Editorial License

Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

The Command of Col. Sherman Potter

Some time during my career as a junior high school student, I discovered “M*A*S*H”.

My parents tuned in to CBS just about every Tuesday night at 9 o’clock to watch this half-hour situation comedy, which featured the doctors, nurses and other attendant personnel of a Mobile Army Surgical Unit located in Korea during the Korean War of the late 1950s. I don’t recall the exact way they got me to join them, but once I was in, I was in for good. The first thing that struck me was how funny the program was, and the next thing that struck me was how serious the message of each episode could be. And somewhere behind my conscious brain, I wondered how that balancing act could be accomplished.

Didn’t take long to figure out that one major factor was the design of each character and their interactions, and the individual and joint performances of the actors who portrayed them. Oh, and the writing, I suppose.

Hawkeye Pierce, as portrayed by Alan Alda, could veer wildly back and forth between between channeling the anarchy of Groucho Marx, and unleashing genuinely passionate rants about at the fact that nations fought stupid wars and forced him to patch up damaged soldiers so that they could return to that fighting – or at any large or small examples of unfairness in the world. (Something of a capsule summary of the whole show.)

Mike Farrell’s B.J. Hunnicutt character was a devoted family man who was also capable of gleefully participating in elaborate practical jokes. Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan, as deftly performed by Loretta Swit, was a taskmaster of a head nurse who was not above various forms of tomfoolery – and could be equally demanding and defensive of the nurses she supervised. Jamie Farr’s performance as Corporal Maxwell Klinger took a character whose one-joke existence was his desperate (and cross-dressing) bids to be dismissed from the Army, and turned him into a man who was devoted and fiercely loyal to the Army personnel with whom he served. And as Father Mulcahy, the 4077th’s chaplain, once said (through the marvelous execution of William Christopher), “I believe people are essentially good, but sometimes you have to put them in a half-nelson before they cough up.”


I arrived at “M*A*S*H” at about the moment in the series when the pompous Brahmin-born Major Charles Emerson Winchester III did. (And eventually, through the wonderful work of the completely not-blue-blooded David Ogden Stiers, Maj. Winchester was revealed to be hardly as one-dimensional as Major Frank Burns, the cartoonish character he supplanted!)

According to the timeline of the series, this was not that long after the 4077th M*A*S*H unit had undergone a change of commanding officer. McLean Stevenson had departed from the series. His Col. Henry Blake character had received an honorable discharge from the Army, but never made it home, as his plane was shot down not long after departing Korea (off-screen, as heartbreakingly reported to the operating room cast by Gary Burghoff’s company clerk character, Radar O’Reilly). The series had set the stage for challenging tasks for both its new commanding officer and the man who would portray him.

It didn’t take long for Col. Sherman T. Potter to be established as a very different commander than Blake. Where Blake was eccentric, scattered and not at all convinced that he wanted to be in command of anything connected to the Korean War, Potter was a career Army officer, described as “tough, yet good-humored and caring — a father figure to the people under his command.”

Harry Morgan was the actor tasked with bringing Potter to life. He did so in Emmy Award-winning fashion. He and the “M*A*S*H” writers created a commander and administrator that most of us, I suspect, would be only too happy to serve under, or work for.  Potter was willing to deliver a figurative kick in the ass when his men and women needed a reminder of what was expected of them, or when they needed that sort of motivation; but he was also happy to treat his charges kindly, recognizing that they were your standard fragile human beings. Potter was a gruff Army man who was equally able to display his own fragility in front of his comrades.


The writers gave Col. Potter some very, very funny things to say; and Morgan delivered them with dead-on, mostly deadpan comic timing:

It’s 3 in the ‘blessed’ a.m.! Even roosters are comatose!”

Just once I’d like Supply to get here ahead of Demand.”

You blow another kiss, Pierce, and those lips will never walk again.”

Pierce, are you deef? I’m giving your hijinks the heave-ho, post-haste! I’m the boss here! I can do that!”

[about Hawkeye and B.J.] “Please excuse these two, they’re themselves today.”

You have to give Winchester credit. He is bright, educated, and an A-1 surgeon, and with all that he still found a room to be a total jerk.”

I’ve got a soft spot for Klinger. He looks a little like my son, and he dresses a lot like my wife.”

The next person who’s nice to me is going to die with boots on. Mine!”

Never insult seven men when all you have is a six shooter.”

Well, official channels could take forever. I remember when I applied for permission to get married. By the time the papers came through, my son was divorced.”

I’m a little gun shy of any tradition that hasn’t been done before.”

The General answers his own phone. Must be a Unitarian.”

[singing] “Friendships in the army, they say are mighty rare. So I spend all my free time carousing with my mare.”

And an ever-expanding repertoire of creative cusses.


And then the writers would give Harry Morgan lines of dialogue that would help define M*A*S*H as perhaps the best thing television has ever produced:

You know, sometimes I think there should be a rule of war saying you have to see someone up close and get to know ’em before it’s ok to shoot ’em.”

Listen, when you love somebody, you’re always in trouble. There’s only two things you can do about it: either stop loving ’em, or love ’em a whole lot more.”

Well, boys, it would be hard to call what we’ve been through fun, but I’m sure glad we went through it together. You boys always managed to give me a good laugh right when I needed it most. Never forget the time you dropped Winchester’s drawers in the O.R. ‘Course I had to pretend I was mad at ya, but inside I was laughing to beat all hell.”

And this, which was perhaps the point of the whole project.

Harry Morgan passed away earlier this week, at the age of 96. The articles that were written about him and his career detailed a man who may have been, as they say, the hardest-working man in show business; except that he would never have told you so. He never sat as a guest on a talk show, ever, as he didn’t feel comfortable with the idea that his whole purpose on such a broadcast would have been to talk on and on about himself. The posthumous tributes from his former show-business colleagues were of the number and sincerity that any of us would dearly love to receive when we go.

Mike Farrell’s statement to the press said that Morgan “was a wonderful man, a fabulous actor and a dear and close friend since the first day we worked together. As Alan [Alda] said, ‘He did not have an unadorable bone in his body.’  He was a treasure as a person, an imp at times, and always a true professional. He had worked with the greats and never saw himself as one of them. But he was. He was the rock everyone depended on and yet he could cut up like a kid when the situation warranted it. He was the apotheosis, the finest example of what people call a ‘character actor.’ What he brought to the work made everyone better. He made those who are thought of as ‘stars’ shine even more brightly. The love and admiration we all felt for him were returned tenfold in many, many ways. And the greatest and most selfless tribute to the experience we enjoyed was paid by Harry at the press conference when our show ended. He remarked that someone had asked him if working on “M*A*S*H” had made him a better actor. He responded by saying, ‘I don’t know about that, but it made me a better human being.'”

The genius of “M*A*S*H” was that it took the awfulness of war, and the situation of humans living in desperate conditions, trying to repair the physical and emotional damage inflicted by humans upon other humans, and utilized it as both the setting of and the inspiration for a weekly comedy that then (under the radar, pardon the pun) regularly made serious and establishment-challenging commentary upon it all. And even amidst a cast of stellar on-screen performers playing passionate and outlandish characters, Harry Morgan stood out as a leader – both as the character he played and the professional he reportedly was.

Occasionally TV critics and others have poked fun at the frequency of “M*A*S*H” reruns. But this week, it’s great to think that Harry Morgan’s work still continues to be available for new generations of Americans to discover.


December 9, 2011 Posted by | entertainment, humor, media, Starred Thoughts, television, writing | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments