Harry Morgan, 1915-2011: An appreciation
Harry Morgan, who died Wednesday at age 96, was one of the first people I can remember seeing on television, in an early-'60s situation comedy called "Pete and Gladys," about which I can remember nothing else except that it also starred an actress named Cara Williams, about whom I can remember nothing else, and that it was a spin-off of a show called "December Bride," of which I remember nothing. I would know more of Morgan in years to come, of course, as would everybody who watched television, which is to say, everybody.
In Jack Webb's late-'60s revival of "Dragnet," he played easygoing Officer Bill Gannon, the partner to Webb's rock-hard Sgt. Joe Friday. In "MASH," he was the gruff yet not-always-by-the-book Col. Sherman T. Potter, a role for which he won a best supporting actor Emmy in 1980, and for which he was nominated every year he played it, from 1976 to 1983. In the latter series, he was the still point amid the pandemonium, a flinty corrective both to its silliness and its sentimentality. In the former, he was the subtly comical sidekick to Webb's very straight straight man, a little licking flame of human warmth to animate the overarching deadpan.
Among the most familiar screen faces of the 20th century, Morgan was an American type: the regular guy, younger and older, in his lighter and his darker aspects. To say that he played in a lot of Westerns, crime dramas and war movies before and during his television years, is to say only that he was busy -- extremely busy -- in a time when those were the prisms through which the nation saw itself. His more prestigious pictures included "The Ox-Bow Incident" (1943), "The Big Clock" (1948), "High Noon" (1952), "Inherit the Wind" (1960), and John Wayne's elegiac final film, "The Shootist."
Morgan, who was born Harry Bratsberg and acted for a while under the name Henry Morgan, was small, but tough -- he played varsity football in high school -- and made a sort of Norwegian American counterpart to more darkly ethnic actors like Elia Kazan and John Garfield, who were his classmates and colleagues in the Stanislavski-inspired Group Theater. (He was funnier, too, than many actors schooled in "the method.") He made his Broadway debut with the Group in 1937, in its production of Clifford Odets' boxing drama “Golden Boy,” alongside Garfield, Kazan, Frances Farmer, Karl Malden and Lee J. Cobb.
The supporting actor in the movies, or the TV freelancer, becomes known for a range of roles without being identified with any one of them; in a television series, the part and the actor entwine in such a way that each writes the epitaph for the other. In both "Dragnet" and "MASH," Morgan stepped into a space vacated by other actors -- Joe Friday had worked with different partners through the years, on radio and the big and the small screen. Morgan's Col. Potter was the capable contrasting replacement for McLean Stevenson's whimsical Col. Henry Blake. But Morgan is the one I remember when I think of these series, not just because he came last -- indeed, "Dragnet" has reared its head more than once since his tenure there -- but because of the quiet power and deceptive weight with which he occupied his parts, and the focus that brought small moments alive. He could command your attention while still seeming quite ordinary; that was his particular magic.
-- Robert Lloyd
Photo: Harry Morgan in 1949, in the play "Red Light." Credit: Associated Press