When it comes to prolific actors in television and film, few people can equal Harry Morgan’s career. Known for his deadpan delivery, he was in more than 100 films. He also starred in 11 television series and appeared on 6 TV Guide covers.
Born Harry Bratsberg in 1915, he grew up in Muskegon, Michigan. His parents came from Norway and Sweden. Harry went to the University of Chicago, planning on becoming an attorney but got interested in acting instead. In 1937, he began appearing with stock companies, followed by Broadway roles.
His first wife was Eileen Detchon who he was married to from 1940 until her death in 1985. Her photo appears on Colonel Potter’s desk on M*A*S*H. They had four sons: Christopher, Charley, Paul and Daniel. Morgan remarried in 1986 and was married to Barbara Bushman until his death.
He was signed by Twentieth Century Fox in 1942. His screen debut was The Shores of Tripoli under the name Henry Morgan. Later that year he appeared in Orchestra Wives and a few years later was in The Glenn Miller Story with Jimmy Stewart. In 1943, he starred with Henry Fonda in the highly acclaimed The Ox-Bow Incident.
In 1954, he was offered the role of Pete Porter in December Bride which ran until 1959. In the show, he complained about his wife Gladys a lot, but we never meet her. When the show ended, he starred in a spin-off Pete and Gladys from 1960-1962. Pete Porter is an insurance salesman. His scatter-brained, but beautiful, wife is played by Cara Williams.
The next year he was cast in The Richard Boone Show from 1963-1964. This was an anthology series which Richard Boone hosted. A cast of 15 actors appeared in different roles each episode. Morgan appeared in all 25 episodes. The show never captured viewers, probably because it was on against Petticoat Junction.
Almost immediately upon its ending, he was again cast in a television show with a role on Kentucky Jones during 1964 and 1965. Kentucky Jones is a veterinarian and former horse trainer. He and his wife adopted a Chinese boy named Dwight Eisenhower “Ike” Wong. After his wife’s death, the local Asian community and handyman Seldom played by Morgan helps him raise Ike.
Morgan had a couple of years of guest starring in shows such as The Wackiest Ship in the Army and Dr. Kildare, and then he was cast in Dragnet from 1967-1970. He and Jack Webb were friends before the show and continued to be best friends throughout Harry’s life. Webb had directed the previous Dragnet show in the 1950s and revived the show in 1967, convincing his friend to play the role of Officer Joe Gannon who helped Sergeant Joe Friday (Webb) solve crimes in Los Angeles.
Between 1970 and 1972 he would show up in The Partridge Family in two different roles and Love American Style among other shows. 1972 would find him starring in another show, Hec Ramsey, until 1974. This show reunited Morgan with Richard Boone who starred in it and Jack Webb who produced it. Ramsey was a western detective who preferred to solve crimes with his brain rather than his gun. The show only lasted for ten episodes.
From 1974-1983, he was cast in his most famous role, that of Colonel Potter on M*A*S*H. A military hospital staff treating soldiers during the Korean war rely on laughter to get through the gruesome work. The show combined heartache and joy to tell the story of the 4077th. When the show was cancelled, Harry continued the role in the spin-off, After M*A*S*H from 1983-1985.
On M*A*S*H Morgan painted the portraits attributed to Colonel Potter. He won the Emmy for Outstanding Supporting Actor in 1980, receiving 11 nominations overall during the run of the show.
His description of Colonel Potter was: “He was firm. He was a good officer, and he had a good sense of humor. I think it’s the best part I ever had. I loved playing Colonel Potter.”
When asked if he was a better actor after working with the show’s talented cast, Morgan responded, “I don’t know about that, but it’s made me a better human being.
Morgan also appeared in several Disney movies during the 1970s, including The Barefoot Executive, Snowball Express, Charley and the Angel, The Apple Dumpling Gang, The Cat from Outer Space, and The Apple Dumpling Gang Rides Again.
In 1986 he was cast in Blacke’s Magic. The show featured a magician and his father, a con man, who solve crimes. Unfortunately, like many of the shows he was a part of, this one only lasted 15 episodes. When it ended in 1987, Harry was immediately given a role in You Can’t Take It with You where he appeared on three episodes during 1987 and 1988. Morgan starred as Martin; the show was based on the original play, but the television series was set in the 1980s. Although Morgan was only in three episodes, he was in the majority of them, because the entire show consisted of four episodes.
In the 1980s, he appeared in commercials for ERA realty and Toyota.
During the late 1980s and early 1990s, he appeared in six different shows, with recurring roles on The Simpsons and Third Rock from the Sun. In 1996 he retired.
In 2006, Morgan was inducted into the Hall of Great Western Performers at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum.
Many of his western films were done with James Stewart. They did five films together, and Morgan says Stewart was one of the nicest men he ever met and extremely professional.
In addition to Jack Webb, he was good friends with Tim Conway and Don Knotts.
A very interesting man, in his spare time, he enjoyed golfing, fishing, travel, spending time with his family, reading, raising horses, horse riding, painting, and poetry.
He died in 2011 from pneumonia.
Following Morgan’s death, Mike Farrell, who played B.J. Hunnicutt, starring with Morgan in M*A*S*H, released the following statement:
“He was a wonderful man, a fabulous actor and a dear and close friend since the first day we worked together. As Alan [Alda] said, he did not have an unadorable bone in his body . . . He was a treasure as a person, an imp at times, and always a true professional. He had worked with the greats and never saw himself as one of them. But he was . . . He was the rock everyone depended on and yet he could cut up like a kid when the situation warranted it. He was the apotheosis, the finest example of what people call a ‘character actor’. What he brought to the work made everyone better. He made those who are thought of as ‘stars’ shine even more brightly . . . The love and admiration we all felt for him were returned tenfold in many, many ways. And the greatest and most selfless tribute to the experience we enjoyed was paid by Harry at the press conference when our show ended. He remarked that someone had asked him if working on M*A*S*H had made him a better actor. He responded by saying, ‘I don’t know about that, but it made me a better human being.’ It’s hard to imagine a better one.”