I'm not sure what it says on McLean Stevenson's tombstone, but if I were commissioned to write it, I'd keep it simple, stupid.
"I should never have left M*A*S*H"
I tend to think of actors like Stevenson around this time of year, when the new fall shows debut.
I'm thinking now of those opposite of Stevenson, like the wonderful Patty Heaton, who played Ray Romano's beleaguered wife in "Everybody Loves Raymond" for that show's entire nine-season run.
Heaton---give her credit---didn't give up on the TV sitcom format, even though it would have been easy to say, "I'll never have anything like 'Raymond' ever again," and not even try another show.
She hooked up with another TV comedic veteran, Kelsey Grammer, in the pun-titled "Back to You," a cute premise involving TV news co-anchors who also just happen to be ex-husband and wife. That show hit the airwaves in fall, 2007, but only lasted about a year.
Heaton's "Raymond" co-star Brad Garrett (Ray's brother, Robert) teamed with the adorable Joely Fisher in "Til Death," about a longtime married couple who must deal with a bubbly newlywed couple who moves in next door. That series ran from 2006-08.
Now Heaton is back, in a new ABC comedy called "The Middle," in which she plays, well, a beleaguered wife---again.
But that's OK. How many different roles are there for women in sitcoms, anyway?
Now, back to Stevenson.
McLean was a funny guy who found himself in the role of a lifetime---that of Colonel Henry Blake in "M*A*S*H," the new TV version of the acclaimed film.
But Stevenson only stayed for four seasons, leaving the wildly popular show to "pursue other interests."
Stevenson (top) and Heaton: A tale of two different career paths
From then on, it was a career filled with bad movies, bad TV shows, and frequent game show appearances. Nothing wrong with the game show thing, but Stevenson could have had so much more, if only he'd stayed with "M*A*S*H."
But at least he had a sense of humor about himself; Stevenson used to have a license plate that read, "13 WKS," in reference to the standard 13-week commitment all new network shows would get.
McLean Stevenson was canceled more times than Sports Illustrated subscriptions after their annual swimsuit issue.
His vehicles post-"M*A*S*H" were a distinct case of quantity over quality.
"The McLean Stevenson Show" (1976-77); "In the Beginning" (1978); "Hello, Larry" (1979-80); "Condo" (1983)---if you aren't familiar with these bombs, you're very excused.
Incidentally, "M*A*S*H" ran from 1972-83---or until Stevenson was done bombing on various networks.
Yet as successful as Patty Heaton was by virtue of staying with Ray Romano's crew, I still feel for her, in a way.
How can you even come close to recapturing the camaraderie, success, and fun of working on a show like "Raymond" for nine years?
But she's an actor, and I guess that's what actors do---they work.
Besides, who knows? Maybe "The Middle" will find a toehold, where "Back to You" wasn't able.
If Heaton does the "quantity over quality" thing, it won't be because she left a prized show too soon.
She won't be one who'll be kicking herself, all the way to the final destination.
McLean no doubt had hoof marks on his rear end by the time he passed away in 1996, at age 68.
Good ole "13 WKS" himself.