MCLEAN STEVENSON KNOWS ENOUGH to joke about the limbo in which he has lingered since he left the TV series M*A*S*H in 1975. That was three years into a run that stretched on until 1983. It ended with the highest-rated program in television history and, beyond that, stretched on again with a phenomenally successful run in syndication, plus many hosannas, residuals and projects for the likes of Alan “Hawkeye” Alda, who had stayed put.
But the joke: When the phone rings, the pleasantly poker-faced Stevenson snaps to. “Hold it!” he barks. “It may be an offer for a movie!”
This is a poignant time for the 64-year-old actor, as CBS prepares Memories of M*A*S*H, a nostalgic look, airing Nov. 25, at the irreverent sitcom about a Korean War Army surgical unit. Stevenson, of course, was Lt. Col. Henry Blake, the 4077’s affable, golf-loving commander, who in his mildly frazzled moments might refer to one of his staff as a “horse’s patootie.”
Since then, it has been a horse patootie of a different color. Tired of being a second, even third, banana on an ensemble show, Stevenson left in 1975 (he was replaced by Harry Morgan). Colleague Wayne Rogers (Trapper John), embroiled in a contract dispute with the show’s producers, also took his leave that year; Larry Linville (Maj. Frank Burns) would resign his commission two years later (see box, page 94).
Within a year, Stevenson had his own NBC sitcom, The McLean Stevenson Show—a failure. The shows that followed over the next 10 years—including sitflops In the Beginning, Condo and Hello, Larry—didn’t do any better. “I probably got too big for my britches,” Stevenson admits. “The biggest mistake I made was I thought everybody loved McLean Stevenson. It was Henry Blake that people loved. So when I went out and did The McLean Stevenson Show, nobody gave a damn.” Except for stand-up comics. They had a field day treating Stevenson as the Ozymandias of prime time.
Loretta Swit, who played nurse Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan (and is currently on a tour of the play Shirley Valentine), feels Stevenson’s decision to leave the series probably seemed right at the time. “He was being wooed by everyone to do his own show,” Swit says. Obviously the choice didn’t work out, she adds, but “if he’d been given the proper material [after M*A*S*#], he would have had the same success. If you give him the fabric, he’ll make you the costume—he can do anything.”
These days, he does anything—everything—he can for the Children’s Burn Foundation, a nonprofit treatment program that’s part of the Sherman Oaks Burn Center in the San Fernando Valley. Stevenson is the foundation’s unsalaried national spokesman as well as its chief fundraiser and cheerleader. “I got involved with the burn center nine years ago,” says Stevenson, “when I was on my way to play golf.” A radio announcer was describing a lottery to raise money for a boy named Douglas Roy III, who had been burned over 70 percent of his body when his family’s van flipped over and burst into flames.
Stevenson winced in recognition: He himself had been a burn victim at age 6. “It was Halloween,” says Stevenson, who grew up in Normal, Ill., the son of a doctor, E.M. Stevenson, and a former nurse. Sara. “I bent over a pumpkin that was lit with a candle, and my angora sweater that my grandmother had knitted me caught on fire.” The third-degree burns on his neck were treated with a skin graft from his left arm. “It was successful,” says Stevenson, as he pulls down his turtleneck to reveal a scarless neck.
The case for Roy, who has undergone more than 50 corrective operations, has been far rougher. When Stevenson first saw him at his trailer home, he recalls, “his mouth was just big enough to get a straw in it. He didn’t have a nose or ears.”
Stevenson skipped the golf course that weekend and, working the phones and his celebrity contacts, raised $19,000 for Roy. He has raised another $500,000 dollars since then for the pediatric foundation. Stevenson became officially involved when he was looking for someone to help Roy and was put in contact with Dr. Richard Grossman, medical director of the Sherman Oaks center.
“I’ve watched every rerun of M*A*S*H,” says Grossman. “They handled trauma with a bit of black humor and a lot of niceness. That’s exactly how this works. And McLean embodies that kind of spirit.”
Stevenson continues to help Roy, now 15. “He sits me down and talks to me and reads to me,” says Roy. “He helps me clear things up and understand my problem.”
Stevenson’s bedside manner came, naturally, from his father. “My dad made house calls at 70 and died [of cancer] when he was 80 and never charged anybody more than $15 a house call or $7 for an office visit,” recalls Stevenson, a second cousin of two-time Democratic presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson, for whom the actor campaigned in the “50s.
His theatrical side came from his mother who died of a stroke at 63. “She loved the arts and the theater,” says Stevenson. (His-sister. Ann Whitney, is also an actress—she was a drugstore clerk in Hume Alone.) But his true dramatic inspiration, he remembers, was when he was a boy and Blackstone the magician called him onstage at a Saturday vaudeville matinee in town. “I reached in his hat and pulled out a bunny rabbit,” he remembers.
It took a while longer before he pulled out a career. After graduating from nearby Bloomington High in 1946, he spent two years with the Navy, then studied speech at Northwestern University outside Chicago. After graduation, he worked in commercials in New York City and Los Angeles. His first big acting break was as an unassuming magazine editor on CBS’s The Doris Day Show from 1969 to 1971.
Then came M*A*S*H. “One weekend I was asked to attend a ribbon-cutting ceremony in Dayton, Ohio,” says Stevenson. “I was told they expected 500 people. Instead there were 21,000. I was numb.”
And to those who argue that to leave M*A*S*H was, well, a word that rhymes with numb, he argues, “When I left, I had been offered over $l million from NBC. And I needed money to get out of what was a very unpleasant part of my personal life.” (He refuses to discuss his first marriage, by which he has two children and which ended in divorce.)
The residuals from M*A*S*H, he says, continue to trickle in. And the money from all those flops, as well as spokesman duties for USAir, has created a steady income flow. “I still have two BMWs, a swimming pool and a nice home on a hill in the west Valley,” he says. He shares the house will) hi-second wife, Ginny Fosdick, a talent coordinator for The Tonight Show. They met in 1979 when he was a guest on Tonight and Carson introduced them—on-air. Stevenson had hinted, off-camera beforehand, that he wouldn’t mind meeting her.
Married 11 years, Stevenson and Fosdick, 42, have a daughter, Lindsey, 9. She does not make Hello, Larry jokes. “She’s very proud of me and what I do,” says Stevenson, who seems determined not to let anything upset him anymore. Last summer he tried out for the starring part in Norman Lear’s midseason NBC sitcom (as yet untitled) about a Senator who discovers that he has a grown, illegitimate daughter. “Boy, did I think I had that job,” Stevenson says with a laugh. John (Dynasty) Forsythe got the role instead.
But the phone, like hope, rings eternal. It’s ringing now, in fact. Stevenson reaches for the receiver. “I hope it’s not Spielberg bothering me about doing a film,” he says.
VICKI SHEFF in Los Angeles