In Memoriam

Harry Morgan — Grownup

The otherwise insufferable M*A*S*H was his triumph.

By 12.12.11

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It was by sheerest coincidence last Thursday that I read Gerald Nachman's fine "The Teening of America" in the December edition of TAS (if you haven't read it yet…), and later the same day heard of the death of the character actor Harry Morgan at 96.

In the later years of his career, Morgan was cast as the wise and kindly but occasionally firm uncle. He brought this persona to perfection with Colonel Sherman Potter, commanding officer of the misfits, madcaps, and cases of arrested development that made up the 4077 Mobile Army Surgical Hospital in the popular and long running TV series M*A*S*H.

The series lasted 11 years (1972-83), the last seven of those with Morgan as the glue that held it together, and was wildly popular. It remains so in syndication. There's hardly an hour so remote, even in the darkest watches of the night, that M*A*S*H can't be found somewhere on the TV dial, save on the most budget of cable packages. It's probably even more available than Antiques Roadshow or Miss Congeniality. If you don't think so, just try channel-surfing without tripping over Trapper John or Hawkeye or Hot Lips or Radar O'Reilly.

While most of the characters in the series reflected the '70s zeitgeist with its prejudice against adults and adult ways, Morgan as Col. Potter represented the kind of grownup Nachman laments the demise of in our current juvenilized culture. Just try to picture Morgan, or the characters he played, slouching in a chair with a baseball hat on backwards and wearing a T-shirt bearing some rude legend or the name of a hair-ball rock group. It just won't compute.  

Morgan succeeded McLean Stevenson as CO of the 4077. The late Stevenson could be very funny. But he was too much of a flake like the rest of his crew. Morgan's Col. Potter, not a stick in the mud but Regular Army, made the rest of the cast more believable and sympathetic. Ratings went up after Morgan joined the show and stayed up. Hawkeye and Hot Lips and Radar gave the show laughs. Morgan gave it credibility.

And by the time Morgan arrived, the show could use a little gravitas. Ratings weren't so hot at the get-go. The series was based on a perfectly awful 1970 movie starring Donald Sutherland and Elliott Gould and directed by the quirky Robert Altman. The movie featured the most adolescent forms of anti-war and anti-authority sentiment through high-jinks that only movie-goers of a certain kind of left politics could laugh at.

The series inherited some of this through the central character, Hawkeye Pearce, played by Alan Alda. Hawkeye is a talented but spoiled and smug surgeon whose main reaction to war was that it was just too, too tacky. There was less political posturing, less self-righteousness, and more good comedy as the show matured. The characters were genuinely funny. (Even Alda could be funny leching nurses.) And Hot Lips was genuinely, well, hot.                 

(In his last novel, The Thanatos Syndrome (1987), the late Walker Percy had his protagonist, watching a M*A*S*H rerun, say: "There's Hawkeye and Trapper John back in Korea. I never did like those guys. They fancied themselves super-decent and super-tolerant, but actually had no use for anyone who was not exactly like them. What they were was super-pleased with themselves. In truth, they were the real bigots, and phony at that. I always preferred Frank Burns, the stuffy, unpopular doc, a sincere bigot." I'd like to associate myself with Percy's remarks.)           

M*A*S*H may have been Morgan's triumph, and his best remembered role. But he worked a lot in Hollywood for more than half a century. He was in more than a hundred feature films, from To the Shores of Tripoli in 1942 to Crosswalk in 1999. He was in some Hollywood classics and well as more than a few forgettable flicks.

Morgan was the judge in the overrated Inherit the Wind of 1960 (it's probably not a good idea to use the word "wind" in the title of a move or book  -- think about it), a businessman afraid of outlaws in 1952's High Noon. His small part as the marshal in the Duke's last movie, the Shootist of 1976, displayed Morgan's comedy chops in an otherwise serious movie. Morgan appeared in a couple of Jimmy Stewart's westerns as well as in 1953's The Glenn Miller Story and 1954's Strategic Air Command" with Stewart.

Morgan was frequently on the small screen as well. Probably his best remembered role before Potter, at least remembered by those of a certain age, was Sgt. Joe Friday's sidekick Detective Bill Gannon in the color version of Dragnet (1967-70). Those of even more age might remember him in December Bride (1954-59). He was in other series, some of which, like Kentucky Jones, are remembered only by serious Trivial Pursuit enthusiasts.

Morgan's soothing presence has not been seen on any new work for more than a decade. But there's a large body of his work available for loan, rent, or purchase for people who enjoy watching a thoroughly professional actor who was never the star -- even in M*A*S*H it was Alda who headlined -- but who always made the movie or TV episode better than it would have been without him. And who exemplified the kind of adulthood we could use a good deal more of.

R.I.P., Harry Morgan.

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About the Author

Larry Thornberry is a writer in Tampa.