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Harry Morgan: An appreciation

Here's my Newsday appreciation of a TV classic...

Harry Morgan -- Sherman Tecumseh Potter of "M*A*S*H" renown -- died Wednesday at age 96, leaving behind a body of TV and movie work that pushed into Guinness record territory and indelibly defined what it meant to be a "supporting" actor.

Morgan -- who died at his Brentwood, Calif., home while battling pneumonia, his daughter-in-law, Beth Morgan, told The Associated Press -- had largely retired from acting a decade ago, but by then he had appeared in a steady stream of films dating back to 1942.

Television work came after movie roles became more infrequent, and it was that medium which would largely define him, despite a series of landmark films through the '50s, from "High Noon" to "Inherit the Wind."

Crusty, slightly cynical, and soft-hearted -- from loving husband to devoted patriot to blood-spattered surgeon and wizened judge -- Morgan seemed to have played most flavors in the character actor canon because he most likely had.

There were nearly 150 credits over a 60 year career, many in westerns, but of course two remain most memorable: Col. Potter, of the 4077th; and Officer Bill Gannon in Jack Webb's remake of "Dragnet" for NBC in the late '60s.

By the time he had joined Webb's creation -- the granddaddy of police procedurals that had begun in radio -- Webb's just-the-facts-ma’am persona was already tightly bound up in pop culture, and it was partly up to Gannon -- and Morgan -- to soften those famously clipped edges.

Morgan's Gannon was as square as his boss, but he also had a not-entirely-well-disguised sense of irony, too. Gannon could actually laugh; by contrast, when Joe Friday smiled -- rarely -- a slight mantle of frost almost seemed to spread over the screen.

"I think probably Col. Potter is closer to the real me, because I had a free reign to do whatever I wanted to do with that character," he said in an interview some years ago. "When we did 'Dragnet,' Jack Webb had that funny staccato style that both he and I used. We just sort of rattled the lines off, and that's a bit unnatural for an actor because if you've got a line, you want to read it with as much expression as possible -- that's the whole point of learning how to be an actor."

"M*A*S*H" came about following one of the great career mistakes in TV history -- McClean Stevenson's. He left the series in 1975, and Morgan -- who had a cameo role as a general in the first season -- was tapped to replace him.

Stevenson's Col. Blake was irascible writ large; Morgan's Potter was "crusty." He was something of the adult overseer in the 4077th field hospital unit -- tolerant but stern. "I knew that Sherm Potter was a terrific character, and that everything would work," he said in an interview with UPI years ago.

"The show had hit its stride and it all felt so damn good. McLean wanted out though I don't think he figured they were going to kill him off ... It was a great situation for an actor." Morgan, who won a best supporting Emmy for the role, was one of the few principals of "M*A*S*H" who wanted the show to go on. Afterwards, he joined the spin-off in the lead role with Potter returning to Missouri to work at a VA hospital. "AfterMASH" in turn became a part of TV history as a punch line, but redoubtable

Morgan, born Harry Bratsburg in Detroit in 1915, continued to appear on many shows, from "The Love Boat" to "3rd Rock from the Sun."

"He was an imp," his "M*A*S*H" co-star Mike Farrell, who starred as B.J. Hunnicutt, told the AP Wednesday. "As Alan [Alda] once said, there's not an un-adorable bone in the man's body. He was full of fun, and he was smart as a whip."

Morgan is survived by three sons, Charles, Paul and Christopher; eight grandchildren; and nine great-grandchildren.

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