Harry Morgan, the character actor whose career spanned from being a contract player at Twentieth century Fox in the 1940s to his iconic role as Col. Sherman Potter on the television series M*A*S*H, has died this morning at his home in Los Angeles. He had been recently treated for pneumonia. He was 96.
Morgan, born Harry Bratsburg in Detroit to Norwegian immigrants, abandoned pre-law studies for acting after debate classes lead to an interest in theater. He made his Broadway debut in 1937 in the original production of Golden Boy, which starred Luther Adler, and featured Karl Malden and Lee J. Cobb in the cast.
In 1942, following a movie to California, Morgan was signed to a contract with Twentieth century Fox. One his first big roles came just a year later when he played a drifter who becomes embroiled in a town’s mania to lynch some horse thieves in the classic western The Ox-Bow Incident. He would spend a majority of the next decade usually playing a heavy in westerns and film noirs such as The Big Clock , Moonrise (both 1948), Yellow Sky, Red Light (both 1949) and the classic High Noon (1952). He also appreaded in other, non-genre roles in films like Dragonwyck (1946) and The Teahouse Of The August Moon (1956). His work as the genial piano player — in 1953’s The Glenn Miller Story, showcased a lighter side of the actor, which lead to a wider range of roles he was offered. (Ironically, Morgan appeared with Miller in one of the two feature films that the big band leader made for Fox – 1942’s Orchestra Wives.)
By the mid-1959s, Morgan was splitting his career between film and television work. He had a co-starring role on the series December Bride and was spun off onto his series Pete And Gladys. He also starred on Kentucky Jones before being cast as Jack Webb’s partner in the television series Dragnet, which ran from 1967 to 1970. Morgan would reprise his role of Bill Gannon for the 1987 Dragnet film which featured Dan Aykroyd as the original Joe Friday’s straight-laced nephew partnered with Tom Hanks’ fun-loving detective Pep Streebek.
Morgan would also reprise his M*A*S*H character of Colonel Potter for the short-lived AfterMASH.