Harry Morgan, best known to TV audiences for playing the gruff, lovable Col. Sherman T. Potter on M*A*S*H, died Wednesday morning. (Given that he died at the age of 96, I think congratulations are in order along with the condolences.)
Morgan had a vast and varied career, and viewers with a longer memory will also recall him from the 1967 relaunch of Dragnet or his dozens of other roles. Possibly the best tribute one can give to the skills of a TV character actor is that a series casts him in a role, then brings him back in an entirely different one simply because his work is so good. In Morgan’s case, he came on the Korean War sitcom in an early episode, “The General Flipped at Dawn,” in which he played a gung-ho, bigoted and comically unhinged general who sweeps into the 4077th to move it closer to the front and closer in line with standard military operating procedure. To this day, his dancing off the episode while singing “Mississippi Mud” is one of the M*A*S*H scenes I can see and hear most clearly in my mind.
When the sitcom needed to replace McLean Stevenson, whose Col. Blake originally led the unit (and was memorably killed off the show), it brought in Morgan as Col. Potter, who filled a similar role but in a much different way. Where Blake was a decent-but-goofball accomplice for his band of sarcastic, prank-playing draftee surgeons, “regular Army” officer Potter, befitting Morgan, projected a tough-but-mellow authority. He became a steadying hand for the unit, and the wry, plainspoken manner Morgan brought to him made a good fit for the tone of the show, which was weaving more dark and serious comments on the war into its hard-drinking-doctors hijinks. Above, in the valuable emmytvlegends.org video series, he describes Potter as “kind” and “sentimental,” without the latter ever seeming like weakness–”the best part I ever had.”
If you watch the video, listen to it through a good set of speakers if you can; Morgan’s is one of the richest, most instantly identifiable voices to come out of a television. It’s silent now, but he did great things with it. RIP.