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A familiar face to film and television audiences for over five decades, Emmy-winning character actor Harry Morgan perfected the role of the lovable curmudgeon on one of the most beloved programs in television history. After proving himself on the stages of Broadway, the gruff-voiced actor became a fixture in features films with supporting roles opposite big names like Henry Fonda in "The Ox-Bow Incident" (1943), Gary Cooper in "High Noon" (1952) and Jimmy Stewart in the big band biopic "The Glenn Miller Story" (1953). By the mid-1950s Morgan had begun to establish himself as the ubiquitous television presence with an endearing performance on the sitcom "December Bride" (CBS, 1954-1960) and its spin-off "Pete and Gladys" (CBS, 1960-62). Equally adept at serious drama, he memorably played Jack Webb's taciturn partner Bill Gannon on the revived version of "Dragnet" (NBC, 1967-1970). It was, however, his lengthy run as the fatherly Colonel Sherman T. Potter on the wartime comedy-drama "M*A*S*H" (CBS, 1972-1983) that would earn the veteran actor TV immortality. Though he would go on to portray other increasingly flinty, avuncular types on a variety of programs well into his eighth decade, it was his role...
A familiar face to film and television audiences for over five decades, Emmy-winning character actor Harry Morgan perfected the role of the lovable curmudgeon on one of the most beloved programs in television history. After proving himself on the stages of Broadway, the gruff-voiced actor became a fixture in features films with supporting roles opposite big names like Henry Fonda in "The Ox-Bow Incident" (1943), Gary Cooper in "High Noon" (1952) and Jimmy Stewart in the big band biopic "The Glenn Miller Story" (1953). By the mid-1950s Morgan had begun to establish himself as the ubiquitous television presence with an endearing performance on the sitcom "December Bride" (CBS, 1954-1960) and its spin-off "Pete and Gladys" (CBS, 1960-62). Equally adept at serious drama, he memorably played Jack Webb's taciturn partner Bill Gannon on the revived version of "Dragnet" (NBC, 1967-1970). It was, however, his lengthy run as the fatherly Colonel Sherman T. Potter on the wartime comedy-drama "M*A*S*H" (CBS, 1972-1983) that would earn the veteran actor TV immortality. Though he would go on to portray other increasingly flinty, avuncular types on a variety of programs well into his eighth decade, it was his role as the no-nonsense leader of the 4077th that Morgan would later describe as "the best part I ever had."
Born Harry Bratsburg in Detroit, MI on April 10, 1915, Morgan intended to pursue a law career while attending the University of Chicago, but speech and debate classes turned his interest towards performing. He gained experience in summer stock in Washington, D.C. and New York before making his Broadway debut in the original 1937 production of Clifford Odets' "Golden Boy" opposite such future stage and screen luminaries as Lee J. Cobb, John Garfield and Frances Farmer. He remained with the show until 1939 when he lit out for California. There, he was discovered by a talent scout from 20th Century Fox while starring in William Saroyan's play "Hello, Out There."
Morgan made his feature debut as a soldier in 1942's "To the Shores of Tripoli." For that film and numerous others, he was billed as Henry Morgan, but changed it to Harry in 1962 to avoid confusion with the acerbic radio comedian and television panelist of the same name. Blessed with keen observational skills and a husky, drawling voice, he was a natural for skeptical, world-weary character parts in Westerns, war pictures and crime films. Within a few years of his debut, he was sharing screen time with Henry Fonda as his cautious pal in "The Ox-Bow Incident" (1943), Ray Milland in the noir thriller "The Big Clock" (1948), and Gary Cooper as fair-weather friend Sam Fuller in the classic Western, "High Noon" (1952). Morgan clicked well with Jimmy Stewart, with whom he appeared in several projects, including "The Glenn Miller Story" (1953), "Strategic Air Command" (1955) and several of the actor's collaborations with director Anthony Mann, including "Bend in the River" (1952) and "The Far Country" (1955). Morgan also co-starred in two police procedurals with Jack Webb, with whom he had established a relationship while he was a member of Webb's radio acting company.
Though his film schedule seemed filled to capacity in the mid-1950s, Morgan ventured into television during that decade and found himself a bona fide star, thanks to the sitcom "December Bride." Ostensibly a starring vehicle for Oscar-nominated actress Spring Byington, Morgan became the show's breakout draw, thanks to his performance as hen-pecked neighbor Pete Porter. His deadpan delivery earned him an Emmy nomination in 1959, and the character was eventually given his own series, "Pete and Gladys" after "December Bride" left the air in 1960. Comedienne Cara Williams played Gladys, who made life complicated for husband Pete with her poorly planned schemes. Though never a ratings favorite, the show was significant for launching Morgan as a comic talent.
