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Harry Morgan and the "Real" cast

Harry Morgan has died at the age of 96, one of the most recognizable and hard-working character actors in TV (with a busy movie career as well). Here’s his interview at the Archive of American Television.

Morgan was probably best remembered for two TV series that he joined in mid-run. With Dragnet, he became Joe Friday’s sidekick for the late ’60s colour revival, and with M*A*S*H, he was selected to be the new commanding officer of the unit. (Today he probably wouldn’t be eligible to become a regular: he was chosen because of his great performance in a guest role as one of the many crazy officers Hawkeye and Trapper encountered, but on most shows today that would disqualify him from coming back in a different part – certainly from coming back the very next year.) He made such a strong impression on both shows that people who encountered his episodes often think of him first, before the guys who were there before him. This is especially impressive on M*A*S*H because the early episodes went into syndication a few years after he started on the show, and he had to replace a very popular character who was taken off the show in the most spectacular and memorable way possible. Yet hardly anyone thinks of him as an interloper on the show, even the people who strongly prefer the first three seasons – he’s exempted from criticism, because he’s so much fun to see. Of course it helps that Larry Gelbart and Gene Reynolds gave him a stronger character to play than their other substitute (B.J.), but a lot of the strength of that character came from the personality of the actor who played him.

I sometimes feel like our perception of a television show, especially one that changes cast members over the years, can be different depending on when we start watching. (Not so much if we all start watching from the beginning, but most people don’t watch a TV series that way, even one with a very complicated mythology.) Depending on when you started watching M*A*S*H, or which season’s episodes you encountered first in syndication, the “real” cast of the show might be the original, or it might be the replacement cast. I started watching in the Potter/B.J. years, so finding that Hawkeye used to have a different sidekick and boss took some adjusting. The early episodes seemed fine, there was just an adjustment to be made, less comfort to be found. The same adjustment viewers had to make when the new characters showed up in 1975, except in reverse, as it were. I suppose that applies to a lot of shows – Buffy the Vampire Slayer is always an example I use, since one’s perception of the show, or what it does best, often depends on when you started watching it (or at least when you thought it got good). But it probably helps that some actors are so comfortable to watch that you feel you’ve been watching them in those parts forever; you can watch Morgan on Dragnet and M*A*S*H and feel like you’ve been watching him all your life.

Even when he’s miscast, like as a George Burns/Desi Arnaz type of put-upon sitcom husband in Pete & Gladys, he’s still fun to watch.