Tuesday, April 10, 2007

“M*A*S*H,” Murder, and Morgan

I failed to make note of what would’ve been actor-producer Jack Webb’s 87th birthday, on April 2. But I’ll not miss commemorating his Dragnet co-star, Harry Morgan’s 92nd birthday today.

Morgan (born Henry Bratsburg in Detroit, Michigan, in 1915) is probably associated by anyone under 30 years of age with the long-running medical comedy M*A*S*H, on which he played stern but warm-hearted Colonel Sherman T. Potter. However, Morgan’s creds in the crime fiction department are long-standing. In 1947, he hosted the NBC radio series Mystery in the Air. Fourteen years later, he began appearing in Dragnet episodes, playing Officer Bill Gannon--a gig that became regular when he signed on as Webb’s partner in a revival of the series, Dragnet 1967 (1967-1970). A piece on the Norwegian American Hall of Fame Web site (Morgan’s father was Norwegian) highlights his contribution to that show:
Few reprisals succeed. This one did, and the casting of Morgan as Officer Bill Gannon might be a significant reason for that. The light-hearted interplay between Morgan, as Gannon, and Jack Webb, as Sgt. Joe Friday, was priceless. Gannon was constantly advising and lecturing Friday. “I’m telling you, Joe ...” he would begin, and a nonplused Friday would listen, then utter a noncommittal response such as “Is that so?” In the final season, Gannon made frequent references to boning up for the sergeant’s exam and, in the end, got his promotion; Friday, who spoken [sic] nary a word about studying for the lieutenant’s exam, was promoted at the same time.
In 1971, Morgan co-starred with British actor (and Kennedy relative) Peter Lawford in Ellery Queen: Don’t Look Behind You, an NBC-TV movie adaptation of the 1949 Ellery Queen novel, Cat of Many Tails. Lawford, of course played Ellery, though his interpretation was a bit odd, at best. The Harvard-educated crime novelist became, in Lawford’s hands, some sort of British hipster, while Morgan served as his uncle, New York Police Inspector Richard Queen. (In the books, Inspector Queen had been Ellery’s father, but that wouldn’t have made much sense here, since Morgan had no British accent, and probably didn’t wish to affect one.) This teleflick’s original script came from William Link and Richard Levinson, the pair who created Mannix, Columbo, Tenafly, and other well-regarded mystery series of that time. But the finished product was mediocre, with Lawford an unconvincing Ellery. Link and Levinson disagreed so greatly with the changes made to their script, that they were jointly billed simply, and pseudonymously, as “Ted Leighton.” In the end, NBC passed on the Lawford/Morgan series. (However, Link and Levinson, both lifelong Queen fans, got another shot at bringing their bookish hero to the small screen in 1975, with the NBC series Ellery Queen, starring Jim Hutton and David Wayne. It lasted one year.)

Morgan went on to co-star with Robert Conrad in The D.A., a half-hour legal drama described in Wikipedia rather succinctly:
The D.A. starred Robert Conrad as Deputy District Attorney Paul Ryan, a tough-minded, hard-hitting prosecutor who conducted his own investigations, assisted by Bob Ramirez (Ned Romero). He then prosecuted the case, under the watchful eye of his supervisor, Chief Deputy District Attorney “Staff” Stafford (Harry Morgan). His opponent was usually Public Defender Katherine Benson (Julie Cobb). During the courtroom segments, Ryan also provided a voice-over narration, which brought the audience in on legal jargon and court procedures and allowed there to be less exposition in the dialogue, which was necessary due to the program's length. This program, however, is probably less known for its own storylines than for the fact that it was canceled at midseason in order to make way for one of the 1970s biggest comedy hits, Sanford and Son.
Just a year later, in 1972, Morgan returned to television in another Mystery Movie segment, Hec Ramsey. It starred Richard Boone (formerly of Have Gun--Will Travel) as an aging former Wild West gunfighter who, as the 19th century becomes the 20th, assumes the job of deputy sheriff in an ambitious Oklahoma town and tries to employ newfangled forensic techniques to solve crimes. Morgan co-starred as the dusty burg’s unflappable doctor, Amos Coogan, who befriends Ramsey and provides him with medical expertise. The series, which was executive-produced by Morgan’s old Dragnet cohort, Jack Webb, showcased Boone well as a crusty, cussing, and altogether short-tempered lawman trying to turn over a new leaf, and it was an excellent complement to Columbo, McMillan & Wife, and Dennis Weaver’s McCloud. Unfortunately, Hec Ramsey was canceled after just a couple of years.

Over the next decade and a half, Harry Morgan split his acting commitments between small- and large-screen roles. He appeared in several episodes of Gunsmoke, played a Nevada marshal in John Wayne’s last movie, The Shootist (1976), and appeared in a pair of teleflicks based on the popular 1965-1969 TV series The Wild Wild West (which put him back together with Robert Conrad). He then spent eight years on M*A*S*H (winning an Emmy Award in 1980 for his brilliantly controlled but heartfelt performances), before signing on with yet another NBC mystery series, this one titled Blacke’s Magic. I remember liking that 1986 series (another Link and Levinson creation), though not so much as I had enjoyed an earlier show concocted of crime-solving and legerdemain, Bill Bixby’s The Magician. Undoubtedly, the best thing about Blacke’s Magic was its two leads: Hal Linden (previously of Barney Miller), who played a renowned American magician, Alexander Blacke; and Morgan as Blacke’s dad, Leonard, an unreconstructed con man whose, er, unique skills and mastery of disguises, combined with his son’s sleight of hand--and more than a soupçon of logic--made them a formidable and frequently funny duo when it came to solving impossible robberies, explaining incredible phenomena, and helping people in deep trouble.

Morgan went on to guest star on Murder, She Wrote and 3rd Rock from the Sun, and to revive his role as Los Angeles cop Bill Gannon (now promoted to captain) in the horrendous, 1987 big-screen adaptation of Dragnet. (He also voiced his Gannon character on an episode of The Simpsons.) But he made a final, worthy contribution to the field of televised mysteries during the early 1990s, when he was pushing 80 years old, working beside Walter Matthau in a trio of made-for-TV courtroom dramas (The Incident, Against Her Will: An Incident in Baltimore, and Incident in a Small Town), portraying a World War II-era judge to Matthau’s small-town lawyer. These productions weren’t great fare, but they were certainly worth watching, especially for Matthau’s performances.

So, on this, his 92nd birthday, let us all raise our glasses to Harry Morgan for a career that has brought both mirth and mystery into our lives. And what more appropriate musical accompaniment could there be for the occasion, than this clip?

READ MORE:Webb of Suspicion,” by Ivan G. Shreve Jr. (Thrilling Days of Yesteryear).

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