McLean Stevenson reflects on his roller-coaster career 15 years since leaving hit series

LIFE AFTER M*A*S*H

November 12, 1990|By Mary Corey

Remember "In the Beginning"?

"Hello, Larry" ring any bells?

If not, not to worry. Even McLean Stevenson, the man who lived through them, prefers to forget many of the ill-conceived sitcoms he's starred in since leaving "M*A*S*H" 15 years ago.

"I did some terrible shows," he says. "But nobody made me do it. I did everything by choice. I love working."

Which brings up the question: What exactly has life after "M*A*S*H" been like for the 59-year-old actor?

Ask Mr. Stevenson that on a rainy Saturday and he not so much answers as recounts his life in show business. You hear about the suit he wore the day he got his big break on "The Doris Day Show." He mentions the car he drove, describes the spot where he parked, even tells you what he accidentally stepped in on his way to the audition.

And then after a half-hour, he brings up the ground-breaking sitcom he worked on for three years and Lt. Col. Henry Blake, the bumbling character he played.

Come to think of it, he and the former chief of the 4077th have a lot in common. Both are laid-back, loose-talking, somewhat beleaguered men from central Illinois. And both, while essentially good-natured, seem to walk that pencil-thin line between being interesting and, well, slightly irksome.

"I'm a big blabbermouth," confesses Mr. Stevenson who was in town for a benefit Saturday for the Visiting Nurse Association of Baltimore, a non-profit home health care organization. (He's active in the group because his parents, who died years ago, were helped by a similar organization, he says.)

While Mr. Stevenson trails off on another story, you can't help but notice how much his appearance has changed since he left the show. ("M*A*S*H," incidentally, still airs on Channel 45 weeknights at 6:30 and 7, and Saturdays at 7 p.m.)

As he sits in a studio at Channel 45, preparing to tape a public-service announcement for the Visiting Nurse Association, he glances at a monitor and seems to notice it himself. "God, I look like a guy who does the 6 o'clock news in Sacramento," he says.

Looking into that monitor, you see a man with tan, leathery skin, whose hair has gone gray and whose midriff bulges from his khaki trousers.

If he looks weathered, that may be because the years after "M*A*S*H" haven't been entirely kind to him. In 1975, he left the show, having been lured away by NBC's promise of more money. His career, however, took a serious nose-dive. Nearly every show he starred in failed, causing him to become the butt of industry jokes. One TV critic wrote that he'd "worn out his television welcome," while another created "The Annual McLean Stevenson Memorial, 'I'm Gonna Quit This Show and Become a Big Star' Award."

Believe it or not, the criticism didn't bother him. "Some of it was justified," he says. "I made the mistake of believing that people were enamored of McLean Stevenson when the person they were enamored of was Henry Blake."

He offers no excuses for having played everything from a radio talk-show host ("Hello, Larry") to a Porsche-driving priest ("In the Beginning") in shows that often died while still in pilot form.

He says that his problem has been finding something of the caliber of "M*A*S*H." "I've never been able to work with a group that's as talented or scripts that are as good," he says.

That's not to say that his life has been on hold. In fact, as he turns 60 this month, he's entering a new phase of his career, starring in his first serious feature film. "Strawberry," a Warner Bros. picture being directed by Richard Brooks ("The Blackboard Jungle," "In Cold Blood"), features Mr. Stevenson as a man wrongfully convicted of a crime. He has spent the last several months in Louisiana with cast members Jack Lemmon, Richard Dreyfuss and Anne Archer shooting the movie, which has no release date yet.

"It's like a whole new career for me," he says.

Or, at least a new chapter in an old career. Growing up in Bloomington, Ill., Mr. Stevenson knew from the age of 7 that he wanted to be a performer. But his parents, a respected cardiologist and nurse, were concerned about the instability of the profession and discouraged him. After graduating from Northwestern with a degree in theater arts, Mr. Stevenson tried his hand at a number of careers, including selling insurance, coaching and campaigning for his cousin Adlai Stevenson, the late Illinois governor and Democratic presidential candidate.

But after accepting a job as assistant athletic director at Notre Dame, a recruiting trip to New York convinced him to pursue his first love. He attended the Broadway show "Do Re Mi" and sat fidgeting through the entire play. "I had gotten to the point where I couldn't enjoy just watching. I wanted to be in it," he says.

He studied at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy and went on to do summer stock, stand-up comedy and commercials. In 1968, he moved to Hollywood and he began writing for "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour." The following year, he won a part on "The Doris Day Show."

Then came "M*A*S*H."

He still fondly recalls those days and keeps in touch with former colleagues Loretta Swit (Major Margaret "Hot Lips" Houlihan) and Alan Alda (Captain "Hawkeye" Pierce). But he's also ready to look to the future and is expected to return to TV next year in "Yak," an NBC sitcom about a group of sales executives for an air-purification systems company.

In the meantime, he wants to make more movies and spend time at his Los Angeles home with his family. He has two children -- Jennifer, 18, and Jeff, 30 -- by his first marriage. He remarried in 1980 and also has an 8-year-old daughter, Lindsey.

"I'm to the point in my life where I'm doing what I want to do," he says.

Which is another way of saying something he meant to mention earlier.

"Yes," he says, "there is life after M*A*S*H."

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