Harry Morgan, 1915-2011

An American actor who was the son of Norwegian immigrants, Harry Morgan, has died at the age of 96, according to news reports. The man who portrayed Colonel Sherman Potter on the CBS television series M*A*S*H appeared in more than 100 movies, including as the judge in the film adaptation of the stage play Inherit the Wind with Frederic March and Spencer Tracy. For me he’ll be remembered foremost for playing policeman Joe Gannon to Jack Webb’s honorable Sgt. Joe Friday in the TV series Dragnet (1967). The series, based on real cases in the Los Angeles Police Department, was a counterpoint to the rising New Left. Dragnet was a clear, sternly dramatic repudiation of the cultural spread of the Hippies. Mr. Morgan’s Joe Gannon was an observer to the wrongs, caretaker to the victims, comrade to the hero, and a devoted investigator in pursuit of justice with regard to the Hippies’ most vile crimes and moral transgressions.

Though I watched it with my Korean War veteran dad, and found the writing intelligent and the plots often involving and sometimes poignant, I never looked forward to his show M*A*S*H, in which from 1975 to 1983 he played the commander of the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital unit in Korea during the Korean War. It was always so joyless and depressing and there was a resignation and defeatism about it that reflected the Korean War’s unresolved status and foreshadowed late 20th century American appeasement of our enemies. His character in particular represented pragmatism; the medical unit’s leader embodied the American anti-intellectual.

But Col. Potter was apparently Mr. Morgan’s favorite part, according to an interview for the Archive of American Television, and like his character, the Detroit, Michigan-born actor had a horse named Sophie; he raised quarter horses on a ranch in Santa Rosa, California. After playing varsity football and serving as senior class president, he attended the University of Chicago, where he studied law and theater, and he made his Broadway debut in 1937 in the original production of Clifford Odets’s Golden Boy. He moved to California in 1942, where he eventually signed a motion picture contract with 20th Century Fox. His movies include The Ox-Bow Incident (1943) with Henry Fonda, High Noon (1952) with Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly, The Teahouse of the August Moon (1956) with Marlon Brando and Glenn Ford, Inherit the Wind (1960), in which he played the small-town Southern judge hearing arguments against Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution in the fictionalized version of the Scopes monkey trial, and the grand epic How the West Was Won (1962) with Jimmy Stewart and Debbie Reynolds. In that picture, Harry Morgan portrayed Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant. He also appeared in Support Your Local Sheriff! (1969) with James Garner and Walter Brennan, The Apple Dumpling Gang (1975) with Tim Conway and Don Knotts and the 1987 spoof of Dragnet featuring Dan Aykroyd and Tom Hanks. Harry Morgan lived in the Brentwood section of Los Angeles.

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