Harry Morgan, Paternal Colonel Potter on ‘M*A*S*H,’ Dies at 96

Harry Morgan, Paternal Colonel Potter on ‘M*A*S*H’
Actor Harry Morgan poses in the 1950's. Photo: Archive Photos/Getty Images

Harry Morgan, the actor who played strait-laced U.S. Army Colonel Sherman T. Potter on the television series “M*A*S*H” through eight of its 11 celebrated seasons, has died. He was 96.

He died today at his home in Los Angeles, the New York Times reported, citing his son, Charles Morgan. No cause was given.

Morgan was 60 years old and a veteran of movies and television when he introduced the character of Colonel Potter on “M*A*S*H” in September 1975.

The show, an often-dark comedy about a mobile Army surgical hospital during the Korean War, was entering its fourth season. The previous season had ended with the doctors and nurses absorbing the shocking news that their most recent commander, Lieutenant Colonel Henry Blake (McLean Stevenson), had been killed in a plane crash on his long trip home after his discharge.

The happy-go-lucky commander Blake was replaced by Morgan’s more professional, paternal and complex Potter. A 1983 Time story said of the character, “A cavalryman in the first World War who turned medic and was Regular Army to his jodhpurs, Potter became the stern but sentimental father figure every MASHman needed 7,000 miles from home.”

In a 2004 interview with the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences Foundation, Morgan described Potter, a lover of horses and an amateur painter, as a firm yet sentimental commander -- “very human, very kind, a wonderful character, pretty much like myself.”

‘Goodbye, Farewell’

Morgan, who was 89 at the time of the interview, said he still got mail from “M*A*S*H” fans.

Morgan, as Potter, led the unit through the series’ final episode, “Goodbye, Farewell and Amen,” which became the most-watched TV show in U.S. history when it aired on Feb. 28, 1983.

With the war over and the unit disbanded, Potter took off for a final ride on his horse as two of his least regimental subordinates, played by Alan Alda and Mike Farrell, afforded him a rare salute.

“They didn’t have that kind of visible respect for the colonel throughout the show. It was very touching,” Morgan said.

Morgan won an Emmy Award in 1980 for outstanding supporting actor. He was nominated for 10 other Emmys.

Morgan joined two other “M*A*S*H” stars in a spinoff, “AfterMASH,” that continued their storylines back home after the war. Potter was administrator of a veteran’s hospital in Missouri. The show lasted from 1983 to 1985.

Early Years

“It was hard to say goodbye to ‘M*A*S*H,’” Morgan said. “I could have done it another 10 years.”

Harry Bratsberg was born on April 10, 1915, in Detroit, where his father, Henry, worked for the automobile company founded by World War I fighter pilot Eddie Rickenbacker.

Henry and Hannah Bratsberg raised Harry and his two younger siblings in Muskegon, Michigan. Harry later appeared in plays as Harry “Bratsburg,” changed his name to Henry Morgan after moving to Hollywood, then -- after realizing there was a radio comedian by that name -- settled on Harry Morgan.

As a teenager, he aspired to be a lawyer and was part of a champion debating team in high school. He began studying at the University of Chicago but ran out of money and went to work for a Muskegon office-furniture maker, Shaw-Walker.

The company sent him to Washington, where he became involved in the Civic Theater. He said his first performance was in “The Front Page.”

Working With Fonda

“I wasn’t enjoying selling office equipment; I wasn’t selling much of it, actually,” Morgan recalled. So he tried summer stock in Mount Kisco, New York, and Westport, Connecticut.

He acted alongside Henry Fonda in a stage production of “The Virginian,” became friends with actress Frances Farmer, through whom he met his wife, Eileen Detchon, and joined the Group Theatre in New York, where he worked with Elia Kazan and Lee Strasberg.

Morgan’s stage career culminated in a role on Broadway in the Group Theatre’s production of the Clifford Odets play “Golden Boy,” about a young man torn between pursuing paydays in boxing or his love of the violin.

After moving to Hollywood with his wife in 1942, Morgan signed with 20th Century Fox and began his film career with “To the Shores of Tripoli” (1942), which starred Maureen O’Hara and Randolph Scott.

Television Career

He said his favorite movie was “The Ox-Bow Incident” (1943), a Western nominated for an Academy Award as best picture. Morgan and Fonda played cowboys who witness vigilante justice.

On television, Morgan performed in the CBS situation comedy “December Bride” from 1954 to 1959 and its spinoff, “Pete and Gladys,” from 1960 to 1962.

He played Bill Gannon, the new partner of Sergeant Joe Friday (Jack Webb), when Webb resurrected the TV series “Dragnet” in 1967.

He made his first appearance on “M*A*S*H” in a guest role in 1974, one year before joining the show fulltime. He played the decorated and mentally unbalanced General Bartford Hamilton Steele, whose visit causes havoc in the military hospital unit.

With Detchon, Morgan had four sons, three of whom survive him. After her death in 1985, Morgan married the former Barbara Bushman Quine in 1986.

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