The Alliterative Harry Morgan (Famous for saying Horse Hockey and Beaver Biscuits as Colonel Potter)

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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.

Harry Morgan From 'December Bride'

 

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

 

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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.

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In the 1980s, he appeared in commercials for ERA realty and Toyota.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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“The Ultimate Definition of Success is to Repeat It” says Jeffrey Benjamin

After reading about That Girl and what a tough time Marlo Thomas and Ted Bessell had finding new roles that did not stereotype them as Don and Ann, I thought about actors who were able to transcend that hurdle.  I could think of numerous actors and actresses who were able to have two important television roles.  Mary Tyler Moore began as Laura Petrie but Mary Richards was also a strong character.  Ron Howard grew up from Opie Taylor to Richie Cunningham.  Kristy McNichol lived out her adolescence in Family and then moved to Florida as Barbara in Empty Nest.

I started to do some research and found the following actors who had numerous television series.

Alan Alda – Of course, his iconic role was Hawkeye Pierce in M*A*S*H.  From 1972-83 he kept us laughing or crying in Korea.  Since M*A*S*H he has taken on roles in several television series including ER (1999), West Wing (2004-06), 30 Rock (2009-10), The Big C (2011-13), and The Blacklist (2013-14).

Fun Fact:  He got his start on the Phil Silvers Show in 1957.

 

Meredith Baxter – Most people remember her as Elyse Keaton in Family Ties (1982-89), but for me it was Nancy in Family (1976-80).  Other shows include Bridget Loves Bernie (1972-73), The Faculty (1996), Cold Case (2006-07), The Young and the Restless (2014), and Finding Carter (2014-15).

Fun Fact:  Her mother was Whitney Blake, Missy on Hazel.

 

Sally Field – I think most people will always think of Sally Field as the Flying Nun (1967-70).  Her first show was Gidget (1965-66). As we discussed a couple of weeks ago, she had a role in the forgettable Hey Landlord (1967) and she was The Girl with Something Extra (1973-74).  Like Alan Alda, she also had a recurring role in ER (2000-06), and her most recent show is Brothers and Sisters (2006-11).

Fun  Fact:  She won an Emmy for her appearance on ER.

 

John Forsythe – While younger people only know him as the voice of Charlie on Charlie’s Angels (1976-81) or Blake Carrington from The Colbys (1980-86) which led to Dynasty (1981-89), one of my favorite sitcoms of all is Bachelor Father which John starred as Bentley Greg from 1957-62.  Before Bachelor Father, he starred in Lights Out (1951-2), Suspense (1951-52) and Studio One (1949-55). Before Charlie’s Angels, he was in the John Forsythe Show (1965-66) and To Rome with Love (1969-71). His last show was The Powers That Be (1992-93).

Fun Fact: Along with Harry Morgan and Meredith Baxter, he was on episodes of The Love Boat.

 

Harry Morgan – Harry Morgan is the king of shows, with 12 series to his credit.  He is probably best remembered for three of them–Pete and Gladys (1960-62), Dragnet (1967), and M*A*S*H (1974-83). His first sitcom was December Bride (1954-59) which spun off Pete and Gladys.  In the 60s before Dragnet he was in Kentucky Jones (1964-65) and Dr. Kildare (1965).  The seventies saw him in Hec Ramsey (1972-74) and Gunsmoke (1970-75).  After M*A*S*H, he literally was in After M*A*S*H (1983-85), Blacke’s Magic (1986), You Can’t Take It With You (1987-88), and Third Rock From the Sun (1996-97).

Fun Fact:  He was in an episode of the Partridge Family in the first season.

 

Bob Newhart – Bob Newhart gets the award for having the most shows with his name it in.  Fans fondly remember The Bob Newhart Show set in Chicago when he played Dr. Hartley (1972-78) or Newhart where he was the inn owner Dick Loudon (1982-90).  His first show was The Bob Newhart Show (1961).  After Newhart, he tried out Bob (1992-93) and George and Leo (1997-98).  Like Alan Alda and Sally Field, he also had a recurring role on ER (2003) and most recently has had a recurring role on The Big Bang Theory (2013-15).

Fun Fact:  The 1982-90 show had the best finale ever when the show ended with Bob in bed with his wife from the 1972-78 series thinking Newhart had been a dream.

 

Ed O’Neill – If any actor should have been stereotyped after a role, Ed O’Neill seemed doomed after Al Bundy in Married. . . With Children (1987-97), yet he now has an even bigger hit in Modern Family as Jay Pritchett (2009-16).  In between he was on the Big Apple (2001), Dragnet (2003-4), a remake of Harry Morgan’s show, and John From Cincinnati (2007).  Like Alan Alda, he took on a role on The West Wing (2004-05).

Fun Fact:  He signed as an undrafted free agent with the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1969 but was cut in training camp.

 

Dick Van Dyke – Finally, we have Dick Van Dyke.  Before I researched this blog, I thought he and Bob Newhart might have the most sitcoms to their credit.  He comes in with only four starring shows overall.  Like Bob, he never wanted to stray far from his name:  We had the iconic Dick Van Dyke Show as Rob Petrie (1961-66), The New Dick Van Dyke Show (1971-74), The Dick Van Dyke Show (1988), and then Diagnosis: Murder (1993-2001). Like so many of these actors who have something in common with Alan Alda, Dick Van Dyke’s first appearance in a sitcom was also The Phil Silvers Show (1957-8).

Fun Fact:  He can trace his family line back to the Mayflower.

 

Why do some stars get locked into a role that they are never able to separate themselves from?  Think Henry Winkler as the Fonz, Lucille Ball as Lucy, or Don Knotts as Barney.  I think part of it is that we get so attached to these characters we almost want to believe they are real and the actor moving on destroys that image.

The above actors all had different situations that allowed them to move on more easily.  Alan Alda never had that hit show again.  After M*A*S*H, he took on dramatic recurring roles.  Meredith Baxter was in a  mixed genre of shows. Of her two hit shows, one was a drama, Family, and one a sitcom, Family Ties.  Dick Van Dyke had the same formula:  The first Dick Van Dyke Show, a sitcom, and Diagnosis: Murder, an action/mystery series.  John Forsythe and Harry Morgan came into show business during the golden days of television.  They were able to have extremely successful shows and characters and then start over.  Forsythe had 10 series to his credit, Morgan had 12. Sally Field, although starting out in television, was certainly better known as a movie actress.  Audiences were seeing her on the big screen as other characters so they perhaps don’t pigeon hole her into one role so much.  Ed O’Neill actually had success on two sitcoms about families.  Maybe Jay Pritchett is so successful because he shows what Al Bundy may have been like growing up in a more enlightened era where the fathers help parent and run the house.  And Bob Newhart, I think, was successful because he actually plays the same character in most of his shows, and we love that character so we keep looking for him, no matter what the show is actually titled.