Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Memorable M*A*S*H, Pt. 2

Harry Morgan, the actor best known for his role as Colonel Sherman T. Potter on M*A*S*H, has died at the incredible age of 96. As I did when Larry Gelbart left us, I'd like to take an entry to remember some of my favorite moments.

Counterintuitively, let's start with one of his last as his most famous character (last if you don't count AfterM*A*S*H, which nobody does). In the series finale, "Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen," Hawkeye and B.J. stop Col. Potter just before he leaves, and give him one of the only truly respectful salutes of the whole show (I think the only other ones were between Hawkeye and Radar).

Running back now to Morgan's first season with the show, we find "The Interview," one of the most special of very special episodes. When Morgan as Potter discusses the closeness he has come to feel with the men and women of M*A*S*H, and the pride he feels at being associated with them, well, that's not Morgan as Potter. That's Morgan as Morgan, giving his feelings not about the medical unit, but about the television show.

The affection that the rest of the cast felt for Morgan is evident many times throughout the series; one example is in the episode "Potter's Retirement" when Hawkeye, B.J. and Radar ask him not to do just that.

In his opening episode, "Change of Command," Potter/Morgan had first encounters with two characters the Col. would come to love like sons. First, Radar, who is sunning himself when Potter arrives in a jeep and honks the horn. Radar's first words to his new commanding officer? "Stick that horn in your ear!"

Then Klinger takes his first chance to "impress" the Col. with his lunacy. Unfortunately, it doesn't qo quite as he'd hoped:

Klinger: Colonel Potter, sir! Corporal Klinger. I'm section eight, head to toe. I'm wearing a Warner bra. I play with dolls. My last wish is to be buried in my mother's wedding gown. I'm nuts. I should be out.

Col. Potter: Horse-hockey.

Potter and his company clerk didn't get relaxed around each other until the episode "Dear Mildred," when Radar gives him a horse (that had been found wounded and nursed back to health) as an anniversary present. It's one of the more moving moments of the whole series, but they're careful to cut it when Potter walks behind the horse and slips on...something.

Maj. Frank Burns: That's disgusting!
Col. Sherman T. Potter: [With a big smile] Son, to me, that's a tip-toe through the tulips.

"Old Soldiers," I believe, is the episode for which Morgan won his Emmy. If it isn't it should be. This is the one in which Potter is called to the bedside of a sick friend, whose death leaves Sherman the only surviving member of their World War I unit, and in the end of the episode he toasts their memories with a bottle of wine that the group had saved since those days.

Incidentally, Morgan also directed more than half-a-dozen episodes of M*A*S*H, of which my favorite is "Blood Brothers," from 1981. In this episode Father Mulcahy lets himself get all too swellheaded about a visit from an important army cardinal. But as is the way of this show, the war brings him quickly back down to earth, and leads him to discuss his revelations about his own motivations in a parable which is at first thinly veiled, and then nakedly raw.

Even though his character (or at least, his character's rank) is in the title of "The Colonel's Horse," Morgan appears in maybe only a third of the episode, which is about the medical staff taking care of Sophie (the titular horse) while Potter is away. But he makes the most of the screen time he has, entering the changing room singing "Chinatown, My Chinatown" to celebrate the good fortune of his wife being able to join him in Tokyo, and in this dialogue with the two captains:

Captain B.J. Hunnicut: Can't you do something about Frank?
Col. Sherman T. Potter: Like sit him down and have a talk with him?
Capt. Benjamin Franklin "Hawkeye" Pierce: No, like stand him up and have him shot!
Col. Sherman T. Potter: Don't be absurd. There'd be an inquiry.

Finally, mentioning the oft-mentioned but seldom seen Mildred Potter reminds me of two episodes of M*A*S*H in which the Col. spends time with a couple of women within a decade of his own age for once.

In the one hour (two-parts in syndication) "That's Show Biz," Gwen Verdon as a stripper-turned USO performer makes it abundantly clear that she's taken a shine to him, but whether by design or naivete he manages to miss all her signals.

But in "Lil," Sherman spends so much time with the female Col. of the same name that Radar begins to fear for the Potters' marriage. He has little to worry about, in the end, but you will notice that "a little" is not the same as "nothing..."

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