Like most Australians in the 1970s, my family were addicted to MASH, the witty and acerbic television show about life in a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital during the Korean War. Every night at 7pm we would eat our dinner in front of the telly watching the antics of Hawkeye, Klinger, Hot Lips Houlihan, Frank Burns, Radar and others at the 4077th. I am sure it never occurred to me that the program gave substance to a real event. What did I know or care about the Korean War?
When the lovable commander of the camp, Colonel Henry Blake died, I was devastated. I cried during that episode and bitterly resented the new guy who was cast to replace him. I didn’t like the curmudgeonly Colonel Sherman T Potter and I suspect I wasn’t the only one. He was – dare I say it – old! He didn’t seem to fit the pace of the show in my nine year old mind. Morgan was quoted as saying of himself
Progressively though, as his character developed and settled into the show ‘Sherm’ became one of my favourite characters. He had a twinkle in his eye and a cheeky grin, he loved his horse and when he lost his temper it made me laugh. His character certainly struck a chord with the audience. Morgan won an Emmy in 1980 for his portrayal of Potter. When the final episode of MASH aired in 1983 it is reputed to have been one of the most watched shows in US television history. The death of Harry Morgan at the grand age of 96 is a great loss to the film and television world and MASH lovers everywhere.
We have a number of toys in the Powerhouse Museum collection that were made under licence in 1978 to the MASH television show. They feature a picture of the cast, including Colonel Potter, on the packaging and probably date to Season 6 of the television show. These toys are part of a much larger group that were assembled by a private collector, who was quite particular in what he acquired. He only collected toy vehicles and robots licensed from television, film, comics books and so on. He never opened the packaging and did not play with the toys, so when they came to the Museum’s collection they were still in mint condition.
Merchandising associated with successful television shows was not a new phenomenon. As early as the 1960s toy companies recognised the marketing opportunity of linking with popular tv programs. An ubiquitous product with a label linking it to a particular show could sell for more money than one without. This phenomenon really exploded in the 1980s with the boom in mass production and the increased use of plastic in toy construction. For popular culture junkies of a certain age, *cough*, these old style toys are a way of remembering the favourite programs of their youth.
But I digress. For people of my generation their first exposure to Harry Morgan was through Sherman T Potter and MASH. For my parents’ generation and older he was much more widely known for his roles in westerns, war and gangster films from the 1940s onwards and was a constant presence on American television from the 1950s. His career didn’t end with MASH. For the next two decades Morgan continued to be active in film and television. Harry Morgan had a long and varied career. For me though, he will always be Colonel Sherman T Potter and will live on in MASH reruns in perpetuity.
Rebecca Bower, Curator