Harry Morgan - compassionate, charming and committed.
It almost seems strange to see him as a civilian. For years we have come to know him as the army colonel keeping Hawkeye and company in line on M[A[S[H or as the L.A.P.D. detective defending law and order on Dragnet. For more than 50 years, Harry Morgan has made a name for himself by portraying other people -- real or fictional. But Harry Morgan the man is very real and very charming.
Although Morgan is perhaps best known for his portrayal of M[A[S[H's Col. Sherman T. Potter or Dragnet's Officer Bill Gannon, these are only two of many, many characters he has played during his long and illustrious career. Now in his early 70s, Morgan is still active in the entertainment industry, but he now has the luxury to pick and choose among the various film, television and commercial offers he receives.
And Morgan is just as choosy about how he spends his private time. With a lifetime of accomplishment behind him and more leisure time to spend, Morgan recently decided to get involved with a worthy cause -- but not just any cause would do. He wanted to give his name and efforts to an organization that was helping people, and through which he could make a real contribution to bettering people's lives. The Arthritis Foundation fit just that bill.
Since 1988, Morgan has served in the Foundation's top honorary volunteer position, as National Celebrity Chairman. He accepted the position, he says, "because the Arthritis Foundation is a little closer to me than some of the other organizations. I have a little arthritis myself in my hip and in one foot, but I also have a number of friends who have had hip replacements because of arthritis, and they're getting around fine now. If my hip keeps getting worse, I may be asking for one of those replacements myself!"
Morgan says that seeing first-hand how the Arthritis Foundation helps people lead more active lives makes his work with the organization especially gratifying. "I can't think of any other program where more help is given to so many people," he says. "You're talking about 37 million people who have arthritis, and all of them benefit to some extent from the Arthritis Foundation's efforts. All the research and education they're doing -- it's a wonderful, wonderful program."
Morgan says that one of his more memorable experiences as National Celebrity Chairman occured during a photo shoot he did with 10-year-old Scott Warneke, who has juvenile rheumatoid arthritis. "He was such a sweet child," Morgan says. "The arthritis didn't seem to be getting him down, but the effort it took for him to maneuver and get around was exacting. When you think about all the children who are in that kind of pain, it will reduce you to tears. That's sort of the effect it had on me.
"My advice to people with arthritis would be to keep the faith. The Arthritis Foundation is doing as much as they can to correct this problem -- to alleviate the suffering. I notice and that is bound to have an effect. Try to keep the faith, and things will be better."
The making of a star
That same kind of faith played an important part in the early days of Morgan's career. Although he eventually reached the pinnacle of success in the acting profession when he was awarded an Emmy for his part as Col. Potter in M[A[S[H, his acting experience began rather inauspiciously in East Coast summer stock. Morgan's real introduction to show business came in New York in 1937, when he appeared on Broadway in the original production of Golden Boy. Although that show was very successful, Morgan also experienced the short runs and lean paychecks typical of many actors just starting out. He recalls at one time receiving $1,000 for three Broadway shows.
Once Morgan's career picked up steam, however, it was unstoppable. In the early '40s, he left Broadway and moved to California, where he was spotted by a 20th Century Fox talent scout and signed to a motion picture contract. He appeared in six films that first year alone, and has since gone on to make his mark in more than 50 movies, including High Noon, The Ox-Bow Incident, What Price Glory, The Glenn Miller Story, Inherit the Wind, Strategic Air Command, and the recent movie version of Dragnet.
Despite this impressive string of movie hits, however, it has perhaps been through his many roles on television that Harry Morgan has become best known and loved. His first television series was December Bride, which began in 1950 and ran for five years. Since then he has appeared in such programs as Pete and Gladys, Kentucky Jones, The Richard Boone Show, Hec Ramsey, and of course, Dragnet and M[A[S[H.
When asked to recall some of his favorite memories from this long and fabled career, Harry thinks first of the people. "I've worked with about everybody you can mention," he says. "Gary Cooper, Jimmy Stewart, Tyrone Power, Jimmy Cagney, Gregory Peck, Glen Ford, Brando -- I don't call him Marlon Brando, just Brando. They were all extremely pleasant to work with, and some of them became very good friends."
In recalling his favorite movies and programs, Morgan thinks back to the earlier days of his career. "I think my favorite show of all time was one called The Ox-Bow Incident, which I filmed in 1942. Hank Fonda got me that job. I think it's a classic -- probably the best all-time show I did, and I'm very proud to have been in it.
"Of all the television series I did -- 11 in all -- 1 suppose the first one was my favorite," Morgan says, referring to December Bride, in which he starred with Spring Byington. Nevertheless, the roles most people associate with Harry Morgan today are Col. Potter of M[A[S[H and Officer Gannon of Dragnet. So just how much of Harry Morgan was in those two characters?
"Well, a lot, I suppose," Morgan admits. "I don't think you get all that far away from yourself in playing anything, unless it's a terrible villain. Of course, I don't have any villainy in me at all -- or even bad moods," he jokingly adds.
"But I think probably Col. Potter is closer to the real me, because I had a free reign to do whatever I wanted to do with that character. When we did Dragnet, Jack Webb had that funny staccato style that both he and I used. We just sort of rattled the lines off, and that's a bit unnatural for an actor because if you've got a line, you want to read it with as much expression as possible -- that's the whole point of learning how to be an actor."
Always a family man
Despite the extremely busy acting schedule Morgan has kept most of his life, he has always prided himself on a very close and loving family life. Morgan has four sons and eight grandchildren, all of whom are very close to him. So how did he manage to keep his family first?
"We always lived in a kind of environment that was conducive to a nice, full family life," he says. "We had about four acres with corrals and chickens. We never got a horse -- the kids were too young -- but it was a wonderful atmosphere in which to bring them up.
"Even though actors were working six-day weeks in the earlier years, there was still a lot of free time between projects," he continues. "Usually when you were under contract with a studio, it was for only 40 weeks, and even that didn't mean would definitely be working 40 weeks.
"I think the only times being in the business really interfered with the full family life was when I was on location. But that's one of the memorable things about having this kind of career, too, because I've worked in Russia, Italy, Japan, Canada and all over the United States. During those times, of course, the weight of raising our family was on my wife, and with four boys, that was not the easiest of situations for her. After the kids were grown, she was able to go with me on location, so that was nice."
Only one of Morgan's sons is following his dad's footsteps into the motion picture business -- and his role is behind-the-scenes as a producer. The other three are all attorneys, a career Morgan once considered for himself. Did Morgan ever encourage his children to go into his line of work? "No," he says emphatically. "In fact, I would discourage anybody from getting into this business. It's a rough business."
Undoubtedly, Morgan is happy to have reached the point in his career where he is no longer at the whim of this "rough business." While he's definitely still open to future acting projects -- and a few are in the works -- he's putting a greater emphasis on his family and favorite hobbies.
"My wife and I recently joined a beach club so we can go swimming," he says, "and we like to walk. We live above a canyon, so we usually drive down to a flatter area and walk through some of the neighborhoods. I also like to read, especially about the Civil War, and listen to music."
Looking back over Morgan's long and prolific career, almost anyone would have to agree that he has earned his leisure time -- that he deserves to be able to choose those projects he wants to work on and those activities he wants to be involved with. The Arthritis Foundation considers itself lucky to be among the chosen few.
PHOTO : Filming public service announcements is only one of the ways Harry Morgan is reaching out
PHOTO : to people with arthritis.
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|Title Annotation:||chairman, Arthritis Foundation|
|Author:||McDaniel, Cindy T.|
|Date:||May 1, 1989|
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