Wednesday, 12 May 2021

McLean's Failures

After a while, you had to feel sorry for McLean Stevenson.

He left a top-rated show because he wanted to be a star. And viewers quickly rejected his attempts. Three of them. He became the butt of jokes. The jokes became the butt of jokes (on SCTV’s “The William B. Williams Show).

Television is such a crap shoot. Being popular doesn’t mean you’ll have a successful series because so many things are involved, including writing and cast chemistry. A good time slot and promotion from the network help.

Stevenson knew his first show was doomed. Here he is in a wire service story, January 2, 1977.

Will Mac Finally Make It?
By Vernon Scott

HOLLYWOOD (UPI) — McLean Stevenson, who looks and suffers like the guy next door, doesn't work at this illusion. He is, indeed, the prototype of the average schnook.
At least that's how Mac sees himself.
Mac is back with his own half-hour series playing much the same character he did for two years on Doris Day's sitcom and for three years in "M*A*S*H"—the nice guy beset by problems with which he can almost cope.
Stevenson himself regularly faces almost insurmountable confrontations.
JUST getting "The McLean Stevenson Show" on the air was enough to give most actors a terminal case of the bends.
It started with deceptive simplicity. After two years of Doris Day and a like sentence in "M*A*S*H," Mac wearied of ensemble acting in situation comedy.
He was prevailed upon to devote another year to "M*A*S*H" while NBC waited in the wings with a pair of hot producers ready to role [sic] an exciting variety show.
"Before we could get the variety show going, the producers split up and NBC dropped the project," said Mac during a rehearsal break at the network. His basset-like face mirrored a long acquiescence to the fickleness of fortune. "I was left out in the cold.
"But NBC still wanted me. They signed me to a one-year contract. I did a variety special which might have worked into a weekly series. But it didn't pan out."
THE SHOW, in fact, was panned on all sides. Mac unconsciously gave a perfect imitation of a man whose undergarments are too tight.
"So I wound up doing guest shots. I made a nice weekly income on talk programs and game shows. Last spring they brought this situation comedy to me."
What they brought him was almost a mirror. Stevenson could see himself as Mac Ferguson, a midwestern hardware store owner assailed on all sides by vexations large and small.
In his new series Mac is bedeviled by a snide old mother-in-law, a loving wife, an oversexed teen-age son, a divorced daughter and two grandchildren.
"We shot the first seven episodes," he said. "Then NBC changed program executives. The new guys didn't like one of the actors and replaced him with another.
"THEY scrapped the first seven episodes and started from scratch. Do you know what that does to a cast!
"Still, we weren't too upset. We thought we had plenty of time because we were going on the air in January. Suddenly they told us we had go on Dec. 1.
"We've been working morning, noon and night ever since. The minute we finish a show it's on the air. We're running as fast as we can. Nobody knows when or if we'll ever catch up."
Happily, Stevenson is accustomed to adversity. He invaded the nightclub field last year as the opening act for Glen Campbell at the Las Vegas Hilton.
He was as successful on stage as he had been in his variety special. Mac's not a stand-up comic. He doesn't sing, dance or do card tricks. After a few performances things went so badly he informed the hotel he was quitting.
"BACKSTAGE I said I was packing and leaving immediately," Stevenson recalled. "Then Baron Hilton, president of the Hilton chain, came to my dressing room to ask why I was leaving.
"I spent an hour raving about how I didn't like what I was doing, my act was terrible and that I was quitting. Mr. Hilton asked me one favor to go on stage the next show and repeat exactly what I told him.
"That's what I did. I got laughs you wouldn't believe. I was on for almost an hour. Fortunately, Mr. Hilton taped the performance. I ran it back, patched it up and it became a hit opening act. I quit for different reasons on stage every night. The audience loved it."
Stevenson and Campbell, moreover, drew record breaking crowds.
Mac sees himself as the classic man caught in the middle, a chronic victim of circumstances.
As Lt. Col. Henry Blake in "M*A*S*H," Mac was confounded by the troops. Now as Mac Ferguson, he is at the mercy of a feckless family.
"I chose to play Colonel Blake as Everyman instead of making him a buffoon," Stevenson said. "I'm doing the same thing with Ferguson. He tries to cope.
"The truth is, it doesn't take, much acting on my part. Both Blake and Ferguson are really me."

The show lasted three months. He tried again 1½ TV seasons later in a patented Norman Lear right vs left plot. This wire service story is from September 20, 1978.

