Reconstructing Harry

A friend of mine told me about the first time he saw Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Of course this was on video, many years after the film debuted. The first time George Peppard appeared, my friend thought, “What is Hannibal doing there?” Hannibal was the name of the character Peppard played on “The A-Team,” over 20 years after Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Like many adolescent boys in the 80s, myself included, my friend watched “The A-Team” regularly. He had a hard time imagining Peppard as anything other than the man he saw on TV every week.

I thought of my friend’s reaction to Peppard earlier this December when I learned that Harry Morgan had died at the age of 96. I grew up enjoying “M*A*S*H,” with Morgan playing the unit’s commanding officer, Col. Sherman T. Potter. By the time I started watching, “M*A*S*H” was not just on every week, but also every day through syndication. It was one of the few shows that my mother, my brother and I all shared. We knew more about the show’s characters than we did about most real people.

Looking back, much of the show’s strength came from its brilliant writing. It remains to this day one of the few sitcoms that could stay funny while blending in drama. “M*A*S*H” poked fun at the absurdities of war, but never the costs of war. Like any durable show, “M*A*S*H” survived on the basis of its characters, to which the credit goes to the producers, writers and to its talented, dedicated cast. Among that cast, Morgan may have had the toughest job. First, he replaced McLean Stevenson, who foolishly left the show after three years. Stevenson’s Lt. Col. Blake was respected not as a leader but as a doctor and a friend. When “M*A*S*H” surprisingly killed off Blake (at a time when TV shows rarely did such a thing), many fans were shocked and outraged. Into that void walked Morgan.

Second, Morgan played an authority figure on an anti-authoritarian show. Unlike Blake, Col. Potter was an old-school military man. He was someone the other characters had to take seriously as their superior officer. Morgan imbued Potter with an understated confidence. In his hands, Potter was firm but understanding. Potter demanded the finest from his charges when it came to their core mission of saving soldiers’ lives. But he was smart and understanding enough to give a little when needed. Potter could laugh and, more importantly, show caring and compassion.

As my mother reminded me, Potter’s integrity was a key reason the character worked, and much of that came from Morgan. Potter had many tough calls, and he always made them with the best interests of his unit and the wounded soldiers first. He became not just a commander, but also a father figure. Col. Potter was the type of person anyone would want to have as their boss.

I will always remember that no one could get mad as hilariously as Morgan. Seeing his face redden and his voice rise when Potter had just had enough was one of the show’s many delights. My family would regularly recite Potter’s homespun PG swear words, such as “Bull Muffins!” and “Horse Hockey!” to each other.

The “M*A*S*H” writers and producers would often weave in the actors’ own passions into their characters. When Col. Potter painted, Morgan did it himself, just as he did in real life. Morgan raised horses, just as Col. Potter did. In one landmark episode, Col. Potter introduced a film at the M*A*S*H movie night, saying that it had the three things that made a film great: “Horses, cowboys ... and horses.” That line resonated when I learned more about Morgan.

My first exposure to Morgan’s non-“M*A*S*H” career came when the 1987 movie Dragnet debuted. The movie itself was middling, but Morgan played Captain Bill Gannon. I learned how Morgan had earlier played Gannon, then the partner of Sgt. Joe Friday, in the second iteration of the TV “Dragnet.” So I realized that Morgan had a part of two landmark TV shows. How many people can say that?

It turns out I was just scratching the surface. I was watching High Noon for the first time, and there’s Morgan, as a disloyal friend of Will Kane (Gary Cooper). Years later I see The Ox-Bow Incident, a Western that Clint Eastwood has cited as one of his favorites. There’s Morgan again, this time as the loyal sidekick to the film’s lead, played by Henry Fonda. Morgan appeared in more than 100 films. He shared the screen with greats including Cooper, Fonda, Burt Lancaster, Edward G. Robinson, Spencer Tracy, James Stewart, Frederic March, Charles Laughton, Gregory Peck, Lauren Bacall and John Wayne. In fact Morgan appeared with Wayne twice, playing Ulysses S. Grant in How the West Was Won, and then the sheriff in Wayne’s final film, The Shootist. Little did I know that, when Col. Potter spoke of how much he loved Westerns, the actor playing him had a key role in so many of those.

Morgan was never a movie star, but was one of those character actors who held films together. Old Westerns in particular seemed to have plenty of those, people such as Ward Bond, Ben Johnson, and Harry Carey, Jr. USA Today TV critic Robert Bianco wrote that “sometimes our fondest memories are reserved for actors who burn a bit less brightly and a bit off from the center - and sometimes, those are the lights that last.” That could be true of Bond, Johnson and Carey, and it was certainly true of Morgan.

Morgan brings to mind one of the tag lines from The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, one that actually came from philosopher Soren Kierkegaard: “Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards.” Thankfully repertory theaters, DVDs and cable channels such as Turner Classic Movies offer film buffs a chance to measure the full breadth of an actor’s career. So while I knew of Harry Morgan one way at first, I only learned and understood the totality of his work by moving backwards in his life.

Sure, I will always think of Morgan first and foremost as Col. Potter, but now I can look back at a multi-dimensional, multi-talented actor who worked for over 57 years. Pretty impressive, looking backwards or forwards.

Adam Spector
January 1, 2012

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