Harry Morgan

Active - 1942 - 1997  |   Born - Apr 10, 1915 in Detroit, Michigan, United States  |   Died - Dec 7, 2011   |   Genres - Comedy, Comedy Drama, Western, Drama

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Biography by Bruce Eder

One of the most prolific actors in television history -- with starring roles in 11 different television series under his belt -- Harry Morgan is most closely identified with his portrayal of Colonel Sherman Potter on M*A*S*H (1975-83). But his credits go back to the 1930s, embracing theater and film as well as the small screen. Born Harry Bratsberg in Detroit, Michigan, in 1915, he made his Broadway debut with the Group Theatre in 1937 as Pepper White in the original production of Golden Boy, alongside Luther Adler, Phoebe Brand, Howard Da Silva, Lee J. Cobb, Morris Carnovsky, Frances Farmer, Elia Kazan, John Garfield, Martin Ritt, and Roman Bohnen. His subsequence stage appearances between 1939 and 1941 comprised a string of failures -- most notably Clifford Odets' Night Music, directed by Harold Clurman; and Robert Ardrey's Thunder Rock, directed by Elia Kazan -- before he turned to film work. Changing his name to Henry Morgan, he appeared in small roles in The Shores of Tripoli, The Loves of Edgar Allen Poe, and Orchestra Wives, all from 1942. Over the next two years, he essayed supporting roles in everything from war movies to Westerns, where he showed an ability to dominate the screen with his voice and his eyes. Speaking softly, Morgan could quietly command a scene, even working alongside Henry Fonda in the most important of those early pictures, The Ox-Bow Incident (1943).

Over the years following World War II, Morgan played ever-larger roles marked by their deceptive intensity. And even when he couldn't use his voice in a role, such as that of the mute and sinister Bill Womack in The Big Clock (1948), he was still able to make his presence felt in every one of his scenes with his eyes and his body movements. He was in a lot of important pictures during this period, including major studio productions such as All My Sons (1948), Down to the Sea in Ships (1949), and Madame Bovary (1949). He also appeared in independent films, most notably The Well (1951) and High Noon (1952). One of the more important of those roles was his portrayal of a professional killer in Appointment With Danger (1951), in which he worked alongside fellow actor Jack Webb for the first time. Morgan also passed through the stock company of director Anthony Mann, working in a brace of notable outdoor pictures across the 1950s. It was during the mid-1950s, as he began making regular appearances on television, that he was obliged to change his professional name to Harry Morgan (and, sometimes, Henry "Harry" Morgan), owing to confusion with another performer named Henry Morgan, who had already established himself on the small screen and done some movie acting as well. And it was at this time that Morgan, now billed as Harry Morgan, got his first successful television series, December Bride, which ran for five seasons and yielded a spin-off, Pete and Gladys. Morgan continued to appear in movies, increasingly in wry, comedic roles, most notably Support Your Local Sheriff (1969), but it was the small screen where his activity was concentrated throughout the 1960s.

In 1966, Jack Webb, who had become an actor, director, and producer over the previous 15 years, decided to revive the series Dragnet and brought Morgan aboard to play the partner of Webb's Sgt. Joe Friday. As Officer Bill Gannon, Morgan provided a wonderful foil for the deadpan, no-nonsense Friday, emphasizing the natural flair for comic eccentricity that Morgan had shown across the previous 25 years. The series ran for four seasons, and Morgan reprised the role in the 1987 Dragnet feature film. He remained a busy actor going into the 1970s, when true stardom beckoned unexpectedly. In 1974, word got out that McLean Stevenson was planning on leaving the successful series M*A*S*H, and the producers were in the market for a replacement in the role of the military hospital's commanding officer. Morgan did a one-shot appearance as a comically deranged commanding general and earned the spot as Stevenson's replacement.

Morgan worked periodically in the two decades following the series' cancellation in 1983, before retiring after 1999. He died in 2011 at age 96.

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  • Won Michigan's high-school oratory championship.
  • Made professional debut in a summer-stock production of At Mrs. Beam's, alongside Frances Farmer and Mildred Natwick.
  • Began acting career as Henry Morgan, but changed his first name to Harry to avoid confusion with actor-satirist Henry Morgan.
  • Received the National Board of Review Award for Best Actor in 1943 for his roles in The Ox-Bow Incident (the work he was said to be most proud of) and Happy Land.
  • Worked with Jack Webb in several projects in the 1950s and became friends. When Webb revived Dragnet in the '60s, he called on Morgan to costar with him.
  • Prior to joining M*A*S*H in 1975 as Col. Potter, guest starred in a 1974 episode as lunatic Maj. Gen. Bartford Hamilton Steele.
  • Served as the Arthritis Foundation's national celebrity chairman in the late '80s.