By Michael A. Lipton
March 04, 1996 12:00 PM

TO HIS FRIENDS ON M*A*S*H, McLean Stevenson, who played the sweet-natured if slightly addled Lt. Col. Henry Blake, was himself the soul of affability. “If he had a mean bone in his body, I never saw it,” says Wayne Rogers, who played Trapper John on the CBS sitcom. Just once did Stevenson lose his cool on the set. The moment came in 1975, during a scene in which the doctors and nurses of the 4077th learn that their beloved Blake has been killed while flying home to the States. Blake’s death was the producers’ way of explaining Stevenson’s decision to leave the show after three seasons. “He stood there watching as we were filming,” recalls M*A*S*H creator Larry Gelbart. “Then he just left. He couldn’t take it. Now I wish we could say to him, ‘We didn’t mean it, Mac.’ ”

Sadly, that opportunity is lost. On Feb. 15 the actor, who had just undergone bladder surgery, died of a heart attack at California’s Encino-Tarzana Regional Medical Center. He was 66.

In retrospect, Stevenson had a curious career. M*A*S*H prospered for eight years without him, finally going off the air in 1983. Stevenson, meanwhile, had moved on to such projects as the 1979-80 sitcom Hello, Larry, and work as a Tonight Show guest host. Yet Colonel Blake remained his defining role. “I loved playing Henry,” he once said, “because I was really playing my dad, a good and simple man but an inept administrator.”

His father, E.M. Stevenson, a cardiologist, and his mother, Sara, a homemaker, raised McLean in the farming town of Normal, Ill. McLean tried odd jobs, including campaigning in the 1950s for presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson, his second cousin. Then, at 21, he earned a theater degree from Northwestern. Early on, he played second banana to Doris Day and Tim Conway on their TV shows. Then came M*A*S*H. “McLean had this wonderful midwestern innocence,” recalls executive producer Gene Reynolds. “He was Henry Blake.”

But he was not the only Blake—or even the only one to die of a heart attack this month. Actor Roger Bowen, who played Blake in the 1970 M*A*S*H movie, died the day after Stevenson, while on vacation in Florida. Bowen never regretted his subsequent career—which included TV guest shots on Maude and The Jeffersons—and he went on to write novels and plays. “He was a private man,” says his daughter Katie, 32. “His life turned out the way he wanted it.”

Stevenson, by contrast, strove very publicly for success. After M*A*S*H he starred in several failed sitcoms, including 1976’s The McLean Stevenson Show and 1988’s Dirty Dancing. “The biggest mistake I made,” he said in 1991, “was I thought everybody loved McLean Stevenson. It was Henry Blake that people loved.”

But amid the flops there were bright spots. While subbing for Johnny Carson, he met Ginny Fosdick, then a Tonight Show talent coordinator. They wed in 1980 and had a daughter, Lindsey, now 14. (Stevenson has a son from a previous marriage.)

He also found satisfaction in helping others. In 1982, moved by a radio report about a 6-year-old California boy who was disfigured in a fire, Stevenson, who himself had been burned in an accident when he was 6, raised $19,000 for the child’s surgery and helped create the nonprofit Children’s Burn Foundation. “Every time I put kids in the hospital,” says Dr. Richard Grossman, the center’s director, “McLean was there at 6 a.m. to hold their hand.”

That was the Stevenson his M*A*S*H colleagues knew. At his memorial service, Gary Burghoff, who played Radar O’Reilly on M*A*S*H, stood in mourning, just as he had 21 years earlier, the day Henry Blake died. Says Gelbart: “I was sorry when Mac chose to leave the series early. He didn’t choose it, but he’s left life a bit early too. It’s like saying goodbye to him twice.”