When an actor leaves a show usually his or her character leaves with him. This isn’t always possible and you either need a decent reason for the change in actor playing that character or you ignore it completely. There’s something to be said for both situations but it depends on the show. When M*A*S*H said goodbye to McLean Stevenson they also said goodbye to his character, Lt. Colonel Henry Blake, the frazzled leader of the 4077th (not an actual MASH unit during the Korean War) who ran a hospital first and a military base…somewhere close to second. The scene above shows how that went down, as the producers decided to take the risk of an unhappy ending for Blake before calling in Colonel Potter as the new commanding officer.
I stumbled across the first video last night, an interview with producer and director Larry Gelbart on the decision to kill off the character and filming that scene. Plus I have some commentary on the decision and why Stevenson decided to leave the show. There is one swear but it makes sense being there.
You can see the full interview on the Television Academy Foundation website.
So why did Stevenson decide to leave the show? In the recommendations of this video was a video going over that topic.
Catch more Dave Sundstrom on his YouTube channel.
If Stevenson wasn’t happy (and I’ve heard that the outdoor set wasn’t in the best of shape as a sense of realism for the actors…or at least that’s the reason there actually were rats running around) then I don’t blame him for leaving. I haven’t seen The McLean Stevenson Show or even knew it existed until I saw this video, but Stevenson did appear on other sitcoms, dramas, and sketch comedy/variety shows, including The Tim Conway Show and Maude so it’s not like he didn’t have a career before or after this series even if Colonel Blake was his most well-known role. I think I saw an episode of Hello Larry (probably the one that the Drummonds appeared on) but I did see the two episodes of Diff’rent Strokes that crossover with the show and I liked the characters and thought the cast worked well together.
As far as Blake leaving the show, I wrote about this and the other cast changes many years ago.
Who doesn’t love Colonel Henry Blake? The fun-loving, easy-going commanding officer of the 4077th, Henry pretty much let Hawkeye and Trapper get away with everything short of murder (although considering how often the pair pulled one over on them, they could have easily followed a requisition order for murder and Henry wouldn’t have realized he signed it–in triplicate). To copy/paste from Wikipedia: Hawkeye described Henry as “a good doctor and a pretty good Joe,” but likened Henry’s command style to “being on a sinking ocean liner, running to the bridge, and finding out that the captain is Daffy Duck!” This is what made Henry such a fun character to watch, but it’s also what made him a terrible commanding officer.
As the show gained a more serious edge, I don’t think Blake would have fit. He was likable, but it didn’t fit the tone. Blake’s portrayer, McLean Stevenson, left the show for the same reason (Wayne) Rogers would later, being reduced to supporting cast on “The Hawkeye Pierce and Friends Show”. (I wonder if these two leaving had anything to do with the other characters finally getting some stories based on them?) Blake’s leaving ironically lead to one of the more dramatic moments in the show’s 11 season run.
But Blake was out, and in came Colonel Sherman Potter. Henry Morgan had played a guest role in an earlier episode, but was brought in to play the new CO. Potter was as far from Blake and you could get without being Burns. An old warhorse and former Calvary man, Potter was stricter than his predecessor, but wasn’t the hardass that most high-ranking military men were portrayed as in the show. In fact, he was probably the only soldier to have Hawkeye’s respect and that wasn’t easy.
From the start, however, I think Potter had more depth to him than Blake did. He had the baggage of the war, was more faithful to his wife (although one episode brought up a time he slipped), and had happy memories not of the wars he was in but the friends and comrades he met along the way. There was more heart to Potter that I think played well to the tone of the later seasons and again I don’t think Blake would have done as well.
However, it is tough watching episodes where he realized he missed his wife or that he had a son (I’m guessing they met up in Tokyo or something given he was in Korea longer than nine months from what I understand) that he was so excited about when you know he’ll never get to see his son or his wife ever again. So it was good at the time but does make re-watching the show (which so many creators forget about…people re-reading or re-watching old episodes though this was before syndicated reruns and home video/streaming) a bit difficult at times knowing his fate. On the other hand it was a bold move done to show that war doesn’t always have happy endings (though I can’t rule out a dig at Stevenson as well) and it’s one of the most memorable moments of a show filled with memorable moments so I can’t really hate it.
Did Stevenson deserve better? I think so. He was a good actor but he needed a good show to do it on and a network that would give it a chance to find an audience. So many shows and movies that snag a celebrity from another show seldom seem to realize that and think the big name actor is all you need. It’s the role that makes an actor or actress famous as much as his or her portrayal of that character. That’s how you run into the problem of typecasting and rare is the performer who can escape a typecasted role or embrace it and make a career out of playing those type of characters and still feel fulfilled as a performer. I also wonder if NBC knew Carson wasn’t leaving anytime soon and that was a lie to get him to switch over.
So it’s too bad Stevenson didn’t become a bigger success outside of M*A*S*H but if he was happy that’s what really matters.