RIP Harry Morgan

Last week, as I am wont to do, I threw on TCM as I was getting ready for work. There was a pretty pedestrian crime thriller / religious pic (really) on starring a past his prime George Raft, and Virginia Mayo. The villain was played by Raymond Burr in full-on sweaty heavy mode, which is what he was known for before he became TV’s Perry Mason.

It was one of those movies chockfull of well-known character actors; Gene Lockhart, William Frawley, Barton MacLane, Arthur Franz, etc. They were all playing their normal sorts of roles, except for one guy. To my bemused surprise, the hardboiled killer Burr hired was played by a fairly young Harry Morgan.

Now this week, another of our great character actors has passed away. There aren’t a lot of them left; Harry Morgan was 96 at the time of his death.

Mr. Morgan—billed as Henry Morgan in his earlier work, although he changed his screen name to avoid confusion with the then prominent radio comedian Henry Morgan—is most famous these days for playing Col. Potter on TV’s M*A*S*H*, and perhaps secondarily for playing Bill Gannon, Jack Webb’s taciturn partner on the ‘60s iteration of Dragnet.

However, Morgan had been a busy character actor in films since the early 1940s, and later became one of the busiest of all TV actors, starring in more series than anyone this side of Robert Urich or Robert Conrad (which whom Morgan co-starred in 1971’s The D.A.) Some of these were pretty short lived—an adaptation of the play You Can’t Take It With You lasted but three episodes—but Mr. Morgan remained a fairly constant presence on television from 1954 until the 1990s, when he guest starred on Third Rock from the Sun.

Even removing Mr. Morgan’s short lived series from his tally, and some of them were pretty interesting, like the amateur detective show Blacke’s Magic where Morgan played the conman father of magician Hal Linden, Mr. Morgan had some impressive runs on the small screen. (Fellow TV vet Bill Bixby starred in a more action oriented such show called The Magician.) The 13 episodes of that show can been seen on YouTube.

Mr. Morgan had appeared in nearly 75 films, including classics like The Ox Bow Incident and High Noon, before transitioning to television. He pretty much immediately struck gold, playing the supporting role of Pete Porter on the early sitcom December Bride between 1954 and 1959. The role was popular enough that Morgan’s character got married and was given his own series, Pete and Gladys, one of the first spin-off series. That lasted from 1960-1962.

Following that Mr. Morgan did more character work in television and films, including acting as a repertory player on the interesting sounding The Richard Boone Show. From 1967-1970, he joined the revamp of Dragnet, while appearing in such films as Support Your Local Sheriff (a terrific comedy for Western buffs) and Cat Ballou.

Then in 1974 he got his most famous role, as Sherman Potter on M*A*S*H*. This was a gamble even for such an old vet, as he was replacing a beloved character played by McLean Stevenson. Stevenson left to do his own show, the legendarily awful Hello Larry, while audiences quickly took Morgan’s crusty Col. Potter to heart. Potter remained the base commander until the show finally left the air in 1983.

That was Morgan last fling with greatness, although he and Jamie Farr and William Christopher vainly tried to keep the magic alive in After M*A*S*H*, a show about as successful as Gloria, Sally Struthers’ spin-off from All in the Family. Morgan starred in the short-lived Blacke’s Magic and You Can’t Take it with You after that, but none of those shows garnered but scant ratings. But really, how many bites at the Fame Apple can you reasonably expect to get?

Among Mr. Morgan’s shorter lived programs, I will give a nod to Hec Ramsey, one of the rotating features of the Sunday Mystery Movie along with Columbo, etc.  With Morgan playing—what else?—the crusty local sawbones, the program starred Richard Boone (who again had featured Mr. Morgan as one of his players on The Richard Boone Show) as an aging gunfighter who takes a job as deputy to a young, inexperienced town Sheriff.

The twist was that Ramsey was not the thug he was expected to be, but an aging man tired of violence and fascinated by the new forensic sciences, like fingerprinting, just then coming into existence. I wish they’d put those out on DVD, as I’d love to see if the show was as good as I remember it to be.

Mr. Morgan is gone now, but his amazing cinema and television legacy have made him immortal. Rest in Peace, sir.

  • David Fullam


  • Sadly, my only memory of Mr. Morgan is the Simpsons episode where he reprised Bill Gannon in an amusing Dragnet parody. “Well, according to our computer aging program, she
    should look about…
    [turns screen around; it has a giant “25” on it] 25 years
    older.” I guess it’s probably time I checked out M*A*S*H properly.

  • Anonymous

    As a kid I always remember him from an obscure Disney film I have never seen on video. It was called “Charlie and the Angel” and it has a “It’s a Wonderful Life” type plot.  Morgan played the banjo playing, cigar smoking guardian angel and Fred MacMurray the man disappointed in his life (story is different but, I suspect same source material). 

