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A 'M*A*S*H' Note to Harry Morgan: 'Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen'
December 8, 2011  | By David Bianculli
 
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Harry Morgan, whose crusty yet friendly Colonel Potter on M*A*S*H was the pinnacle of a show-biz career that stretched to the early days of television and encompassed film and theater as well, died yesterday at age 96. What a character. What an actor. What a character actor...

It would be enough for any actor's career and obituary, perhaps, to have starred in the most-viewed scripted TV episode in history: the finale to CBS's M*A*S*H sitcom, an emotional movie-length 1983 sendoff titled "Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen."

Morgan's Col. Sherman T. Potter wasn't there at the beginning of M*A*S*H -- his character took control of the Korean War's 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital at the start of the 1975 season, replacing McLean Stevenson, whose Henry Blake was written out of the show, quite dramatically, after McLean announced his intention to quit the series to seek bigger stardom elsewhere.

For Stevenson, that didn't work out so well. For the man born as Harry Bratsburg in 1915, however, it worked out great.

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In lesser hands, that cast-change transition could have been clumsy, even rejected by audiences. But Harry Morgan, who had guest-starred on M*A*S*H the season before -- playing Maj. Gen Steele (at right), a very decorated but obviously deranged officer -- came in and was accepted instantly.

His relationship with the character of assistant Radar O'Reilly, played by Gary Burghoff (in photo at top, with Morgan), was a much warmer one than Radar's dynamic with his previous commanding officer. And as Radar embraced and felt protected and loved by Col. Potter, as a clear sort of father figure, so did many, many millions of TV viewers.

Morgan, in an interview for the Archive of American Television, called it "the best part I ever had, definitely." Here's a taste of that interview, which can be found in its entirety on YouTube:

If it seems odd to hear Morgan speak out of character, that's because he almost never did it. Except for speaking a few words of thanks when winning a Best Supporting Actor Emmy for M*A*S*H in 1980, Morgan didn't appear on TV as himself, on talk shows, ever. Not once, in a career that actually predated television.

M*A*S*H was, inarguably, Morgan's crowning achievement. Although he won only one Emmy for his work on that series, he was nominated for nine others.

His first Emmy nomination came for that single-shot guest role on the episode called "The General Flipped at Dawn." Then, once he joined the company full-time, he was nominated eight consecutive times (winning once) for his work as Col. Potter -- and also was nominated in 1980 for directing an episode.

And before Morgan was nominated for that M*A*S*H guest-role Emmy in 1975, he was nominated once before. Sixteen years before. In 1959, as a supporting actor on the sitcom December Bride.

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And even before that, in other venues, there were major triumphs. On Broadway in 1948, he appeared in the original production of Arthur Miller's All My Sons, with a couple of co-stars who just might be familiar: Burt Lancaster and Edward G. Robinson. His movie roles included attention-getting parts in 1943's The Ox-Bow Incident opposite Henry Fonda, 1952's High Noon with Gary Cooper, and as the Southern judge in 1960's Inherit the Wind (at right), with Spencer Tracy and Fredric March.

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On television, Morgan found work in every decade in the latter half of the 20th century -- much of it very steady work.

From 1954-59, on the CBS sitcom December Bride, he played his Emmy-winning role of Pete Porter -- a character so popular he was spun off into his own series, Pete and Gladys (1960-62), with Cara Williams.

Also in the 1960s, in an early display of his strength as a replacement franchise player, he co-starred as the new partner of Jack Webb's Sgt. Joe Friday, in a new, color version of Webb's classic NBC Dragnet series.

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It was a revival of what was renamed, at first, Dragnet '67. Morgan's warmth played beautifully opposite Webb's clipped, robotic persona, and that series lasted, with appropriate titular changes, until 1970.

But other than M*A*S*H, the most impressive part of Harry Morgan's TV resume -- and the "missing link" which sorely needs to be exhumed, released and appreciated -- is his work as one of the cast members of The Richard Boone Show, a one-season NBC dramatic anthology series from 1963-64.

The Richard Boone Show was, I believe, unique in the annals of broadcast TV. Led and hosted by the former star of Medic and Have Gun, Will Travel, it was an anthology drama with a twist: It featured a repertory company of actors, who took turns starring in some episodes, being featured or bit players in others, and even sitting out some.

There were only 25 episodes made, one season's worth, and Harry Morgan appeared in 15 of them. Among his fellow cast members in this now-forgotten TV repertory troupe: Robert Blake.

