American actor, best known for playing Colonel Sherman T Potter in the 1970s hit television series M*A*S*H
Published 11/12/2011 | 05:00
Harry Morgan , who died last Wednesday aged 96, was best known for playing Colonel Sherman T Potter in the highly popular television series M*A*S*H.
Arguably the most successful sitcom in the history of American television, Z (1972-83) portrayed the reality of life and death at a US mobile army surgical hospital during the Korean War of the early 1950s, offsetting it with the gallows humour of the medical team led by Col Potter and assorted nurses and ancillaries.
M*A*S*H was adapted from Robert Altman's 1970 film of the same name, which itself had been based on a novel by Dr Richard Hornberger, writing as Richard Hooker.
Three years into the series Morgan made a guest appearance as a visiting colonel in an episode directed by the show's creator, Larry Gelbart. His performance was nominated for an Emmy award, and so impressed the producers that when McLean Stevenson, who played commanding officer Henry Blake, decided to leave, Morgan was offered what he described as his "best-ever part". He played Potter as an authoritative but good-humoured army surgeon, and father figure to those under his command. The portrayal won him an Emmy in 1980.
Henry Morgan was born Harry Bratsberg on April 10, 1915 in Detroit, where his Norwegian father worked in the motor industry. They moved to Muskegon, Michigan, and he graduated from high school there in 1933, having been a schoolboy debating champion.
For two years he studied Law at the University of Chicago, but after dropping out because he was short of funds, went to work for a firm selling office equipment. This took him to Washington, DC, where he became involved in the fledgling Civic Theatre and realised that he preferred a life on the stage to selling rubber stamps and paper clips.
Assuming the name Morgan, which he felt was more euphonious than Bratsberg for an acting career, he made his stage debut in The Front Page before joining a repertory company at Westport, Connecticut. One early part cast him opposite a young Henry Fonda in a stage production of The Virginian.
On the big screen Morgan appeared in more than 100 films, making his debut in To the Shores of Tripoli (1942), a jingoistic film about the US Marines, and following it up with Crash Dive (1943); A Wing and a Prayer (1944); and A Bell for Adano (1945).
Early in his career he also featured with Glenn Miller and his band in Orchestra Wives (1942) and later in The Glenn Miller Story (1954) in which he played the pianist Chummy MacGregor, offering support to Miller's wife after the bandleader's mysterious wartime disappearance.
Having discovered that an abrasive television comedian also called himself Henry Morgan, he was billed from 1955 as Harry Morgan. Though in no way typecast, he was mostly in demand for friendly and reliable characters -- and his voice and manner of speaking were unmistakably reassuring. When needed, however, he could stretch into menace, a talent he displayed in the thriller The Big Clock (1948) . Later, in Appointment with Danger (1951) he was the weak, expendable link in a criminal gang. His partner in crime, played by Jack Webb, picks up a child's boot, a cherished memento of Morgan's lost son, and beats him to death with it.
Nearly two decades later, Jack Webb and Morgan were reunited on the right side of the law when Morgan replaced Ben Alexander as Officer Bill Gannon, Sgt Joe Friday's sidekick, in the 1967 remake of the celebrated Dragnet television series from the 1950s.
Morgan occasionally escaped the noir genre to appear in major films like Madame Bovary (1949), in which he played Hippolyte; High Noon (1952); and notably How the West was Won (1962), in which he played General Grant, who is shown discussing the morals of war and life with General Sherman, played by John Wayne. Morgan appeared again with Wayne in the Duke's last film, The Shootist (1976).
Morgan appeared in several other television series, including Pete and Gladys (1960-62), a spin-off of December Bride (1954-59) in which he played Pete Porter; The Richard Boone Show (1963-64); and, latterly, Blacke's Magic (1986), as the father of a magician who solving crimes.
Morgan's last films were for Disney -- two Apple Dumpling Gang pictures (1975 and 1979) and The Cat from Outer Space (1978).
Harry Morgan was twice married, first to Eileen Detchon, from 1940 until her death in 1985, and then, in 1986, to Barbara Bushman Quine, granddaughter of the silent film star Francis X Bushman. Three of the four sons of his first marriage survive him.