Stevenson ready to bounce back

AP Television Writer
HOLLYWOOD (AP) — Three years after he left "M-A-S-H," it looks as though McLean Stevenson has finally gotten the break he's been looking for.
He stars in the new CBS comedy "In the Beginning," which premieres tonight at 8:30, playing a conservative Catholic priest who finds himself in confrontation with a liberal and liberated nun played by Priscilla Lopez. They're thrown together to run a storefront mission in the inner city.
The series, from Norman Lear's T.A.T. Communications Co., looks good, with the skillful blend of comedy and relevant issues that has been Lear's trademark. It also looks good for Stevenson, a long, lean actor with a facial expression somewhere between inquisitive and puzzled.
After "M-A-S-H," he suffered one disappointment after another. On "M-A-S-H" he was Lt. Col. Henry Blake, the commanding officer of a frontline hospital of medical misfits. He left after the third season, but says he does not regret the decision.
"A long time ago I gave up thoughts of security," he said. "I once worked for an insurance company. They didn't pay you much money but you knew where you'd be at 65.
"In 1961 when I got into show business, I gave up any idea of security and thought of opportunity. I haven't had a year yet when I haven't made more money than the year before. If I'd stayed with 'M-A-S-H,' I wouldn't be making a third of what I'm making here."
He said he enjoyed his creative relationships with the people of "M-A-S-H" and said his complaint was with the studio management then running 20th Century-Fox. "The year we started ‘M-A-S-H’ the sum total of all our salaries was less than what they paid Yul Brynner for 'The King and I,'" he said. "It folded quickly, but 'M-A-S-H' is still running strong."
He signed a contract with NBC for a variety show, but other than a special, nothing came of it. He was left with little to do except appear on the "Tonight" show.
Then NBC excavated an unsuccessful pilot called "The Prime of Life." It was retitled "The McLean Stevenson Show" and it gave new meaning to the word dismal.
"It was 1952 television," he said. "It was 'Ding dong, honey, I'm home.' It was a dated show. It was intended to be a contemporary show dealing with the problems married people in their 40s face. But, hell, the problems of today are the same as the 1940s. It was 'Ozzie and Harriet' again."
When his contract at NBC expired, he took time off to think. He said, "I went to the top of the mountain to re-evaluate what I wanted and what it was all about.
"I had begun to become a personality rather than an actor. I didn't want to do any more junk or things I didn't believe in. I told my agent I just wanted to be an actor. No more package deals. Just a good series. And, I wanted to deal with people with established records who knew instinctively what was best for me." Three days later, Lear asked Stevenson to come in for a talk.
"We talked for 15 minutes. He said he'd just gotten this script and had read the first scene and decided I should play the priest," Stevenson recalled.
CBS bought the series on the basis of a pilot, but a large portion of that was later changed.
"Now you know immediately who we are," Stevenson said. "It was belabored in the pilot. A lot of the religious jokes are gone. Now, instead of jokes about religion we have jokes about the actions of religious people."
"It's a perfect character for me," he added. "I can become him. It doesn't become an acting problem for me."

The show was even more of a failure than the first one. It was cancelled after about a month.

Remember how Bullwinkle J. Moose tried to pull a rabbit out of a hat? “This time for sure!” he’d exclaim. And it didn’t work. Stevenson likely felt that way about series number three. This is from the Los Angeles Times news service, January 25, 1979.

