LOS ANGELES — Harry Morgan never planned to be an actor, yet he spent 10 years on one of the top TV series of all time, made 50 films and appeared on Broadway. He became one of the best-known character actors in Hollywood.
But it was Morgan’s portrayal of the fatherly Col. Sherman Potter on M-A-S-H for which Morgan became most famous, and he knew it.
“M-A-S-H was so damned good,” Morgan told The Associated Press. “I didn’t think they could keep the level so high.”
His wry humour, which helped net him an Emmy for the CBS-TV hit, carried onto the show.
“He was an imp,” said Mike Farrell, who starred as B.J. Hunnicutt in M-A-S-H along with Morgan and Alan Alda. “As Alan 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 died Wednesday at age 96 at his Brentwood home after having pneumonia, his daughter-in-law, Beth Morgan, told AP.
“He was side-splittingly funny, a very gentle and loving father-in-law,” Beth Morgan said. “He was very humble about having such a successful career.”
Morgan appeared in mostly supporting roles on the big screen, playing opposite such stars as Henry Fonda, John Wayne, James Garner, Elvis Presley and Dan Aykroyd.
On television, he was more the comedic co-star, including roles on December Bride, its spin-off Pete and Gladys, as Sgt. Joe Friday’s loyal partner in later Dragnet episodes and on CBS-TV’s long-running M-A-S-H series, for which he earned an Emmy award in 1980.
Yet acting wasn’t Morgan’s first career choice.
Born in Detroit in 1915, Morgan was studying pre-law at the University of Chicago when public speaking classes sparked his interest in the stage. Before long, he was working with a little theatre group in Washington, D.C., followed by a two-year stint on Broadway in the original production of “Golden Boy,” with Karl Malden and Lee J. Cobb.
Morgan made his way to Hollywood in 1942 “without any assurance that I would find work,” he said in a 1976 interview with The AP.
“I didn’t have enough money to go back East, so I stayed around finding jobs mainly out of friendships.”
He signed a contract with 20th Century Fox after a talent scout spotted him in the one-act play, Hello, Out There.
One of his earliest films was The Ox Bow Incident in 1943 with Fonda. Other films included: High Noon, What Price Glory, Support Your Local Sheriff, The Apple Dumpling Gang and The Shootist.
Morgan began his television career in 1954 when the medium was in its infancy.
“Television allowed me to kick the Hollywood habit of typing an actor in certain roles,” Morgan said, referring to his typical sidekick or sheriff portrayals on the big screen
In December Bride, his first TV series, Morgan played Pete Porter, a perpetually henpecked neighbour. The CBS series lasted from 1954-1959, when he went on to star in his own series, Pete and Gladys,” a spinoff of December Bride.
Demonstrating his diversity as a character actor and comedian, Morgan also starred in The Richard Boone Show, Kentucky Jones and Dragnet.
His acting career didn’t stop after M-A-S-H left the air in 1983 after 11 years — one of television’s most successful primetime runs. Morgan went on to appear in several made-for-TV movies and other television series, such as AfterMASH and Blacke’s Magic.
When he was not on the set, Morgan enjoyed reading books about the legal profession and poetry. He also liked horses, which he once raised on his Northern California ranch.