Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Rest in Peace, Colonel Potter

It was with great sadness that I learned today of the death of actor Harry Morgan.

It really wasn't a surprise that he passed away. He was 96 years old, after all.

But it was another of those reminders that time is marching on.

Morgan had a long and mostly successful career that went back to the 1930s and included dozens of roles on the stage and the silver screen, but he is mostly remembered for his television work. He appeared in 11 different series and was a regular on several of them.

My family had only had a TV set for about a year when Morgan appeared on TV's Dragnet in one of the first TV roles with which he will always be linked, that of Officer Bill Gannon, Joe Friday's sidekick.

I didn't watch that show too much, but my father did, and I can't think of it without thinking of him. In my mind's eye, I can see my father sitting in the family living room, smoking his pipe and watching Dragnet. For me, it is as American an image as any from a Norman Rockwell painting.

A few years later, Morgan took on the role for which he will be remembered the most, I suppose — Col. Potter on M*A*S*H.

I have many great memories of watching M*A*S*H — including the evening in 1983 when M*A*S*H concluded its 11–year run with a 2½–hour episode that still ranks as the most–watched TV episode in history.

There will never be another M*A*S*H, he said at the time. And he was right.

But I also remember the movies I saw in which he appeared — "Inherit the Wind," "High Noon," "The Ox–Bow Incident" and so many others.

I don't remember how old I was when I saw each for the first time. The only thing I am sure of is that I saw them all on TV. Somehow, that is where Harry Morgan seemed to be most at home, not in the vast space of the silver screen but in the comfortable confines of the TV screen.

He inspired me in all of his movie roles, even when his character was a little on the quiet side. Take his role in ""The Ox–Bow Incident." Henry Fonda had the dramatic lines, but Morgan added a silent eloquence that, in my opinion, made that movie even more powerful.

Morgan was in his late 20s when he made "The Ox–Bow Incident." Neither he nor his audiences could have realized the influence he would have on American movies and television in the next half century.

He almost didn't go into acting at all. Originally, he planned to study law. But he sort of stumbled into acting, found success in it and became a lifer.

How fortunate for the rest of us.