Stevenson's glad about turning in his collar

HOLLYWOOD — "I'm glad I'm not playing it any more," said McLean Stevenson about his role as a priest on the defunct CBS series, "in the Beginning."
"That damned collar was killing me."
A comedy about a priest and a nun who run a ghetto street mission, "In the Beginning" was canceled this season after only six episodes, becoming the second Stevenson -starred series to get early defrocking. The first was 1976-77's "The McLean Stevenson Show" on NBC, now only a fitful memory to its star, who insists that two successive cancellations are not a personal rejection by the public or even a mortal blow to his psyche. "Having been a hospital supply salesman and having sold insurance, I was used to that."
Undaunted, Stevenson is now plunging forward with his second series and T.A.T. production of the season, NBC's "Hello, Larry," premierlng Friday.
It's a comedy about a radio talk show host, a single parent rearing two adolescent daughters, a not unfamiliar TV refrain. "It's just a complete flip flop of 'One Day at a Time' (with the same executive producers, Perry Grant and Dick Bensfield)," said Stevenson, "and I am now the Bonnie Franklin of the men's world."
Actors are known for gushing about their projects of the moment, even obvious duds, and Stevenson now admits he "was lying" when he once spoke glowingly of "The McLean Stevenson Show." But he says his stated affection for "Hello, Larry" is genuine, and he does seem to fit comfortably into its premise.
Stevenson himself is a divorced father of a son, 21, and daughter, 8, and radio, after all, is sort of show biz. "This is closer to what I really know about than anything I've ever done," he said.
After the cancellation of "In the Beginning," Stevenson was planning an extended vacation, he said, only to be coaxed into making "Hello, Larry" by T.A.T. president Norman Lear. Insisting money was not his motivation, Stevenson maintains, however, he's being paid the third highest T.A.T. salary ever, behind only Carroll O'Connor and Jean Stapleton, and that his contract guarantees him one director for the entire run of the series, regular hours and no stage mothers on the set. Moreover, he said NBC has promised "Hello, Larry" eight exposures before being pre-empted.
NBC president Fred Silverman "won't pull the chain fast," Stevenson says, emphatically. "If your show has any kind of hope, he'd move you to a new night," But wasn't it Silverman who recently "pulled the chain" on the entire slate of first-season NBC series? Stevenson quickly recovered. "But there weren't any good ones," he added.
It was Silverman, then the CBS programming chief, whose refusal to give up on "MASH" extended the life of a superb series and kept Stevenson employed as Col. Henry Blake, a role he played three seasons before moving on to what he believed would be greener pastures. "I'd been in the business for 14 years and paid my dues."
Stevenson signed a development deal with NBC, where plans for a variety series fell through, but then along came "The McLean Stevenson Show," which he himself ridicules, calling it a cut above "My Three Sons."
On the other hand, "In the Beginning" was simply a well-intentioned series gone awry, Stevenson said. "First of all, it was intended to be a 9:30 show with total emphasis on a street nun and a conservative priest. They (T.A.T.) felt, and I agreed, a nun and priest could get info some of the kind of problems as a Starsky and a Hutch, inside people's heads, where there are problems."
Instead, the series was slotted at family-oriented 8:30 p.m. "and so we had to get a bunch of goony kids in there doing all this stuff and I got to do pratfalls," said Stevenson. "It got very watered down, very sitcomy, and I ended up doing church jokes, because that's all we had left."
Even without a series, Stevenson says he could live comfortably on writing comedy, performing on talk shows and in clubs and collecting residual checks. So no sweat if Silverman does pull the chain on Larry and his daughters.
"Fifteen years from now," he said, "who's gonna care?"

And as Stevenson kept being cancelled, M*A*S*H carried on. He got one more shot at stardom in 1983 with Condo. That’s right. Gone after 13 weeks.

Stevenson died in 1996. At least he could say one thing. He never did After M*A*S*H.


  1. I remember Stevenson saying that he and William Self had a pretty tense relationship in season three of M*A*S*H*, so when he was given the chance to parody Henry after he was killed off...he took it. The Sonny and Cher Comedy hour that aired the same month that " Abyssinia Henry " ran, Stevenson showed up in his Henry garb in a raft saying : " Hey Guys!!! I'm ok...I'M OK!!!! ". My very first memories of McLean was as Doris Day's boss when they re-vamped her show and moved it to the city. Most of the time, he was cast as " Mr. Everyman ". Hosted for Johnny on " The Tonight Show " a few times, Battle of the Network Stars, and did the whole game show circuit. Did a little of everything, but he never seemed to get out of Henry Blake's shadow.

  2. Hans Christian Brando12 May 2021 at 17:40

    Talent becomes dismayingly inconsequential when not allied with charm--at least in front of the camera. McLean Stevenson was not someone you'd want to hang with.

  3. I felt kinda sorry for the guy. Must have been rough, being the poster boy for bad career moves.

  4. Ages ago, after his dismal sitcom failures -- and let's not forget his "reality" show "America!" and the short-lived TV version of "Dirty Dancing" -- Stevenson said that he quit "M*A*S*H" because he'd figured that people wanted to see more of McLean Stevenson, whereas they really just wanted to see more of Henry Blake. Also, at one time in the '70s, he was on a short (and unacknowledged) list of future "Tonight Show" hosts should Johnny Carson try to bail. I'll bet Stevenson was longing for those "hot" days in show biz for the rest of his life.