Harry Morgan and His Classic TV Career, from 'Dragnet' to 'M*A*S*H' and Beyond

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Officer Joe Gannon on Dragnet and Colonel Sherman T. Potter on M*A*S*H are only two of the many memorable roles that actor Harry Morgan played in a career that spanned nearly 60 years, encompassing dozens of feature films and many classic TV shows.

He entered the world as Harry Bratsberg on April 10, 1915 in Detroit, Michigan. He was raised in Muskegon, Michigan, graduating from Muskegon High School in 1953 where he excelled in debating and was a statewide champion. His interest in acting began at the University of Chicago in 1935.

In a 1958 profile, the Sun-Journal described his early days as follows: "Harry Morgan went to Hollywood from the New York stage in 1941, for a vacation of several weeks. He wound up with a movie contract and never did return to Broadway. It was in Hollywood that Morgan was offered the lead in William Saryoyan's one-act play Hello Out There, which resulted in a 20th Century Fox contract. His studio changed his name from Henry Bratsburg to Henry Morgan, which resulted in a confusion of identity with the popular radio and television comic of the same name. Thereupon the nom de cinema was modified to 'Harry' Morgan."

He was persuaded to join the Westchester Playhouse at Mt. Kisco, NY, where he made his first professional appearances in At Mrs. Beams followed by The Virginian, which had a young Henry Fonda in the title role.

"Broadway scouts," wrote the Sun-Journal, "spotted Morgan and he won the role of Pepper White in Golden Boy, which he played on Broadway, in London and on tour in the United States. During 1939, Morgan 'bicycled' between My Heart's in the Highlands, in which he appeared in only the first act, and The Gentle People, in which he was seen only in the last act, a neat trick of earning two salaries each week."

December Bride

He made his movie debut in 1942's To the Shores of Tripoli and between then and 1954's The Fair Country, appeared in over 50 others, with dozens more to follow throughout his career. But the truth is, more people got to know him through television, particularly series that he was one of the stars of.

The first was December Bride (1954 to 1959), about widow Lily Ruskin, played by Spring Byington, who would comically attempt to find love again. Harry Morgan played next-door neighbor Pete Porter, an insurance agent, who, describes Wikipedia, was "married miserably, according to his constant complains about his unseen wife, Gladys."

Harry Morgan and Cara Willliams in 1960's Pete and Gladys
Harry Morgan and Cara Willliams in 1960's Pete and Gladys

The series, which aired right behind I Love Lucy, would run until 1959, and then, from 1960 to 1962, there was a spin-off (the first from a show that had been canceled) called Pete and Gladys, which saw Harry Morgan reprising the role of Pete with Cara Williams as the now visible Gladys. The show was not nearly as successful as its predecessor.

"Doing a TV series is about the same as pictures," he told The Los Angeles Time in 1959. "The stage is more satisfying — except for the stomach. But I enjoy December Bride. I look forward to doing each show. The people are enjoyable to work with. And Pete's style of of humor is pretty close to my own." Later he would contrast the two series, by telling the El Paso Herald-Post, "December Bride was a pleasant and wonderful association. Pete and Gladys, not so pleasant."

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The Richard Boone Show

Following his highly-successful run as Paladin on the TV Western Have Gun Will Travel, actor Richard Boone launched the 1963 to 1964 anthology series The Richard Boone Show, which featured a regular troupe of actors — one of them being Harry Morgan — taking on different characters and different stories each week. Critically a success, the ratings were low and it lasted a single year.

Harry Morgan in the 1950s
American actor Harry Morgan poses in the 1950's
Archive Photos/Getty Images

"Being part of The Richard Boone Show gave me a deep kind of satisfaction," Morgan told the El Paso Herald-Post. "It gave me a chance to do different things." In 1981 he would compare the show to M*A*S*H in some ways while speaking to The Spokesman-Review. "The people were just as good, but we didn't have the stories that M*A*S*H has. It was a hell of an idea, but there was one unfortunate problem. Clifford Odets, a great writer, a great playwright, was our story editor. He was a great magnet to attract the best writers. But he died before we had gotten very far into the season. From then on we were kind of rudderless, and we were a bomb. The Boone repertory things that worked were magnificent, but that was maybe five out of 20 shows."

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Harry Morgan in Dragnet 1967

Jack Webb and Harry Morgan in Dragnet 1967
Jack Webb and Harry Morgan in Dragnet 1967
©NBCUniversal/courtesy MovieStillsDB.com

One of the big TV hits of the 1950s was the police procedural Dragnet, which hailed from creator/actor Jack Webb as Sgt. Joe Friday, with stories taken from actual case files of the Los Angeles Police Department. That show ran from 1951 to 1959, and was resurrected by NBC from 1967 to 1970. The new version saw Webb reprising the Friday role, while Harry Morgan brought aboard as his partner, Officer Bill Gannon.

In 1967, Morgan gave a candid interview with The San Francisco Examiner, in which he reflected, "When you've been around the length of time I have, acting is not exactly a thrilling occupation. The glamour went out of it long ago. There's satisfaction, I suppose. There are few of us in this business doing what we would ideally like to do, so you learn to be satisfied on a comparative basis. I'd rather be doing Dragnet than most of the other stuff on the air. A lot of the esteem has gone out of television.

