Harry Morgan wasn't a star and didn't need to be. In "M-A-S-H," "Dragnet" and so many other TV shows and movies, the veteran character actor proved as indispensable as any marquee name.
Imagine "M-A-S-H" without the no-nonsense but fair Army Col. Sherman Potter, who knew how to traverse the line between military discipline and wartime humanity.
Here's Potter, on his first day as commander of a Korean War hospital camp, discovering the moonshine-making operation run by his brilliant but wayward surgeons and holding his fire: "Had a still in Guam in World War II. One night it blew up. That's how I got my Purple Heart."
Or go back to the 1960s version of "Dragnet" and Morgan's tour of duty as police Officer Bill Gannon, playing droll foil to laconic Jack Webb's Sgt. Joe Friday. Or consider Morgan's stalwart judge at the center of an intellectual clash in "Inherit the Wind," the dramatization of 1925's so-called Scopes Monkey Trial on evolution.
The 1960 film included tour de force performances by Fredric March, who raged as a version of William Jennings Bryan, and Spencer Tracy, a craftily impassioned take on Clarence Darrow. Morgan held his own as a smart, small-town jurist trying to balance political pressure with justice.
Morgan, who died Wednesday at age 96 at his Brentwood home after having pneumonia, was in the top ranks of actors who could take a small role, or a small scene, and bring it deftly alive. He added richness to any comedy or drama smart enough to call on him.
And that happened over and over, from gritty Westerns including 1943's "The Oxbow Incident" and 1952's "High Noon" to fluffy TV series "December Bride" and "The Love Boat."
Morgan, a Detroit native born in 1915, was studying pre-law at the University of Chicago when public speaking classes drew him to the stage. He worked with a little-theater group in Washington, D.C., followed by a two-year stint on Broadway in the original production of "Golden Boy," with Karl Malden and Lee J. Cobb.
Morgan began his television career in 1954 when the medium was young.
He was one of the "foundational pieces of the industry," said "M-A-S-H" star Mike Farrell, who tried to gain Morgan a lifetime achievement award from the Screen Actors Guild. Such honors routinely go to stars but also belong to Morgan and other character actors who provide "the grit and the substance and the context" for so many films and TV shows, Farrell said Wednesday.
"Harry has been that, par excellence, for many years," he said.
Veteran writer-producer Ken Levine, who worked on "M-A-S-H" early in his career, recalled Morgan as a complete pro who left him awestruck.
"He could read a scene once, have it completely memorized, and perform it perfectly take after take," Levine said on his blog. "And then compliment a callow 26-year-old writer who wrote it and couldn't believe the great Harry Morgan was even in the same room, much less reading his words."
Morgan, a quiet scene-stealer in his work, was also modest in life. Daughter-in-law Beth Morgan said he was "very humble about having such a successful career," which included an Emmy Award for "M-A-S-H."
He'd never boast about the famed actors whom he had worked with and befriended, including Henry Fonda and Gregory Peck, but, if prompted, would happily share memories, Farrell said.
And Morgan knew what counted in life, as he proved at a news conference held when "M-A-S-H" ended in 1983. He was asked if working with the show's cast had made him a better actor, and Farrell recalled Morgan's reply: "I don't know about that, but it's made me a better human being."