NAVA BRAHE: Last week, the entertainment world lost one of its true greats – Harry Morgan. According to his obituary, Mr. Morgan was 96, and succumbed to pneumonia at his Los Angeles home. Fans of classic television will remember him best as Officer Bill Gannon from the late 60s version of Dragnet, but Morgan also starred in over 100 movies after starting out on Broadway.
To me, Harry Morgan is best known as Colonel Sherman Potter from my very favorite television series, M*A*S*H. I was rather young when the series first debuted, and my parents weren’t that particular about what I watched back in those days. Granted, prime time television was ridiculously tame compared to what’s on there now, and for the record, even though I absorbed countless episodes of All in the Family and its ilk, I turned out fine; at least I think so.
M*A*S*H became something special to me when Harry Morgan joined the cast in the show’s fourth season. Don’t get me wrong, it was a great show before he got there, but it became even greater with his addition. His “regular army” portrayal of Colonel Potter struck a chord with me, despite his often brusque tone. There was an underlying tenderness to his character that I spotted almost immediately, and was even more drawn to the show because of it. Maybe I didn’t realize that as a kid, but I certainly figured it out as I aged and watched countless episodes of the show as reruns in syndication. When Colonel Potter rode off on his horse Sophie during the final episode of the series, it was the first and last time I ever sobbed at the ending of a television show.
When you’re a fan of such a superbly well-acted and well-written ensemble show like M*A*S*H, there are countless one-liners and storylines that stick with you for years. Despite the underlying sense of peril in being at a mobile army hospital so close to the front of the Korean War, the comedy was absolutely priceless. I can recite certain episodes verbatim, and some of my favorite exclamations (besides the garden variety swear words) come from Colonel Potter himself. I often find myself muttering “mule muffins!” or “horse hockey!” when something upsets me, and sometimes when I sign my name to something – a credit card slip or even my rent check – I will utter “SHERMAN T. POTTER” the way Klinger did when he attempted to forge his name onto a 3-day pass. The show is ingrained in my personal vernacular and I believe it will stay there until, well…for a long time to come. I still never miss an opportunity to watch reruns on television, and I am slowly building up my collection of the series’ DVDs. I own the first three seasons, and plan to add more shortly.
M*A*S*H is one of those shows that never jumped the shark. It was stellar with the original cast, and it stayed that way after Harry Morgan joined in. I believe it was quite possibly the most seamless transition ever made on television.
Rest in peace, Colonel Potter. Fans of all ages are mourning your passing.
HOWARD MEGDAL: Perhaps it is telling thay I never watched M*A*S*H, yet keenly felt the passing of Harry Morgan. He resonated as an actor in such a way that I missed his greatest role, yet felt sadness at his loss still.
As Nava mentioned, his role as Bill Gannon, Sargent Joe Friday’s partner, is the way I got to know him, as a middle schooler watching Nick at Nite. Was that show formulaic? Perhaps, but the humanity Morgan brought to the life of a police officer within that show was impossible to ignore. It doesn’t surprise me a bit that Morgan made Nava cry, and that’s no slight of her.
For my money, the best Harry Morgan role came as Chummy McGregor, the always-loyal band member in The Glenn Miller Story, who sold his car to keep the band going. The role so easily could have lapsed into silliness, or sentimentality- but in Morgan’s hands, it simply allows us to experience the effect Jimmy Stewart’s version of Miller had on those around him.
Ultimately, Harry Morgan was a character actor who burned himself into out memories, again and again, the precise opposite of the forgotten secondary man in films and TV shows despite his supporting roles. It is impossible to imagine an actor succeeding at his craft any better, and that success has made many of us miss him as if we knew him.