Word reached us yesterday of the death of Harry Bratsburg, a pre-law student who got into acting and arrived on Broadway, appearing in several shows in the late 1930's and early 1940's. Eventually making his way to Hollywood, he became a very popular character actor, eventually appearing in over 100 movies and several more well known television series. He was most well known as his roles as military officers and cowboys, such as his portrayal of General Grant in How the West was Won, Sam Fuller in High Noon, Homer McCoy in The Apple Dumpling Gang, and Major General Bartford Hamilton Steele in the M*A*S*H episode The General Flipped at Dawn.
But mostly he was known as first Henry, and later Harry Morgan, the actor behind Officer Bill Gannon in Dragnet, and the lovable but firm Colonel Sherman T Potter in M*A*S*H.
It is in the latter role that I remember him most.
M*A*S*H was a staple in my household from the earliest days of my childhood. I would often see my parents watching it, and in time, I watched it as well. I watched very little TV, but there was nary an evening that I would miss MASH in its syndication run, while catching the new broadcast a couple of days after I videotaped it.
The show was an amazing mix of humor and drama and meaning, filled with people who were made stars by their presence in the show... and Harry Morgan was a bona-fide star strolling into the middle of their midst. But even from his earliest episodes, he was able to bring the complexity of the character into a series that was deliberately complex. From his earliest scenes he taught us lessons, about how sometimes you had to be firm, and other times you had to be lenient. About how attention to detail was important. About how sometimes you had to take chances, and other times you had to err on the side of caution.
As I grew into an adult, I learned more and more from the same shows I had seen when I was younger. I understood them more and more. And while I would laugh at Hawkeye and Trapper's antics... cry when Henry and Radar went home... cringe at Burns' military discipline... it was Potter who became my role model. A man who knew his duty to his country and his comrades, but who would not let friendship stand in the way of doing what was right. A man who was "regular Army", but who knew how to bend the rulebook when necessary. A man of wit and wisdom. A man who lead by example, and earned respect - not just demanded it.
Sherman taught me a lot. And I will not forget him, nor the actor who brought him to life.