A 1975 television promo for The Bob McLean Show goes like this: In voice-over, a CBC announcer says, “In order to find out just how well Bob McLean is known we sent him out onto the street, wearing a mask.” Mr. McLean, in suit and tie, his blue eyes hidden behind a black Zorro mask, stops a young woman.
“Do you know who I am?” he asks.
“No I don’t,” she replies.
“Do you recognize my voice?”
“No I don’t.”
Mr. McLean whips the mask from his face and says “I’m Bob McLean and I have a new show starting on CBC next week.”
“Terrific,” replies the woman.
“What’s my name?” Mr. McLean asks.
“I don’t know.”
Bob McLean’s anonymity was short lived. His face soon became familiar to Canadians as the congenial national host of CBC’s lunchtime television. He died on April 22, in Brampton Civic Hospital of heart failure. He was 81.
Formerly occupied by Elwood Glover’s Luncheon Date, Mr. McLean’s one-hour time slot, from noon to 1 p.m. contained an eclectic array of breezy items aimed at homemakers. The format was generally three guests per show with performance and musical accompaniment by Jimmy Dale’s band, as well as various regulars, such as columnist Barbara Amiel. Comedian Don Ferguson of the Royal Canadian Air Farce appeared several times. Mr. Ferguson says Mr. McLean was, “very affable, very professional and smooth. He seemed to be in the mold of American chat-show hosts like Mike Douglas, who were plentiful in the daytime.”
The Bob McLean Show, later called McLean at Large, was the go-to television show for celebrities passing through Toronto to flog their books or movies. Dustin Hoffman, Shirley MacLaine, Peter Ustinov, Jane Fonda, Margaret Trudeau, and numerous other celebrities warmed to the host’s charm in the studio above a shopping mall on Cumberland Street. Mr. McLean was accommodating. When Jane Fonda insisted she be filmed from the left side, he allowed her to change position even though it interrupted the continuity of the show. This concession to Ms. Fonda, who was somewhat of a pariah in the American press at the time for her opposition to the Vietnam War, might have been the reason she opened up to him about her father, Henry, and her political activism.
Although politics was not the show’s regular fare, Mr. McLean, who was a history buff and an avid reader, was well equipped to pose intelligent questions. One of his most memorable interviews took place when the show went on the road. In the relaxed atmosphere of an Ottawa high school gymnasium, Bob McLean interviewed former Prime Minister John Diefenbaker for a Canada Day show. Bill Casselman, executive producer at the time, recalls that after the interview, Mr. McLean and Mr. Diefenbaker continued chatting like old friends. “They sat on the edge of the stage with their legs swinging like little boys in a tree,” Mr. Casselman said. “We couldn’t get the audience to leave.”
With 15 guests per week, Mr. McLean had to absorb a lot of material. Mr. Casselman says he was a quick study. He could also be impatient, once blasting a writer for using the word “parallel” on the teleprompter. He felt the word was too difficult to pronounce. Director Nigel Napier-Andrews said, “There was a dark side to Bob that his staff sometimes saw. We had a small sound booth for announcements. One day Bob was really steamed up about something. He went off to the sound booth after one of our daily live shows and let rip with his true feelings about the situation. What he didn’t know, and fortunately we were off the air, was that the techie had left the mic open and Bob’s profanity flowed loudly throughout the studio.” Fortunately, Mr. McLean had a sense of humour about himself. “When he found out, he laughed along with the rest of us,” Mr. Napier-Andrews said.
Robert Earnest McLean was born in Walkerton, Ont., on April 16, 1933. His father, Neil McLean, was a rep for a drug company. His mother, Marion, stayed at home to care for Bob and his younger sister, Marianne.
The McLean family lived at various times in Windsor, London and Cambridge. Having travelled all week, Neil McLean wanted Saturdays for romance with his wife, so as soon as Bob and his sister were old enough, they were dispatched to double features at the movies. Hollywood kindled the boy’s longing to be involved in show business. Mr. McLean remained a movie buff for the rest of his life, repeatedly watching old favourites such as Casablanca.
Bob’s mother eventually worked in a dress shop to support the family after her husband’s death from a heart attack. Bob was just 13 at the time. His father’s younger brother, Pat, stepped into the role of a surrogate dad.
After high school, Bob McLean enrolled in a new broadcasting course being offered by Ryerson Polytechnic Institute (now Ryerson University). Since television was in its infancy, the course concentrated largely on radio. Bob McLean was among the first to graduate. In 1954, Mr. McLean began his career at CKBB in Barrie, where he hosted a morning show and called play-by-play for local hockey games.
While in Barrie, Mr. McLean invited a Grade Two teacher named Willa Somerville to attend the radio station’s staff party. They continued seeing each other, then, on Valentine’s Day, he showed up at the house Ms. Somerville shared with two other women. She remembers her hair was in curlers. “Bob threw a small box up the stairs at me and said ‘Here, try this on for size.’” It was an engagement ring. The couple married on June 23, 1956, and remained together for 58 years. Although they bickered constantly, she eventually assumed the role of her husband’s producer. “You’d never ever give Bob questions,” she said. “Research yes, but never questions because he believed that if you had a list of questions in front of you, you’d be too busy checking them and you wouldn’t listen.”
Listening served Bob McLean well. From Barrie, his career took him to CHCH television in Hamilton, where he was the on-air announcer who reported the death of John F. Kennedy.
Ambitious for a bigger arena, in 1966, Mr. McLean moved his family, which included daughters Abbie and Jennifer, first to Cleveland where he hosted a talk show and then to Philadelphia. Within the networks, note was being taken of the rising star who had an easy rapport with guests. In 1970, when Tom Snyder left KYW in Philadelphia to begin his late-night show, Mr. McLean was offered, and accepted, another local show called McLean and Company. In his spare time he moonlighted with small parts on soap operas in nearby New York and co-hosted the game show Dialing for Dollars.
The early 1970s was a turbulent time in U.S. politics and Mr. McLean stepped on a few toes. He interviewed several people from Richard Nixon’s administration who were critical of the President’s role in covering up the 1972 break-in at the Democratic national headquarters. “Bob was on Nixon’s enemies list so we kept getting audited for taxes,” Willa McLean said. “It made Bob furious. He swore a lot.”
When the CBC came calling with an offer in 1975, the decision to return to Canada was an easy one. Six years later, after CBC cancelled The Bob McLean Show, he joined the “all-talk” news station CKO. For the next seven years he broadcast from its Toronto and Vancouver stations then, once again, his job disappeared. Willa McLean remembers being on a working vacation aboard a Mississippi cruise ship. “Bob had just finished interviewing the captain. We were sitting on deck enjoying a mint julep. Just as Bob said, ‘Life doesn’t get any better than this,’ a steward arrived with a telegram on a silver platter informing us that CKO had closed down. We were both out of work.” Mr. McLean’s response? “He just looked at me and said ‘What’s next?’”
Next, Mr. McLean taught at Conestoga College in Kitchener. He continued broadcasting, first on Kitchener’s CKCO television then on Kitchener’s CKWR radio. He retired as a talk-show host in 2011.
Despite a career that spanned nearly 60 years, Bob McLean never considered himself a star. It’s an old show-biz joke but Willa McLean claims it actually happened: A woman in an elevator once looked at him and said, “Didn’t you used to be Bob McLean?’ He simply smiled and said, ‘Yup.’”
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