Emmy Award-winning actor Harry Morgan, a veteran with a prolific career spanning stage, films and television including classic series has died in his Brentwood home today at age 96. Best known in his two most iconic pop culture roles as the irrepressible Colonel Sherman T. Potter in the Korean War sitcom M*A*S*H* and as Jack Webb’s laconic Los Angeles police partner Bill Gannon in DRAGNET, Morgan’s acting career began in the 1930s as a member of a theater group, gaining notice performing on Washington D.C. hotel stages before moving to New York and working on Broadway.
Morgan and his wife, Eileen, moved to Hollywood in 1941 and eventually earned a contract with 20th Century Fox, jumpstarting his film career in six straight feature film roles. While known for his popular character roles in titles like HIGH NOON, THE GLENN MILLER STORY and THE OX-BOW INCIDENT, FilmEdge will always remember him fondly for his work in the masterful drama INHERIT THE WIND, based on the historic 1925 Scopes “monkey trial” in Tennessee. Adapted from the 1955 Broadway stage play by Jerome Lawrence and Robert Edwin Lee based loosely on the trial’s events, the 1960 powerhouse feature film by Stanley Kramer starred Spencer Tracy as defense attorney Henry Drummond and Fredric March as bombastic prosecutor Matthew Harrison Brady.
Morgan portrayed the trial judge Mel Coffey, a man sympathetic to the religious argument made by Brady but personally and professionally bound to follow and uphold the law despite overwhelming social prejudice. Sitting as dramatic referee between these two superstar actors, the judge could easily have disappeared into the courtroom paneling but Morgan invests the character with a conflicted humanity which keeps the trial’s larger-than-life dramatics on course throughout the film. It remains one of FilmEdge’s favorite dramas and would be a lesser experience without Harry Morgan’s superb contributions.
Morgan faced no less of an ensemble acting challenge when he replaced McLean Stevenson’s popular character Henry Blake on M*A*S*H* in 1975, two years into the landmark series hit run on television. Morgan had guest starred as the comically kooky Major General Bartford in a 1974 episode before being cast as Potter to command the 4077th the next year. Potter remained in charge and an audience favorite for 178 episodes until M*A*S*H*’s record-breaking finale in February 1983, in which time he regaled his doctors and nurses with tales of his wife Mildred, rode his favorite horse Sophie and enjoyed his predilection for punctuating commands with scatological synonyms like “horse hockey!” and “mule muffins!” Morgan briefly reprised his role as Potter in two seasons of the follow-up series AfterM*A*S*H* from 1983-84, in which the former Colonel became chief of staff at a Missouri veteran’s hospital after the war.
Harry Morgan is survived by his second wife, Barbara, three remaining sons, eight grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren. Give that man a cheroot.