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.