Morgan returned to active duty in features in the early 1960s, where he played slightly older versions of the cynical working Joe's he essayed in the 1940s and 1950s. There were more authority figures in his palette, albeit ones with little time or patience for thinking outside the box, like the presiding judge at the Scopes Monkey Trial in "Inherit The Wind" (1960), or Gen. Ulysses S. Grant in the epic "How the West Was Won" (1962). He remained a draw on television, both as a guest star and as a regular on "The Richard Boone Show" (NBC, 1963-64) and the short-lived family comedy "Kentucky Jones" (NBC, 1964-65). Morgan also began to branch out into directing, eventually helming numerous episodes for the "Boone Show," as well as "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" (CBS/NBC, 1955-1965), "Adam-12" (NBC, 1968-1975) and "M*A*S*H."
In 1967, he re-teamed with Webb to co-star as Officer Bill Gannon on the revived "Dragnet," then known as "Dragnet '67" to distinguish it from reruns of the 1955-59 edition. Gannon was as terse and by-the-books as Webb's Friday, though the world they encountered in the '67 "Dragnet" was markedly different than the noir-influenced L.A. in the earlier series. There were plenty of unsavory types to be collared by their dogged detective work, but the changing times also dictated that the show give equal time to scenes of the police working with members of the community and otherwise putting forth a less hardboiled exterior. As Gannon, Morgan kept crime off the streets until the show's demise in 1970.
The seventies found Morgan more on television than in movies. He made his TV movie debut in 1970's "But I Don't Want to Get Married!" and subsequently appeared in numerous TV features and series throughout the decade; the best of which was perhaps "Backstairs at the White House" (1979), for which he gave a note-perfect turn as Harry Truman. Morgan also starred in several series, including "The D.A." (NBC, 1971-72) with Robert Conrad and "Hec Ramsey" with Richard Boone. His film output during this period seemed to be comprised mainly of comedies, many of which were Disney product like "Charley and The Angel" (1973) and "The Apple Dumpling Gang" (1975). There was, however, a pleasant return to his dramatic roots as the crusty local sheriff in John Wayne's final feature, "The Shootist" (1976).
Morgan's connection with "M*A*S*H" began with the 1974 season opener, "The General Flipped at Dawn," in which he played an action-hungry officer who wants to move the 4077th closer to the frontlines. He returned for fulltime duty at the end of the season to replace McLean Stevenson as Sherman Potter, commanding officer of the medical unit. Potter was 360 degrees away from Stevenson's Henry Blake; a career soldier who had served in World War I, he was a superior surgeon and demanded the same degree of care from the doctors under his command, which occasionally created clashes with Alan Alda's Hawkeye Pierce. But Potter was also allergic to military red tape, as well as any sort of perceived injustice, and bent unfair rules in favor of decency and fair play. His personality was deeply Midwestern; he loved horses, baseball and his wife Mildred (a photo of Morgan's real-life spouse, Eileen Detchon, stood in for Mildred's portrait on Potter's desk) and had a flair for colorful language. Ultimately, his method of command earned the respect of the eccentric crew of the 4077th, who paid him the highest honor in the series finale by saluting him as they departed the camp.
Morgan's stellar work on "M*A*S*H" earned the respect of viewers and critics alike. He received an Emmy nomination for each year of his run with the series, and landed the trophy once in 1980. He also received an Emmy nod for his direction on the show in that same year. In interviews, Morgan frequently cited Potter as his favorite role, and was among the minority of cast members who voted for an 11th season prior to its celebrated finale in 1983. Though he did not receive his wish, he got to play Potter for an additional two years on "AfterMASH" (CBS, 1983-85), a short-lived spin-off that also featured original cast members Jamie Farr and William Christopher. As Potter, who was now in charge of a VA hospital after the end of the Korean War, Morgan remained the show's anchor, but even his presence was not enough to grant it the same longevity as its predecessor.
Like Potter, Morgan's post-"M*A*S*H" career was extraordinarily active. He attempted to return to active series work opposite Hal Linden in "Blacke's Magic" (NBC, 1986-88), a crime drama about a magician (Linden) who solves cases with the help of his con-man dad (Morgan). It was followed by what seemed like a can't-miss idea: a TV series based on the venerable stage play "You Can't Take It With You," with Morgan as the show's narrator, the cuddly patriarch of a large and eccentric East Coast family. But the end result (syndicated, 1987-88) paled in comparison to the source material, and was gone after just two seasons.
Morgan reprised "Dragnet's" Bill Gannon twice in the 1980s and 1990s - once in the appalling 1987 feature film version with Dan Aykroyd as Joe Friday's nephew, and later in a 1995 episode of "The Simpsons" (Fox, 1989- ) which found the veteran cop investigating Homer's faked death. He was also featured as a Southern judge who aids lawyer Walter Matthau in three fine television movies starting with 1990's "The Incident," and continued as a featured guest star on TV series and features until apparently retiring in 1999. An unfortunate black mark on his otherwise blemish-free career came to light in 1996 when Morgan was charged with spousal abuse. Police arrived at his home to discover that his second wife, Barbara Bushman Quine, had suffered physical injuries by Morgan's hand. The charges were dropped in 1997 after Morgan completed a six-month domestic violence program. In 2006, the actor was inducted him into the Hall of Great Western Performers at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum. Five years later, the TV favorite passed away at age 96 on Dec. 7, 2011.
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