I’ve probably seen more things that he’s done than the average person, and I still think of him as Colonel Potter. I’ve seen easily a couple dozen of his appearances—both movies and TV. He’s done Disney and John Ford, High Noon and Support Your Local Sheriff. Even his probably best-known roles, Colonel Potter and Bill Gannon, aren’t all that similar. Harry Morgan was a talented actor—and also, by all accounts, a pretty decent guy who fought against anti-Communism in Hollywood.
Being Colonel Potter was an enormous gamble. McLean Stevenson had been a loved character as Henry Blake; it’s not like taking over for the loathed Frank Burns. Even that came with risk; any change to a show risks sending the show into a spiral. What’s more, the cast of M*A*S*H was known for being close-knit. It’s not difficult to picture both the character and the actor getting perpetually stuck on the outside. Colonel Potter was always somewhat apart from the others—after all, you’re much more likely to think of Colonel Blake as Henry than Colonel Potter as Sherman. Fortunately, Morgan was warmly welcomed by the cast and counted Loretta Swit in particular as one of his closest friends.
He succeeded by showing qualities that are familiar in many of his other performances. The professionalism of Bill Gannon. The concern for others of Homer McCoy of The Apple Dumpling Gang. Okay, the hard drinking and smoking of Ulysses S. Grant. And so forth. You look over Morgan’s roles, you see a quality in him even if the roles themselves are different. He showed a gruff competence, often with a layer of compassion to it.
Though even he would admit that the roles weren’t all that different. He said he ended up playing a lot of sheriffs, because his friends would make sure he had enough work to keep him fed and housed. He was an extraordinarily busy man, but he kept busy for a lot of years doing just enough to keep him going in the industry. Apparently in those days, it took fewer short appearances to make a living—we’ll see how that goes with the strike resolved, I guess—and he’d plug along at them. He once said that acting was better than coal mining.
Colonel Potter always felt like he’d be a nice grandfather or something. Yes, an authority figure, but also a person who would show you kindness when you needed it and be as supportive as he could. Maybe a boss, but the kind of boss where you wouldn’t mind having lunch with them if you were in the break room at the right time. Henry Blake was one of the boys, but Colonel Potter was who they needed.