erik lundegaard

R*I*P: Harry Morgan (1915-2011)

I assume I first saw him as Officer Bill Gannon in a late '60s reboot of the “Dragnet” series, “Dragnet 1967,” clean-cut and serious and busting hippies. Then I might have seen him in a “Partridge Family” episode, faking a neck injury to bilk the Partridges of imagined dough but still stooping to pick up a handkerchief dropped by a pre-“Charlie's Angels” Farrah Fawcett. Did I see him as the nutso general, Bartford Hamilton Steele, in a great, early episode of “M*A*S*H,” or did I come across that gem only in re-runs, only after actor Harry Morgan took on the role of Col. Sherman T. Potter, the gruff, lovable, former cavalry officer, doctor and commander of the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital unit? It was part of the show's seamless transition after its third season. Actors McLean Stevenson and Wayne Rogers wanted out, so their characters were replaced by new characters, with new personalities, that still allowed the dynamic of the show to remain the same.

“M*A*S*H” was central to my life for a while, particularly from 1975 to 1977, with both Morgan and Mike Farrell on board, but before the departure of Larry Linville's Frank Burns, and, more importantly, before the departure of producer Gene Reynolds. In retrospect, I see the show as brilliant during its first three seasons (under the guidance of both Larry Gelbart and Gene Reynolds), good during its next two years, (under the guidance of Gene Reynolds), and then increasingly preachy and anachronistic (proto-feminist) for the last seven. Its final episode drew record ratings but by that time, in 1983, its anti-war message was lost in the chest-thumping, gung-ho era of Ronald Reagan, which, in a certain sense, we haven't left.

I haven't thought of those “M*A*S*H” episodes in years, although, for a time, being a short man, I often quoted one of Col Potter's lines: “When I was younger I was short,” and then with a twinkle, an upright carriage, and a jaunty bounce, “not like I am now.” Col. Potter also introduced me to his favorite western, “My Darling Clementine,” now one of mine, which the 4077th watched one evening. Then there was the episode Radar O'Reilly adopted a horse, against regulations, and, as a way to keep it, and keep it safe, he gave it to Col. Potter, who, tearing up while walking around it, suddenly slides on a mess the horse made on the floor. “That's disgusting!” Frank Burns says. “Son,” Col. Potter responds with a smile, “to me, that's a tip-toe through the tulips!”

In 1996, Morgan said of Sherman Potter:

He was firm. He was a good officer and he had a good sense of humor. I think it’s the best part I ever had.

Morgan was a character actor who often played the sidekick, as in “Dragnet,” or in his sixth film, which turned out to be  one of the great films, “The Ox-Bow Incident,” in which he plays Art Croft, the partner of Henry Fonda's Gil Carter, two drifters who get caught up in a town posse and witness the lynching of three men for murder. In the final reel, it's discovered that the men are innocent. Too late. Fonda plays the conscience of the story; Morgan, as he often did, as he did with both “Dragnet” and “M*A*S*H,” plays the man who stands with the conscience of the story.

The obit from The New York Times can be found here.

R*I*P., Colonel. May we all live such long, fruitful, creative lives.

Harry Morgan and Henry Fonda in "The Ow-Bow Incident"

Looking at a painting of a woman “who could do better,” and about to order a whisky, which is all they had, at the beginning of “The Ox-Bow Incident” (1942).


Posted at 07:33 AM on Thu. Dec 08, 2011 in category TV  
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