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."

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Mirramanee 22 months ago
I mostly loved MASH throughout its entire run, but I have to say that the Henry Blake years were the best of the show. There was a little undercurrent of pathos running through the show, but it was primarily meant to be funny. Later on, when it unofficially became "The Alan Alda Show", it really got preachy. Don't get me wrong--I understand they were trying to make a statement about the horrors of war and all, but Alda got mostly all the most juicy scripts (and jokes). The other characters sometimes got some good parts, but the show was mostly centered around Hawkeye.
PulsarStargrave 22 months ago
Today "The Blake Years" are my faves with SEASON TWO containing some of THE BEST episodes (IMO)! I'm kind of annoyed he left to start a variety show, which as a weekly format was on the decline! It seemed like even the legendary Carol Burnette (and/or her staff) saw this and increased the length of comedy sketches as opposed to musical numbers! Actor REDD FOXX would make an equally as disastrous a decision as McLean's in just a few years later, with similar results so I don't think it had a lot to do with some people being unable to separate McLean from "Henry Blake"!

I didn't see much of Mr.Stevenson post-MASH, at least not on the shows I watched on network T.V. nor in syndication and that's a shame because I loved his work!
Rita6868 22 months ago
Waited to comment cause I wanted to save this article to read later on.Love Mac! I never really cared for the show after his departure.Still loved Larry and Wayne but Mac rounded the cast out and to me was the funniest person on the show.Love You Forever Mac! Never forget you! Miss you so much.Rest easy gorgeous.
WonderGeorge 23 months ago
IIRC, McLean made three different sitcoms after leaving M*A*S*H - first, "The McLean Stevenson Show", on NBC in 1977, then "In the Beginning", on CBS, and, finally - brace yourselves - "Hello Larry", on NBC, which lasted two seasons in 1979-80.

In 1981, McLean appeared on Johnny Carson's Tonight Show, wherein Jonny was talking to McLean, and brought up why each of these three shows flopped; McLean said, simply, that this was not because the viewers hated McLean Stevenson - it was because the viewers loved Henry Blake.

Sad, but true.
MichaelFields 23 months ago
Its strange even today when that episode comes on where Radar comes in and tells about Henry's death. I still tear up, I mean its only a show, but it touched me that much, I once read I thought that the dropping of the instrument you hear was a accident, not sure if it was real or not but it did add to the scene
I refuse to watch it because it makes me angry. The MASH producers didn't have to kill off his character and should have have found a way to leave the door open for McLean's return if his new show failed! That's just how I feel about it!
dmirarh 23 months ago
Oh boo hoo, poor little rich man who made a bad career choice. "The McLean Stevenson Show" sucked. That's why it was a flop.
MichaelFields dmirarh 23 months ago
WOW, jealous much. He was a great actor who made many people happy and you want to take that away, I bet you steal toys from kids too
TinaMarieHaddadRhodes 23 months ago
That is sad that people couldn’t give him a chance has himself. Maybe it didn’t help that McLean went on the Carol Burnett show the next night playing Henry in a life boat saying something like I’m not dead etc. I thought he was a very talented and I loved Hello Larry it was a very good show…
I loved Hello Larry too! Love Mac and always will!
tvnutt 23 months ago
His show wasn't a variety show. It was a comedy and NBC stole it from William Windom. Monty Hall created a show called The Prime of Life. It was supposed to start Windom as a husband who owned a hardware store. He was retiring and with his wife they now had an empty nest. But then his mother-in-law moves in, and his two children and his dreams of retirement are dead. However NBC promised McClean his own show, so the executive told Hall to get McLean to be the star. Hall said he had to break the news to Windom that it wasn't going to be his show anymore. Not sure if they ever stop a pilot with Windom.
MichaelSkaggs tvnutt 23 months ago
I hope William Windom got a lot of money when they broke his contract. Any info on this?
zGroove 23 months ago
Blake was NOT promoted, he was merely reassigned. He started M*A*S*H as a Lt. Colonel and was killed as a Lt. Colonel. Who writes this stuff?
timothys71 23 months ago
Although M*A*S*H found a worthy successor (Harry Morgan as Col. Potter), it's a pity that McLean Stevenson was never able to replicate his success from the show in his later roles.
DaveAFinkbeiner 23 months ago
Saw this show when it was new and still watch the reruns today. Great show.
tvnutt DaveAFinkbeiner 23 months ago
The show was originally called the Prime of Life. It was created by Monty Hall and was supposed to star William Windom.
40acres 23 months ago
I was born during the actual Korean conflict. And by coincidence I was serving in the U.S. Army during the early 1970s when MASH first began airing. Although I didn't watch the show initially, I soon discovered it a grew to enjoy it. I still here in 2022 watch it on ME TV. I For whatever reason---which most probably are the first two things I stated--- my perception of the actual actors, my actual 70's Army service, and the actual war seem intertwined and oddly surreal. Every once in a while while watching I have to remind myself that not only are all the actual soldiers from that 1950-53 war no longer with us, the same is true with many of the people who acted in the MASH series--- and now I am old! It feels like a time warp.
"Wait a minute, time has moved on." But those wonderful characters can still be watched, they eternally young due to the art of TV. And in a way, my viewing the program is like a return to my own youth.
F5Twitster 23 months ago
"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."