    I wonder if it is as fun as I remember.  Saw it many years before I saw the Capra film. 

  • Anonymous

    I see “Charley and the Angel” was recently released.  Hope Harry got some bucks to spend on something nice.   Amazon has it on instant video. 

  • Sandy Petersen

    he is one of the guys I kept my eyes open for in old TV (which I watch heaps of) and was always pleased when he showed up. Incidentally, The Untouchables series is a treasure trove of these guys.

    Vic Morrow shows up as a psychopathic lecherous thug. Peter Falk as a conniving murderous bootlegger. Martin Landau as a twitchie junkie hit man. Martin Balsam as a revenge-crazed loser. Jack Elam, Henry Silva, Lee Marvin, Keenan Wynn, William Shater (all as crooks). I’m telling you The Untouchables is the real deal.

    And oh yes, Harry Morgan plays Bugs Moran.

  • Anonymous

    Saw that as a kid at the Pickwick Theater, which is right across the street from where I now work. I think it saw it several times, as I sometimes returned to the theater when I liked a movie. I think I saw the double feature of Adventures of Pippi Longstocking and Rio Lobo about all seven days it played there.

    I too remember Charley and the Angel with affection. It’s hard to think of two veteran actors more proficient than McMurray and Morgan.

  • Rock Baker

    You think Morgan is more famous for M*A*S*H than Dragnet? I’d think it more of a toss up, really, but then it was Dragnet that hooked me from an early age. Between Dragnet and M*A*S*H, Morgan managed to be on what may be the two most single revolutionary shows in television history (interestingly, of opposite political/moral positions).  I’ll admit, I always liked Col. Potter, and thought the series picked up quite a bit as soon as the war ended and the show didn’t have to focus as much on protesting the military. Potter was a true sign of this new direction, a career Army man who managed to generate natural respect from even “Hawkeye” Pierce.

    God bless and Rest in Peace, Mr. Morgan. You were always a welcome sight on the tube.

  • Anonymous

    I think there is a generation or two aware of MASH (and another, younger generation who isn’t), who aren’t aware of Dragnet. One is simply older than the other.

    And Dragnet was popular in the ’60s–albeit with an older audience–while MASH was a phenomenon in the ’70s. That MASH finale was the highest rated TV ever for quite some time.

  • Rock Baker

    I caught the M*A*S*H series when it was rerun on the Hallmark Channel. There was a storm during the last episode and the signal dropped out (digital junk!) so there’s this big scene in the middle I have yet to understand where Hawkeye was lurking toward a clucking chicken on a bus that was hiding from enemy patrols. Next time I watched THE DOOMSDAY MACHINE, when Mike Farrell showed up, I had to blurt “Hey, B.J., did Hawkeye strangle the chicken?”

    I’d actually think the younger generation (or a chunk of it, at least) would be more familiar with Dragnet, since it was airing on TV Land back during those years when the channel was fun to watch (and before that, Nick at Nite). And it seems the only Dragnets that get broadcast these days are the 60’s (color) episodes with Morgan. (There might be some bias on my part, however, since Dragnet was the cop show that hooked me as a youngster.)

    Don’t forget how transformative Dragnet was in the 50’s when it first hit screens, though. Even if Morgan came into the franchise late, he still beat the odds by being a part of what are possibly the two most important teleseries of the 20th century. Quite impressive. (On a side note, Dragnet was first brought back in the 60’s as a telefilm which proved a ratings smash and lead directly to the series being renewed. Though I haven’t had a chance to see the film, I understand Morgan was already in place as Bill Gannon. If you count the M*A*S*H finale as another TV movie, it gives Morgan another impressive distinction.)

    What a loss though. The man was excellent in both comedy and dramatic parts, had a great voice and familiar face. Entertainment today is truly the worse for not having more men like him still in the game.

  • KeithB

    I am sure this is not a spoiler by now.  But it turns out that Hawkeye was hallucinating and it was a *baby* that was making the noise.  He mentally turned it into a chicken after the fact to ease his guilt.

  • Rock Baker

    So Hawkeye strangled a baby? That’s pretty dark, even for M*A*S*H!

  • KeithB

    No, Hawkeye told the mom to keep the baby quiet and the mom strangled it, or held it so close it suffocated.

  • Aussiesmurf

    RIP, Mr Morgan.

    Kudos, Ken, for mentioning Support Your Local Sheriff.  I absolutely adored that movie, back in the day, and watched it many times.  Its a great movie for kids, and older viewers appreciate all the references to classic Western tropes as well.

    As an Aussie, the repeated references to ‘on my way to Australia’ were also great.

  • Rock Baker

    Okay, that makes sense. Thanks for clearing up that mystery for me!