Harry Morgan has died, and if his name didn’t register at first when you saw the headline, try thinking instead of Col. Potter on “M*A*S*H.” Or Detective Gannon on “Dragnet.” Or the judge in “Inherit the Wind.” Or any of a hundred other roles he inhabited in a long career. He was 96, and he died at home in Los Angeles.
He made his first film appearance in 1942 (“To the Shores of Tripoli”) and was still working in 1999. He appeared in “High Noon,” “You Can’t Take It With You” and “3rd Rock From the Sun.” In his early career he mostly did Westerns, in supporting roles to such stars as Henry Fonda, John Wayne and Gary Cooper.
But in his time, he was perhaps the best-known commanding officer in America, as Col. Sherman T. Potter of the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital unit in the Korean War. He played the role on “M*A*S*H” from 1975 to 1983, trying to keep the likes of Hawkeye Pierce (Alan Alda) and Hot Lips Houlihan (Loretta Swit) in line. He played Col. Potter with a dry wit, a firm but kindly man in charge.
He was not the first choice to command the fictional hospital. The show, based on a book and film, first went on the air in 1972 with McLean Stevenson as Lt. Col. Blake. Morgan appeared as an eccentric general in an episode in 1974, and was nominated for an Emmy for it. The next season he replaced Stevenson, won an Emmy in 1980, and stayed through the finale in 1983 — one of the most-watched entertainment episodes in American television history.
“‘M*A*S*H’ was so damned good,” Morgan later said in an interview with the AP. “I didn’t think they could keep the level so high.”
He leaves behind three sons, eight grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren. Turn on your TV tonight, surf the channels, and you’re more likely than not to see him.