In 1996, two actors died just one day apart: McLean Stevenson on Feb. 15 and Roger Bowen on Feb. 16. These two men were bound by more than just their dates of death, by more even than just a shared profession. They both played the same well-loved character: Lt. Col. Henry Blake of M*A*S*H.
In 1970, Roger Bowen first brought to life the character created by Richard Hooker in his novel M*A*S*H: A Novel about Three Army Doctors. The movie’s Col. Blake was a career Army man, serving as commanding officer of a hospital near the front lines of the Korean War. But this C.O. did more playing than commanding, making the 4077th a wild place to serve.
When M*A*S*H came to the small screen in 1972, McLean Stevenson took on the role of Lt. Col. Blake, playing him as a reservist called up for the war, leaving behind a family practice in central Illinois. TV's Blake 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 fans were. The first three seasons of the show saw the ensemble cast eclipsed by the star power of Alan Alda as Hawkeye Pierce. Characters like Blake, who were important in the book and movie, became secondary on the show. Unhappy with playing second fiddle, Stevenson left after the show’s third season, as did Wayne Rogers, aka Trapper John, who also was unhappy with the downgrading of his role.
Stevenson’s departure from the show was planned out, with his character receiving an honorable discharge and heading home to resume his medical practice. But the show’s writers shocked both viewers and Stevenson’s costars when they wrote in a surprise ending: on its way out of Korea, Blake's plane went down killing all of its passengers. The show’s stars weren’t told of the plot development until moments before they had to film the scene, and their genuine surprise made great TV.
Twenty years later, the two men with intersecting careers died. Occurring just one day apart, their deaths were eerily similar to each other. Stevenson was 68, Bowen 63. Both died of a heart attack. Indeed, when Bowen died, his family was 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.
Though they played the same role and died so similarly, Bowen and Stevenson deserve to be remembered as individuals – each of whom made us laugh with his portrayal of one of our favorite soldiers.
Written by Linnea Crowther. Find her on Google+.