RIP, Harry Morgan

MSN reports that the beloved co-star of M*A*S*H and Dragnet “died at his home in Los Angeles on Wednesday morning. The character actor was 96:”

He was best known for playing Colonel Sherman T. Potter on the long-running army comedy.

Bing: More on Harry Morgan

In a 2004 interview with the The Television Academy Foundation’s Archive of American Television, Morgan acknowledged the profound effect that the iconoclastic sitcom had on his career.

“”He was firm,” Morgan said. “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.”

Although “M*A*S*H” made him a television icon, Morgan first came to attention for his role as Officer Bill Gannon, Joe Friday’s partner on the revived version of “Dragnet,” which aired on NBC from 1967-70.

Only if you’re someone for whom history begins in the late 1960s. Beginning in 1942, Morgan acted in 159 movies and TV series, many of them before Dragnet, including the TV series December Bride, which brought Morgan into America’s living rooms from 1954 through 1959. Also during period, he had a supporting role in Jimmy Stewart’s Strategic Air Command, from 1955 (disgracefully not on DVD according to Amazon; it’s worth it as a time capsule of America’s giant B-36 bombers alone), which is as far away from the moral relativism and equivalence of from the anti-Vietnam War-ethos of M*A*S*H as possible.

Morgan had to walk a fine line on M*A*S*H, being gruff enough to be believable as a “regular Army” colonel who served going back to WWI, yet still giving Hawkeye, BJ and Klinger enough room for their antics and quirks, particularly after replacing the bumbling Henry Blake, played by McLean Stevenson.

Morgan would work in front of the camera until 1999, including playing his old Dragnet character in an otherwise so-so Dan Aykroyd-Tom Hanks big screen send-up of the show in 1987. Very few actors could switch gears between comedy and drama as effectively as Morgan — but then, there are very actors left today who personify what Tom Brokaw would dub “the Greatest Generation.”

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