If you follow classic TV, you’ve probably already heard that Harry Morgan died on December 7th at the age of 96. Most of us know him for playing Col. Sherman T. Potter on M*A*S*H for 8 of the show’s 11-year run. He’s also known for playing Det. Joe Friday’s sidekick Bill Gannon on Dragnet before his MASH gig. Bill Gannon was slightly more normal than Joe Friday.
Although MASH is one of my favorite shows of all time, I’ve always been partial to the first three (i.e., pre-Potter) seasons, which featured Henry Blake and “Trapper” John. These were the funniest, and probably least realistic seasons of the show, but for my money, you can’t beat the likes of “The Incubator,” “Yankee Doodle Doctor,” or “The General Flipped at Dawn.”
Wait a minute. Harry Morgan was in that last episode I mentioned as Major General Bartford Hamilton Steele: a nut job with two stars on his helmet. Okay, maybe some of these earlier episodes were pretty realistic.
At one point, Gen. Steele reminds the troops at the MASH 4077 that the “M” stands for “mobile,” so he wants everyone to pick up and move five miles down the road for no reason. When he first meets Fr. Mulcahy, he finds himself at a loss for words for a short moment and then blurts out, “THERE ARE NO ATHEISTS IN FOXHOLES!” Before interrogating a black crewman, the general asks him to sing a number claiming that it’s “in his blood.” To demonstrate, Steele then gets up, starts singing “Mississippi Mud,” and dances out of the tent never to be heard from again.
Wacky, wacky stuff.
Col. Potter was not a nut job. He was regular army, but he understood that he ran a hospital full of draftees and not a platoon of green berets. He was tough but likeable, and he could be funny.
One of Col. Potter’s trademarks was coming up with colorful expressions that took the place of actually cursing. My favorite was “horse hockey.” In fact, this particular phrase helped my with a school project in the fifth grade.
I don’t remember why, but in Miss Wagner’s class, we had to come up with some product and then perform a live commercial in front of the class to pitch the product. I came up with an album called Horse Hockey, which contained a list of songs that all had the word “horse” in the title. The only song I can remember now was “I Left My Horse in San Francisco.” I also remember the album cover, which was an illustration of a hockey rink with a goal off in the distance and a pair of hooves somehow holding a hockey stick in the foreground.
Given this image, I’m not sure if I was aware what “horse hockey” really meant, and I wish I could remember my teacher’s expression upon seeing my commercial. I must have known, right? How could I not know?
Anyway, Col. Potter was definitely my favorite of the three major replacement characters. B.J. just wasn’t funny. He tried. He tried and tried. But he was not funny. Never. Charles was okay. I loved when he pulled a rubber chicken out of his tea pot and yelled into his tape recorded letter home, “Get me the hell out of here!” I also liked when Charles and Col. Potter were quarantined together in the colonel’s tent, and when the senior officer espouses the literary greatness of Zane Grey, Charles comments sarcastically that he’s “Tolstoy with spurs.”
But Col. Potter was the father figure that MASH needed, and he made his mark on us all. We should all have a toast of Fig Newtons and Scotch (“They’re great if you dunk ’em.”) in his honor. So long, Harry!