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Henry Morgan, 'M*A*S*H' star, dies

Harry Morgan -- the character actor best known for playing Col. Sherman Tecumseh Potter on "M*A*S*H" -- died Wednesday at age 96. He leaves behind a body of TV and movie work that pushed into Guinness record territory and which 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 TV shows and films dating back to 1942.

His characters -- who included everything from loving husband to devoted patriot to blood-spattered surgeon -- were usually crusty, slightly cynical, but softhearted. He had nearly 150 credits over his 60-year career, but of course two remain most memorable: Col. Potter, of the 4077th; and Officer Bill Gannon in Jack Webb's late-1960s remake of "Dragnet."

On "Dragnet," Morgan's Gannon was as square as his partner, but he also had a not-entirely-well-disguised sense of irony, too. Gannon could actually laugh. By contrast, when Webb's 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 rein to do whatever I wanted to do with that character," he said in a 1989 interview. "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."

His "M*A*S*H" role came about after one of the great career mistakes in TV history: McLean Stevenson had left the hit CBS series in 1975 after signing a lucrative contract with NBC, which ultimately resulted in a string of failed series. Morgan, who had a cameo as a general in the first season, replaced him. Stevenson's Col. Blake was irascible writ large; Morgan's Potter 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. "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 after it ended in 1983. He joined the spinoff "AfterMASH," in the lead role; Potter returned to Missouri to work at a VA hospital. "AfterMASH" flopped, but Morgan 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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