By DONALD PORTER
|McLean Stevenson in "M*A*S*H" (credit: IMDB.com)|
SALT LAKE CITY - McLean Stevenson had been on the road for days, hyping his new show "America." His suits were rumpled, he was tired and irritable. It was only 10:30 a.m., but be had been speaking to groups of journalists and potential advertisers for several hours.
Finally, the man who gained fame in the role of Lt. Col. Henry Blake on “M*A*S*H” was taking a break, eating breakfast and making small talk with KSL-TV newscasters Shelley Thomas and Dick Nourse.
The laughter and chatter came to a sudden halt when his publicist appeared at the table, reminding him it was time for another interview.
“Now?” he protested, fixing a scowl on his face and treating the plebe like Henry Blake did Radar O'Reilly.
“Yes,” the publicist answered in an apologetic tone.
A short but fruitless argument ensued, and Stevenson lost. So he put on a professional happy face, made apologies for his mood and submitted to questioning.
Surprisingly, Stevenson is a lot like Henry Blake. Not Henry Blake the half-wit, but the Henry Blake who was always quick with a humorous remark.
The 55-year-old actor was born in Normal ("Promise you won't laugh?"), Ill., and raised in its twin city, Bloomington, where his father was a prominent cardiologist. He played basketball in high school (his team won the state championship when he was a senior), but did virtually no acting. Upon graduation, be joined the Navy.
“In those days (the late ’40s) you had the option of joining for a definite period of time, or taking the chance of being drafted and staying in there for God knows how long,” he said. “So I joined the Navy and saw Memphis, Tenn. I did not see the world. Why they ever put a base in Memphis, I'll never understand."
And just what does a Navy recruit do in Memphis?
"I was defending the shores of the Mississippi River against the onslaught of the Japanese horde that might attack Memphis at any moment,” Stevenson said. “I have no idea what I did. My father was a doctor, so I put in for hospital corpsman. I figured that would be something that I would have a shot at doing and might enjoy doing.
"So I took all their tests – you know, the wiggly blocks, the multiple choice: ‘Would you rather kiss a girl, eat peanut butter or climb a tree?’ Then I ended up in the construction-and-repair division. I was a carpenter making sidewalks at the officers’ quarters; never did understand that."
When he left the Navy, Stevenson landed basketball scholarships to two colleges, the University of Illinois and the University of New Mexico at Albuquerque. He chose New Mexico, but left after one semester because he didn't like the school or the atmosphere.
“At that time -- right after the war -- everybody was getting out and it was full of veterans and guys that just wanted to drink beer and get mononucleosis and didn’t give a damn about going to class.
“So I transferred and got a partial scholarship to Northwestern (University) and played basketball there for four years. It wasn't a very outstanding team. Our best finish was eighth out of 10 schools, but we did have an extremely attractive team -- all good-looking guys."
Stevenson graduated from Northwestern with a degree in theater arts, and shortly thereafter a new head football coach, Stu Holcomb, was hired at the university. Holcomb was committed to strengthening the football program, and be hired Stevenson as an assistant director of athletics.
"He hired me to go out and raise money and to recruit players. That was my primary function. I got a hundred guys together and they each gave us $1,000. We took their $100,000, and for that they got two 50-yard-line tickets and two hot dogs and we went out and just bought kids -- that's the bottom line. We violated every rule in the NCAA and it still goes on no matter what anyone tells you. It's impossible to live within those rules, although everyone tries.
"We had winning football teams. But I got tired after about three years of running up and down a football field in a trenchcoat yelling at kids, 'Knock somebody down or we're not gonna pay you!’”
Tired of sports, Stevenson decided to pursue an acting career. So with $75 in his pocket, he set out in his Volkswagen for New York City and “hasn't been out of work since.” He was awarded a scholarship to the Music Theater Academy in New York, where he studied by day, working nights at the Upstairs/Downstairs Theater as an understudy. He sang, danced and appeared in comedy skits at the theater, as well as appearing in TV commercials.
Stevenson's biggest break came when he arrived in Hollywood and met Tommy Smothers, who agreed to let him work as a comedy writer for a week – without pay -- on his show. When the week was up, Stevenson was put on the payroll of "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour."
From that point on, Stevenson was in demand. From 1969-71, he was a regular on "The Doris Day Show." He also made several guest appearances on "The Tim Conway Comedy Hour" in 1970, then landed the role of Henry Blake in 1971. He speaks of the role with affection.
"When I read the script, met the cast and understood what we were going to do – we weren't going to emulate the movie; we weren't going to try to do what the book did; we were going to do our own thing in our own way -- I knew the show was going to be successful.
“And, as you know, I was nominated and did win the Fool of the Year award for having quit the series in 1974, along with Harvey Kormann (a close friend), who took a hike from 'The Carol Burnett Show.'"
Indeed, the departure from "M*A*S*H" caused his star to dim, and Stevenson had a string of unsuccessful series, including "Celebrity Challenge of the Sexes," "Hello, Larry" and "The McLean Stevenson Show." He was also a frequent guest on "The Donnie and Marie Show," so he was a frequent visitor to the Osmond Studios in Orem.
"I used to come here and spend five days without a drink, a cup of coffee or a cigarette. I started finding myself out back sneaking smokes, so (Mrs. Osmond) finally started stocking the dressing room with ash trays, C0ca-Cola, coffee and all the bad stuff, and said, 'Well, it's your life. Just do a good show.'"
And that's precisely what Stevenson said he is trying to do now -- a good show. Along with Sarah Purcell and Stuart Damon, he will host the daily, hourlong “soft news” entertainment and feature program “America,” to be broadcast on KSL weekday afternoons.
"I've done seven situation comedies," he said, "two of which were successful, five of which were not. … I'm on a press junket now, and I have yet to hear any actor say, ‘I'm gonna tell ya, I just signed up for the worst piece of crap you have ever seen. This sucker'll be lucky to go six weeks.’ You don't do that. You find yourself hyping stuff because you are genuinely hoping it will work."