After M*A*S*H, there was -- well, AfterMASH -- but the less said about that awkward CBS spinoff, the better. But to wrap up the century as a still-working actor, Harry Morgan played a recurring role, for a few episodes, on NBC's 3rd Rock from the Sun in 1996 and 1997, playing a rival professor opposite John Lithgow -- another much-appreciated character actor whose work, like Morgan's, encompassed stage, screen and TV.

Beginning Thursday at 7 p.m. ET, Me-TV is presenting daily tribute episodes of M*A*S*H featuring Harry Morgan as Col. Potter. The satellite and cable network isn't available everywhere, but you can find where to find it HERE.

But as a well-timed remembrance and holiday gift, we here at TV WORTH WATCHING are proud to recommend the complete, well-designed M*A*S*H boxed set, which you can order HERE.

What a show. And, for Morgan, what a career.

 

5 Comments

 

jim said:

I grew up watching Harry Morgan. First on "December Bride" and "Pete and Gladys" and then in dozens of other tv shows and movies. He was one of those great character actors who just always seemed to be there and yet, despite his familiarity, his presence was never disruptive, he never pulled you out of the show or did anything to simply draw attention to himself. Even now whenever he pops up in some old movie or tv show his presence is a little like comfort food. I know that at least one element of what I'm watching is going to be satisfying.

[Very, very nicely put, Jim. I agree completely. Thanks. - DB]

Comment posted on December 8, 2011 9:37 AM


Eileen said:

One of the best character actors -- ever. Acting in the best written, best acted, best directed tv comedy -- ever. And for a comedy, there was also a perfect balance of drama in so many of the episodes.

I'm actually old enough to remember the shows you mentioned, and Harry always hit his mark perfectly.

What he brought to M*A*S*H was immeasurable. It's one of the very few tv shows where the casting changes only made it better. Colonel Potter trounced Colonel Blake; Trapper John vs B.J. was no contest, and David Ogden Stiers' Charles was head and shoulders above Larry Linville's Frank. And as Jamie Farr's Klinger character became more involved, it just added to this incredible ensemble cast. We'll never see the likes of this quality of tv again.

Goodbye, farewell and amen to one of tv's greats.

[Amen to that, too. - DB]

Comment posted on December 8, 2011 11:51 AM


Sally W. said:

Great observations about Harry Morgan's career. What an actor indeed; even if a lot of us remember him most as Col. Potter, he did so much more and so memorably!

[Thanks a lot. It's the quality of his work, as well as the length of his resume, that astounds me. - DB]

Comment posted on December 8, 2011 10:53 PM


Eileen said:

Just another Best Bets aside...

On November 2nd you recommended L&O SVU, and noted the addition of guest star Andre Braugher. I responded that as a faithful view of SVU, Andre was wonderful, and should be a recurring character.

I'm wondering if Dick Wolf has been reading your Best Bets. Andre was on SVU this past Wednesday, excellent as always, and the word is he is a new recurring character on the show.

This couldn't come at a better time. Chris Meloni's departure left this show so lacking in a strong male counterpart to Mariska Hargitay's Olivia. Andre & Mariska are just perfect together; it's a chemistry made in tv heaven.

Now, it's time to put out an APB for Jimmy Smits. Danny Pina is ok, but lacks the quirks of Chris Meloni's character Elliot. And Kelli Giddish just needs to go. She adds nothing to the procedures, and she almost seems lost and wandering about the precinct looking for something to do.

So, Dick Wolf, if you're reading this, you need to call Jimmy Smits asap!

[Dick should hire you as a development exec, and eliminate the middle man. AKA, me. Good observations -- as always. - DB]

Comment posted on December 9, 2011 11:51 AM


Mac said:

Interesting that Turner Classics was spooling 1942's "To the Shores of Tripoli" Wed. evening as part of their remembrance of Pearl Harbor Day. IMDB lists this as Morgan's earliest screen appearance. He played a Marine going through basic, nicknamed "Mouthy" (typecasting?).
"December Bride"started as a radio show, but I'm still trying to find if Morgan did those episodes. A cranky neighbor, with a wife only mentioned in his lines, was a radio natural. On TV, Morgan stole as many scenes in "DB" as Michael Richards' Kramer did on "Seinfeld". Morgan's distinctive voice should have been a natural for radio, but it seems if it was part of his palette, it was minor. I can imagine a "dueling Henry/Harry Morgans" with the screen actor vs. the radio humorist (and TV game show panelist) that would be "dueling cranks" but would be more confusing for listeners than Bob & Ray.

[Yet funny. Like SNL's "Dueling Brandos" with John Belushi and guest host Peter Boyle, which I'm sure you were alluding to. Boy, you TVWW readers are sharp. - DB]

Comment posted on December 10, 2011 6:56 AM
 
 
 
 
 
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