Harry Morgan and Jack Webb, Dragnet 1967
Harry Morgan and Jack Webb, Dragnet, 1967
©NBCUniversal/courtesy MovieStillsDB.com

"There's nobody else like Jack in the business," he added. "Nobody has his qualifications or the background he does: hundreds of Dragnet radio shows, 300 TV episodes. Jack knows exactly what he wants and how to get it done. That's why he produces and directs. It's not stubbornness or anything like that. It's just that he knows what he wants. And 98 percent of the time, he's right. You can't argue with a man like that."

Webb also had some comments to make on Morgan's performance: "At first I wasn't playing Gannon the way Jack wanted me to. I was acting too much. That's a style Jack doesn't like. He doesn't want you to act. He wants you to be flat. No projection. Just stand there and read lines."

Harry Morgan: From M*A*S*H to AfterMASH

The cast of MASH
Mike Farrell, Harry Morgan, Alan Alda and David Ogden Stiers in Mash, 1976
©20th Television/courtesy MovieStillsDB.com

The situation would be very different in 1975 when Harry Morgan was hired to replace Maclean Stevenson on the TV version of M*A*S*H, originating the role of Colonel Sherman T. Potter, put in command of the 4077th. It turned out to be a perfect fit for the veteran actor, and insofar as the viewers were concerned, that was definitely the case.

Of his first episode, he enthused to the Honolulu Star-Bulletin in 1975, "It's a beautifuly constructed script. In just 20 pages, I get to meet all the guys, I get trunk with Captain B.J. Hunnicutt, Trapper John's replacement, and at the end I bump into Frank Burns. Frankly, I was suprised at the east with which the character of Colonel Potter was introduced in the first show in which I acted. At the beginning, everybody was a bit wary of the new commander, but at the end he was accepted and already one of the boys. It's a tribute to the writers who accomplish that in one show."

Flash forward to 1981, he spoke to The Wichita Eagle and was asked about how he may have been changed from playing the character of Potter for so long. "I think it's very hard for most actors to get very far away from themselves," he suggested. "I played mostly the heavy when I first started in pictures and I've played everything you can think of, but I don't know in how many cases I really got that far away from myself.

"Although Potter is the longest time I've played a single character," he elaborates, "I don't think it's changed me as an actor. It may have helped me a bit as a human being. You can't spend that many years with this bunch, getting such deep satisfaction out of your work, without it having some effect on you — and for the better. Any kind of working relationship I get into after this show, will not be M*A*S*H in any way, shape or form."

That would certainly be true, proven shortly after the 1983 end of the series when he, Jamie Farr and William Christopher brought their characters into civilian life in the 1983 to 1985 spinoff, AfterMASH.

"AfterMASH just never worked," he admitted to the Arizona Daily Sun in 1985. "We did everything we could think of to fix it, but nothing helped. I think now that it just wasn't a good idea in the first place."

Harry Morgan in Blacke's Magic

In his private life, Harry Morgan was married to Eileen Detchon from 1940 until she passed in 1985. He would marry Barbara Bushman Quine at the end of 1986 and was with her until his own death. All of which was very different from the plans he had, the idea being that he would retire following AfterMASH. "I had enough money and I was tired," he related to the Daily Record. "We planned to do all the sorts of things you're supposed to do when you retire, but it wasn't to be."

Instead, he took on one more series in the form of Blacke's Magic, which featured Barney Miller's Hal Linden as magician Alexander Blacke who, along with his con-man father Leonard (Morgan), solves mysteries.

MASH actors and their wives at the People's Choice Awards
Alan Alda and Arlene Alda with Harry Morgan and wife Eileen at the 1980 People's Choice Awards January 24, 1980
Ralph Dominguez/MediaPunch via Getty Images

"I doubt I'd be doing this new show if [Eileen] hadn't died," he said, "but sitting around and thinking about it wasn't doing much for my spirits. I'd looked at other scripts, other pilots, but nothing hit me. And I liked this character, Leonard. I liked the idea of playing a sort of lighthearted scoundrel and the fact that Hal Linden was involved had a lot to do with it. I remember the days when people said that M*A*S*H and Barney Miller were the best shows on TV, and I kind of believed that myself."

'You Can't Take It With You' from 1987
Harry Morgan on the TV Show You Can't Take it with You, 1987
Ron Wolfson/WireImage

He continued to work from there, his final appearance on television being in a 1996 episode of the sitcom 3rd Rock from the Sun and the 1999 film Crosswalk. He would pass away on December 7, 2011 in his sleep at the age of 96.

Acting was so important a part of his life, and when he had been asked about people who wanted to become actors, he had one bit of advice he'd picked up somewhere: "I like to pass this along," he said. "If you take a sledge hammer or a rock or a baseball bat, and even with that you cannot dissuade somebody from the acting profession, then he or she should go ahead with it. If they can be turned aside, they don't belong in the business. Believe me, they're going to run into some hard times."

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