Friday, December 9, 2011

A M*A*S*H-Note for Harry Morgan

I miss Harry Morgan already. Yet I’m sure I’ll be seeing him around for a long time to come. Morgan, who just died at 96, was one of those invaluable character actors who add credibility to every film they make. It’s amazing how often I’ve seen him pop up in classics, like The Ox-Bow Incident and High Noon. He played the judge in Stanley Kramer’s fictionalized rendering of the Scopes Trial, Inherit the Wind, and a lawman in John Wayne’s last film, The Shootist. With his flat Midwestern voice and rough-hewn features, he represented Americana in all its permutations. Over the years, soldiers and sheriffs were his specialty.

I first got to know Morgan’s work in easygoing 1960s sitcoms like Pete and Gladys. He was Jack Webb’s acerbic sidekick on Dragnet too. But his chief claim to fame was his role as Colonel Sherman T. Potter for the last eight seasons of M*A*S*H. On M*A*S*H he had the unenviable task of following McLean Stevenson as the commanding officer of the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital, located near enemy lines in the thick of the Korean War. Stevenson’s Lt. Colonel Henry Blake had been a lovable goofball, oblivious to army protocol, and his departure from the show had been one of its most indelible episodes. But Morgan, as Colonel Potter, brought into M*A*S*H a new gravitas. As a regular-army officer who respected military life but never lost sight of war’s human face, he helped the show move from the anarchic zaniness of the Robert Altman film on which it was based into something richer and deeper.

I never met Harry Morgan. But I was lucky to spend a day on the M*A*S*H set, while researching an article for Theatre Crafts magazine. In exterior scenes, Korea was played by Malibu, California. (Hikers at Malibu Creek State Park still enjoy coming upon prop ambulances and signposts left behind when the series wrapped in 1983.) The bulk of the show, though, was shot on Stage 9 at Twentieth-Century Fox, and that’s where I went to talk to gaffers, makeup artists, and prop people about the challenges of re-creating the Korean War era. The episode before the cameras on the day that I visited showed Morgan’s Colonel Potter became entranced with a visiting USO cutie, a not-so-young chorine played by Bob Fosse’s favorite muse, Gwen Verdon. I recall her teasing a beaming Colonel Potter with a fluffy hot-pink boa, a far cry from the olive drab uniforms that were the mainstay of the M*A*S*H wardrobe rack. Though devoted to his wife and kids back home, the good colonel seemed fated to succumb to this adorable hussy. (Body chemistry: these two ageing but attractive people had it – in spades!) Still, for all its artistic originality, M*A*S*H was not about to alienate its core audience. The writers found a way to get Colonel Potter out of this sticky situation with his honor intact.

During my day on the M*A*S*H set, I got taken to lunch by crew members. No hoity-toity studio commissary for them! Instead, we drove to a beer-and-ribs joint that filled their need for a hearty meal. One thing I love about crew folk: they speak their minds. All were happy to have steady work, and they approached their on-set duties with total professionalism. But none of them seemed to grasp that they were part of a series that was truly groundbreaking television. Hardly starstruck, they regarded M*A*S*H as just another job. Harry Morgan was a great actor, but also a down-to-earth kind of guy. I think he would have understood.

(I can't resist sharing a post that brings to light another aspect of Morgan's life. Just this morning I was told on good authority by a fellow biographer that he was a mean drunk. Very sad.)


  1. Another sincerely poignant, yet somber post. A week or two before his death, TV Land was mercilessly playing M*A*S*H in the evenings replacing such faves as ANDY GRIFFITH, THE JEFFERSONS and SANFORD & SON. It's still on in the evenings for at least two hours. I've never liked the series, but do respect and acknowledge the brilliant writing of the show. For whatever reason, it took me years to realize it wasn't Vietnam, but the Korean War that provided the shows setting. The Korean signs should have been a giveaway, but that's what I get for not paying attention to an American television classic!

  2. It's not surprising, really, that you were identifying the show with Vietnam rather than Korea. The original Robert Altman film version of M*A*S*H was definitely intended as an oblique commentary on the Vietnam War, which was still raging at the time. And of course the TV version, though much more polite, had some of the same feeling.

  3. I have always enjoyed Harry Morgan's work - even when he was Henry Morgan. RIP.