Friday, April 10, 2015

The 100th Birthday of Harry Morgan

It was 100 years ago today that Harry Bratsberg, now better known by his stage name "Harry Morgan", was born. Many today might know Harry Morgan best as Colonel Sherman T. Potter in M*A*S*H while those a little older might know him best as Officer Bill Gannon on the Sixties incarnation of Dragnet, but he had a long career that spanned over sixty years and included appearances on Broadway, radio, film and television. Quite simply, Harry Morgan may have been one of the most successful character actors of all time.

Harry Morgan was born Harry Bratsberg on April 10 2015 in Detroit, Michigan. His given surname appears to have varied a bit in spelling. While he spelled it "Bratsberg", it was occasionally spelled "Bratsburg (as it was when he was registered at junior high)". He grew up in Muskegon, Michigan. He attended the University of Chicago and had planned to go into law until he discovered acting there. In 1937 he began acting under his given name as part of the Group Theatre in New York City.  He made his debut on Broadway in Golden Boy in 1937 under his given name, although his surname would be spelled "Bratsburg" throughout his Broadway career.  Over the next few years he appeared on Broadway several times, in such productions as The Gentle People (1939), Thunder Rock (1939), Night Music (1940), The Cream in the Well (1941), and The Night Before Christmas (1941).

It was in 1942 that Harry Bratsburg moved to California to pursue his acting career there. He was discovered by a talent agent in a production of William Saroyan's Hello Out There in Santa Barbara and signed to 20th Century Fox. He made his film debut in 1942 in To the Shores of Tripoli, in which he was billed "Henry Morgan", as he would be for nearly his first decade of acting in film and on radio. Unfortunately for Mr. Morgan, there was also a popular radio satirist named "Henry Morgan" (who coincidentally had been born only a little over a week before Harry Morgan, on March 31 1915). To avoid confusion, then, Mr. Morgan started being billed in the Fifties as "Harry Morgan".

It was not long after his film debut that Harry Morgan would see a good deal of success playing character roles in films. He played a major role in The Ox-Bow Incident (1943) as Art Croft. He played the farmer Klaas Bleecker who eventually refuses to pay his rent in Dragonwyck (1946).  What was perhaps one of the best, if not the best comedic role of his career was as a bemused police lieutenant in Holiday Affair (1949). Even as Harry Morgan began appearing on television regularly in the Fifties, his film career continued to prosper. He played  pianist Chummy MacGregor in The Glenn Miller Story (1954). Ketchum in The Far Country (1954), flight engineer Sgt. Bible in Strategic Air Command (1955), and Judge Mel Coffey  in Inherit the Wind (1960). While his career was increasingly in television later on, he still appeared in plenty of movies, including How the West Was Won (1962), Frankie and Johnny (1966), Support Your Local Sheriff! (1969), Patton (1970), Support Your Local Gunfighter (1971), The Apple Dumpling Gang (1975), Dragnet (1987), and Crosswalk (1999).

Of course, while Harry Morgan played many notable character parts on film, he is probably best known to audiences from his work in television. It not simply a case that he had a particularly long career in television with a large number of guest appearances on TV shows, but that he starred as a regular in multiple shows. Harry Morgan's first regular role on television was as next door neighbour Peter Porter on December Bride in 1954. Harry Morgan proved to be so popular as Peter that he was given his own show, Pete and Gladys, after December Bride went off the air. He played opposite Cara Williams as Gladys (who was often referred to on December Bride, but never seen).

Harry Morgan was one of the repertory of actors on the anthology show The Richard Boone Show during the 1963-1964 season and played the role of Seldom Jackson on the short lived series Kentucky Jones during the 1964-1965 season. Later in the Sixties he played one of his best known roles, that of Sgt. Friday's sidekick Office Bill Gannon on Dragnet. Harry Morgan would reprise his role as Bill Gannon in the 1987 comedy Dragnet (in which Bill was now a Police Captain) and the 1995 episode of The Simpsons "Mother Simpson". He was a regular on both The D.A. (playing  H.M. "Staff" Stafford) and Hec Ramsey (playing  Doc Amos B. Coogan) before he was cast as Colonel Sherman T. Potter on M*A*S*H in 1975.  He reprised his role as Sherman T. Potter in the short-lived sequel/spinof of M*A*S*H, AfterMASH. He later played the regular role of conman Leonard Blacke on Blacke's Magic and the recurring role of Professor Suter on 3rd Rock from the Sun.

Given the number of shows on which Harry Morgan had a regular or recurring role, it is hard to believe that he made a number of guest appearances on television throughout his career. He made his television debut in a guest appearance on The Amazing Mr. Malone  in 1951. He guest starred on several other shows though the years, including Alfred Hitchcock Presents; Have Gun - Will Travel; The Untouchables; Dr. Kildare; The Virginian; Night Gallery; Gunsmoke; The Love Boat; and Murder, She Wrote.

Of course, before Harry Morgan had a career on television, he had a career on radio. In 1947 he was the host of NBC's radio show Mystery in the Air. He appeared several times on This is Your FBI and the original radio version of Dragnet.

Harry Morgan was probably best known for characters with a dry sense of humour and a sharp wit, traits held in common by his most famous TV roles (Peter Porter, Officer Bill Gannon, and Colonel Sherman T. Potter). He had a marvellous gift for comedy, as can be seen in his appearance in Holiday Affair as the bewildered but amused police lieutenant. He also had a gift for playing strait laced, no nonsense authority figures. Colonel Potter may be the best known example of this sort of character, other examples being Judge Mel Coffey in Inherit the Wind, and mining company head Taylor Barton in Support Your Local Gunfighter.

Of course, Harry Morgan played more than acerbic and firm, yet ultimately kind hearted authority figures, and he was as adept at drama as he was at comedy. He played the somewhat rough and tumble cowhand Art Croft in The Ox-Bow Incident, and  quiet but nonetheless threatening bodyguard in The Big Clock (1951). He played George "Bugs"' Moran in an episode of The Untouchables, a role about as far from Peter Porter or Colonel Potter as one could get. Alongside Jack Webb he was one of the villains in the film noir Appointment with Danger. Although Mr. Morgan was best known for playing good natured characters with a dry wit, he was capable of playing vastly different characters and of playing them well.

Harry Morgan had an incredibly long career. His first credit on Broadway was in 1937 and his final credit on film was in 1999. He also had a very diverse career. He appeared on Broadway, on radio, in films, and on television. And while, like many character actors, Harry Morgan was best known for a specific type of character, he was capable of playing may other types of characters. Over his sixty plus year career Harry Morgan played everything from gangsters to doctors to military officers to sheriffs. Given his great talent, it was little wonder his career was so long and so varied.

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