No criticism of Stevenson, but as conceived and written, Henry Blake was a one-note character. The show became vastly deeper and richer when Harry Morgan's Col. Sherman Potter joined the cast, and stronger, still when the also one-note Frank Burns left and the far more nunanced Charles Winchester took his place.
DZee F5Twitster 23 months ago
Agree with your observations.
RichLorn 23 months ago
Reading the comments on this, something is clear. We are all in one of two camps. Early episodes v. later episodes. Kinda like the young Elvis camp v. the older Elvis camp.
My opinion? Well personally, I never did like camping very much. I like roller derby.
WordsmithWorks 23 months ago
I think initially the show was supposed to be more of an ensemble show with no one real lead. When it became more Hawkeye-centric, Stevenson and Rogers left. After that, the show found a middle ground between over the top frat boy hijinks and "dedicated doctor" melodrama. Right around seasons 6 and seven, the show moved more toward "thoughtful" comedy and less slapstick. Toward the end, they dropped most of the comedy altogether.
You're only partly right: Hawkeye and Trapper were meant to be interchangable leads, either of whom could carry the weight of the show, much like Rick Jason and Vic Morrow of COMBAT! But yes, Alan Alda brought that witty charm and arrogant anti-authoritarian that 1970s America was into at the time that the writers ended up gravitating more towards that character, while Trapper ended up being reduced to Hawkeye's sidekick.
Robertp 23 months ago
MASH changed major characters and became better each time. It was a great show. That being said, enough! When I’m a hundred years old, ME TV will still be airing it Daily.
SoonerDave Robertp 23 months ago
I sure hope so! I'd rather watch a MASH rerun than the stinking A-Team.
VanHalen 23 months ago
When Stevenson and Rogers left (?) that show needed to fold. Then Klinger becomes the company clerk ? C'mon man ! ! That show had long outlived it's entertainment usefulness. I hate the idea that it is kept going on METV. Why not have Simon & Simon, Magnum, Bob Newhart ( both his shows ), and that late night roundup with Cannon, Barnaby Jones, Mannix, etc. in PRIMETIME. And what is with this Hogan's Zeroe's. Those shows are so useless in entertainment value. METV probably has almost NO MONEY to pay for the rights to air that garbage.
TheDavBow3 VanHalen 23 months ago
Totally agree! Progressively less funny. First, Trapper and Henry leaving then Frank leaving. That did it for me after Frank. It quickly became The Alan Alda Show. And like you said, Radar left and Klinger took off the dresses and became Company Clerk. Completely lost it's funny edge
Moverfan TheDavBow3 23 months ago
Both The Bob Newhart Show and Newhart are on Decades at the moment. I'll vote for Simon & Simon, but how about The Mentalist instead of Magnum?
TheDavBow3 Moverfan 23 months ago
That sounds good!
The characters had to evolve by the late seventies times were changing and the eighties were around the corner and peoples taste changed and the fans grew up…
The characters had to evolve by the late seventies times were changing and the eighties were around the corner and peoples taste changed and the fans grew up…
MichaelSkaggs Moverfan 23 months ago
I believe the unofficial rule of thumb is the show has to be off the air 15 years before Me-TV airs it.
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