Harry Morgan dies at 96: ‘M*A*S*H,’ ‘Dragnet’ roles embodied character acting

December 8, 2011

Harry Morgan, best known as Colonel Potter from “M*A*S*H,” died at the age of 96 of pneumonia at his home in Los Angeles, according to his son Charles Morgan. As Adam Bernstein reported:

Harry Morgan, 96, who won an Emmy Award playing the tough but fair Col. Sherman T. Potter on the comedy series “M*A*S*H” and was a supporting actor for six decades in movies and on television, died Dec. 7 at his home in Los Angeles.

He had pneumonia, said his son Charles Morgan.

Mr. Morgan — billed as Henry Morgan for much of his early career — was slight and balding and had a gravelly voice that could convey menace, irritation or wryness. Such versatility kept him in near-constant demand as a performer, and he became an instantly recognizable screen personality.

He had appeared in more than 100 films since the 1940s and was particularly effective as a witness to a lynching of alleged cattle rustlers in “The Ox-Bow Incident” (1943); a shadowy villain in “The Big Clock” (1948); a businessman who fears outlaws in “High Noon” (1952); and a small-town judge in “Inherit the Wind” (1960), based on the Scopes Monkey Trial.

Starting in the early 1950s, Mr. Morgan was a frequent movie sidekick to James Stewart in westerns (“Bend of the River,” “The Far Country”) and military dramas (“The Mountain Road,” “Strategic Air Command”). He also played pianist Chummy MacGregor in the 1953 musical biography of Glenn Miller, the swing bandleader portrayed by Stewart.

On television, Mr. Morgan had been a near-constant presence since the 1950s. He received an Emmy nomination for his role as the sardonic neighbor of Spring Byington in “December Bride,” which aired on CBS from 1954 to 1959. His work led to a CBS spinoff, “Pete and Gladys,” which ran from 1960 to 1962 and featured Cara Williams as Mr. Morgan’s scatterbrained wife.

He appeared in several films with actor Jack Webb, who became a TV star and producer of the police drama “Dragnet.” In the late 1960s, Mr. Morgan replaced Ben Alexander as sidekick to Webb’s Sgt. Joe Friday on “Dragnet” and acted in several other short-lived TV dramas created by Webb’s production company.

Morgan’s tough but lovable Colonel Potter made him a legend of the small screen, even though it did not result in bigger roles for him in film and television. As AP explained:

Harry Morgan wasn’t a star and didn’t need to be. In “M-A-S-H,” “Dragnet” and so many other TV shows and movies, the veteran character actor proved as indispensable as any marquee name.

Imagine “M-A-S-H” without the no-nonsense but fair Army Col. Sherman Potter, who knew how to traverse the line between military discipline and wartime humanity.

Here’s Potter, on his first day as commander of a Korean War hospital camp, discovering the moonshine-making operation run by his brilliant but wayward surgeons and holding his fire: “Had a still in Guam in World War II. One night it blew up. That’s how I got my Purple Heart.”

He was one of the “foundational pieces of the industry,” said “M-A-S-H” star Mike Farrell, who tried to gain Morgan a lifetime achievement award from the Screen Actors Guild. Such honors routinely go to stars but also belong to Morgan and other character actors who provide “the grit and the substance and the context” for so many films and TV shows, Farrell said Wednesday.

“Harry has been that, par excellence, for many years,” he said.

Veteran writer-producer Ken Levine, who worked on “M-A-S-H” early in his career, recalled Morgan as a complete pro who left him awestruck.

“He could read a scene once, have it completely memorized, and perform it perfectly take after take,” Levine said on his blog. “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.”

Morgan, a quiet scene-stealer in his work, was also modest in life. Daughter-in-law Beth Morgan said he was “very humble about having such a successful career,” which included an Emmy Award for “M-A-S-H.”

He’d never boast about the famed actors whom he had worked with and befriended, including Henry Fonda and Gregory Peck, but, if prompted, would happily share memories, Farrell said.

More from The Washington Post

Emmy-winning actor Harry Morgan dies

Gallery: Harry Morgan life and career

Video: Harry Morgan 1915-2011

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