Henry Blake was to the show was "Henry, Please Come Home," which aired in the very first season.
In the episode, Henry Blake is promoted and reassigned to Tokyo, leaving Frank Burns in charge and ultimately sending Hawkeye and Trapper John away from camp to beg Henry to return.
It was clear from this point on that no one wanted to see a future in the Swamp without Henry Blake.
For Henry Blake actor McLean Stevenson, M*A*S*H gave him the standout role of his career, and when his character famously dies in the tragic episode "Abyssinia, Henry," nobody was ready for Stevenson’s departure from the show.
Critics in papers everywhere mourned. One critic in Chicago wrote that "Col. Henry Blake died… and a lot of Americans who knew and loved him are angered, disappointed and grief-stricken."
Many of those Americans made their disappointment known to M*A*S*H producers, with thousands sending letters and calling the studio to protest the decision to kill off Henry Blake.
But at least one critic, writing for the Akron Beacon Journal in 1975, pointed out that there was no way for M*A*S*H to truly kill off Henry Blake, because in his time in the role, the critic explained, McLean Stevenson had become Henry Blake.
"It was a gradual thing, and you may not have noticed, but Henry Blake disappeared," the critic insisted. "He was absorbed by McLean Stevenson. Poor Henry became McLean Stevenson. So how can you mourn ‘enry when he’s alive and well with an NBC contract in his pocket and his own variety show coming up!"
It’s true that after his departure from M*A*S*H, Stevenson immediately was set to star in his own variety show that centered on the core personality traits that made Henry Blake so lovable.
But The McLean Stevenson Show flopped, and Stevenson said it was because fans didn’t want to see him. They wanted to watch Henry Blake.
"Everybody loved Henry Blake," Stevenson once said, as reported in his Los Angeles Times obituary. "So, if you go and do The McLean Stevenson Show, nobody cares about McLean Stevenson."
It must’ve been difficult for Stevenson to accept this hard truth, with fans never again seeing him as anything but his tragically fallen TV character.
M*A*S*H star Gary Burghoff has noted in interviews that Stevenson was the sensitive type.
"McLean Stevenson was one of the kindest, most sensitive people I’ve worked with or known," Burghoff said.
It remains a shame that Stevenson never found success after M*A*S*H on par with what he experienced in the Swamp.
As an actor, he had much to give beyond Henry Blake, and while viewers and critics saw Henry Blake and McLean Stevenson as the same, Stevenson always said he based the character on his father, not on himself.
"I played my dad," Stevenson said. "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 $1 for a house call, and he couldn’t balance his checkbook. He was probably the world’s worst businessman."