Harry Morgan had one heck of a run in this world. He lived to 96. He acted alongside many of the giants of 40s, 50s and 60s movie acting, including Marlon Brando, Gregory Peck, Spencer Tracy and Jimmy Stewart. He co-starred on two of the most iconic TV shows of all time, as Joe Friday’s partner Bill Gannon in the ’60s revival of “Dragnet,” then as Col. Sherman T. Potter for the final eight seasons of “M*A*S*H,” winning an Emmy along the way for the latter role.
Morgan wasn’t a chameleon. His persona didn’t tend to change drastically from role to role (though there were some notable exceptions, which I’ll get to), and if you were to look at a photo of Morgan in, say, 1951’s “Appointment with Danger” (an early team-up with future “Dragnet” co-star Jack Webb), the only physical difference between him then and him as Potter in the late ’70s is a few lines and whiter hair. Morgan simply was who he was: simple, plain-spoken, reliable and, most of all, dignified.
Dignity isn’t an easy quality to portray on screen, much less over an entire career, but that’s the word that comes to mind whenever I think of Morgan. You would think that a mature, wise, wholly rational military veteran like Colonel Potter would be a tough fit on a comedy like “M*A*S*H” – especially replacing a much more overtly silly character in McLean Stevenson’s Henry Blake – and yet Morgan and the “M*A*S*H” writers made it work. He was frequently made the straight man (and a brilliant one, at that), but just as often Potter’s various admirable qualities were tweaked just enough to generate laughs on their own, rather than as a reaction to what Hawkeye and BJ were up to.
(It helped that Morgan had gotten the part after dazzling the cast, crew and audience with a hilarious earlier guest appearance going way against type as an insane, racist general. Even when he was being serious and upright as Potter, there was a twinkle in his eye.)
And as the series gradually transitioned from comedy to dramedy to earnest half-hour drama with occasional jokes, Morgan’s presence as the sane, confident voice in charge of the 4077th became more and more essential. Here’s just one example of many great moments for him:
Still, even Morgan could only carry so much. After the series ended with one of the most viewed telecasts ever, CBS tried building a sequel series, “AfterMASH,” around Potter, Jamie Farr’s Max Klinger and William Christopher’s Father Mulcahy working stateside at a VA hospital; nearly 30 years later, it’s still held up as the gold standard of what not to do with a spin-off.
Ken Levine was one of the head writers on “M*A*S*H” for several of Morgan’s seasons, and also wrote for “AfterMASH.” Asked for his take on Morgan, he wrote to me, “As funny as he was on camera, he was funnier off. Wonderful dry wit. I was always in awe of Harry. He could read a scene once, have it completely memorized, and perform it perfectly take after take. And then compliment a callow 26 year-old writer who wrote it and couldn’t believe the great Harry Morgan was even in the same room, much less reading his words. Fortunately, through television, Harry will live on forever.”
(Coincidentally writing about Morgan on his blog a few weeks ago, Levine also noted his agelessness, saying, “It”s no surprise he”s a young 96. He”s been a young senior citizen for 70 years.” Ken also posted some longer thoughts on Morgan a few minutes ago.)
Rest in peace, Harry Morgan. We salute you.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org