Remembrances
3:36 pm
Wed December 7, 2011

Harry Morgan, M*A*S*H's Col. Potter, Dies At 96

One of television's most beloved commanding officers died Wednesday. Harry Morgan, who played Col. Sherman Potter on M*A*S*H, brought an avuncular authority to a show about the absurdities and horrors of war. He was 96.

M*A*S*H, a sitcom about an Army medical unit during the Korean War, was one of the best satires on television. As doctors cracked wise, it was often Morgan's character who provided the moral outrage.

"Every month there's a new procedure we have to learn because somebody's come up with an even better way to mutilate the human body," Potter said in one episode. "Tell me this, captain, how the hell am I supposed to keep up with it? If they can invent better ways to kill each other, why can't they invent a way to end this stupid war?"

Potter was decent, sympathetic and embodied a kind of folksy middle-American sensibility.

"He just seemed and carried himself like the last reasonable man in the middle of craziness," said James Poniwozik, television critic for Time magazine.

In 1983, Morgan spoke at a press conference about ending a series so beloved that the last show drew a record 125 million viewers. He said someone had asked him if he thought M*A*S*H had made him a better actor.

"And I said I didn't know about that, but I know it's made me a better human being and there aren't many shows you can say that about," he said.

Morgan alluded to his long career as a character actor, performing on Broadway, in movies and on the TV show Dragnet before he got cast in M*A*S*H during its fourth season.

"I've done about a hundred movies plus and this is my eighth television series, and believe me in my experience there's never been a congregation of actors put together that would come within a mile of this bunch," he said, trying to hold back tears. "And I'm gonna miss them very much."

Jamie Farr, who played the cross-dressing company clerk, Cpl. Max Klinger, said that even in a cast filled with cutups, Morgan was infamous for being funny.

"He was terrible; he was absolutely the worst," Farr said, affectionately. "I wish you could see some of the outtakes; we had some great ones."

Farr said he spent most of Wednesday exchanging emails and phone calls with members of the cast. He said Mike Farrell, who played B.J. Hunnicutt, was a huge presence in Morgan's last days; he kept everyone updated from the hospice with emails. The last one he sent Wednesday said Morgan had died around 3 a.m., peacefully and in his sleep.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

LYNN NEARY, HOST:

One of television's most beloved commanding officers has died. Harry Morgan, who played Colonel Potter on "M*A*S*H," died today at the age of 96. As NPR's Neda Ulaby reports, Morgan brought an avuncular authority to a show about the absurdity and horror of war.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: "M*A*S*H" was funny, one of the best satires on television, about doctors cracking wise in an Army medical unit during the Korean War.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "M*A*S*H")

HARRY MORGAN: (as Colonel Potter) I always look forward to the fall when the new line of weapons comes out.

ULABY: It was often Harry Morgan as Colonel Potter who provided the moral outrage.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "M*A*S*H")

MORGAN: (as Colonel Potter) Every month, there's a new procedure we have to learn because somebody has come up with an even better way to mutilate the human body. Tell me this, captain, how the hell am I supposed to keep up with it?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (as character) I'm only the...

MORGAN: (as Colonel Potter) If they can invent better ways to kill each other, why can't they invent a way to end this stupid war?

ULABY: Colonel Potter was decent, sympathetic, and he embodied a kind of folksy Middle American sensibility. Take this moment when a higher officer is trying to strong-arm Potter into letting a talented, wounded marksman back into the field.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "M*A*S*H")

MORGAN: (as Colonel Potter) Chandler will be able to return to action a couple of days.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (as character) Good.

MORGAN: (as Colonel Potter) But it takes more than four sound legs to make a stallion run. It takes a sound heart and a sound mind.

JAMES PONIEWOZIK: It was one of those one-of-a-kind fits of character to actor to role, and they all served each other's needs.

ULABY: James Poniewozik is the television critic for TIME magazine.

PONIEWOZIK: He just seemed and carried himself like the last reasonable man in the middle of craziness.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

MORGAN: A couple of days ago, somebody asked me if I thought "M*A*S*H" had made me a better actor.

ULABY: In 1983, Harry Morgan spoke at a press conference about the ending of a series so beloved the last show drew a record 125 million viewers.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

MORGAN: And I said I didn't know about that, but I know it's made me a better human being, and there aren't many shows you can say that about.

ULABY: Morgan alluded to his long career as a character actor, playing on Broadway, movies and the TV show "Dragnet" before he got cast on "M*A*S*H" during its fourth season.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

MORGAN: I've done about 100 movies plus, and this is my eighth television series. And believe me, in my experience, there's never been a congregation of actors put together that would come within a mile of this bunch.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "M*A*S*H")

JAMIE FARR: (as Corporal Klinger) I was holding this paper that said: Klinger is hereby declared nuts. Signed, Colonel Potter.

ULABY: Jamie Farr played Corporal Klinger, the obnoxious cross-dressing company clerk. He had a ton of scenes with Harry Morgan, and he says even in a cast filled with cutups, Morgan was infamous for being funny.

FARR: Oh, he was terrible. He was absolutely the worst. I mean...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FARR: ...I wish you could see some of the outtakes. We had some great ones.

ULABY: Farr says he spent most of the day exchanging emails and phone calls with members of the cast. He says Mike Farrell, who played B.J. Hunnicutt, was a huge presence in Harry Morgan's last days. He kept everyone updated from the hospice with emails. The last one he sent today said Harry Morgan died today around 3 a.m. peacefully and in his sleep.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ULABY: Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.