Seventeen years ago, two actors died a day apart: McLean Stevenson on February 15, 1996, and Roger Bowen on February 16. These two men were bound by more than just their dates of death, more even than just a shared profession. They both played the same well-loved character: Lt. Col. Henry Blake of M*A*S*H
Roger Bowen (Image
In 1970, Roger Bowen first brought to life the character created in Richard Hooker’s novel M*A*S*H: A Novel about Three Army Doctors. The movie’s Blake was a career Army man, serving as commanding officer of a hospital near the front lines of the Korean War. But this CO did more playing than commanding, leaving the 4077th a wild place to serve.
When the tale came to the small screen in 1972, McLean Stevenson took over the role of Lt. Col. Blake, playing him as a reservist called up for the war, leaving behind a family practice in central Illinois. Blake on TV had just as relaxed a commanding style as he did in the movie, drinking and carousing with the soldiers in his command.
Over the course of the movie and the TV show, Lt. Col. Blake captured the hearts of viewers everywhere. But Stevenson was not as happy with the role as his viewers were. The first three seasons of the show saw the ensemble cast eclipsed by the star power of Alan Alda, who played Hawkeye. Characters like Blake, who were important in the book and movie, became secondary on the show. Stevenson was unhappy with playing second fiddle, and after the show’s third season, he left, along with Wayne Rogers, who played Trapper John and was also unhappy with the downgrading of his role.
Stevenson’s departure from the show was planned out and his character’s departure was written as an honorable discharge – Blake would simply go home and resume his medical practice. But the show’s writers shocked both the viewers and Stevenson’s costars when they wrote in a surprise ending that had Blake’s plane go down on its way out of Korea, killing all its passengers. The show’s stars weren’t told of the plot development until moments before they had to film the scene, and their disconcerted surprise made great TV.
Twenty years later, the two men with the intersecting careers died, and their deaths were eerily similar to each other. Stevenson was 68, Bowen 63. Their deaths, just a day apart, were both due to heart attacks. Indeed, when Bowen died, his family was justifiably concerned that the news would get mixed up with the reports of Stevenson’s death the day before, so they waited a week to announce it. And though they played the same role, they deserve to be remembered as individuals – both of whom made us laugh with their portrayals of one of our favorite soldiers.
Written by Linnea Crowther