Harry Morgan once told Alan Alda why the M*A*S*H set was more fun than Dragnet

Alda: "I don’t know how Harry survived in that situation."

Some fans of M*A*S*H swear by the first three seasons, citing them as the funniest. That's when we first met Hawkeye, Margaret, Radar, Mulcahy and Klinger, and the cast drew laughs and tension from early characters like Trapper John and Frank Burns. And heading up this merry crew was their commanding officer Lt. Col. Henry Blake, the capable doctor who proved to be the most laidback CO the camp ever encountered.

One of M*A*S*H's most often-cited dramatic moments is the death of Henry Blake in "Abyssinia Henry." Capturing the emotional impact of this tragic loss was so vital to M*A*S*H showrunners that they famously didn't tell the cast it was happening, so the cameras could catch an organic reaction, trusting the show's tremendously talented cast to be buried so deep in their characters that the news would stun them.

It did. And that meant it hit the audience just as hard at home, who watched the season finale in March and wondered what would come next when M*A*S*H returned in September.

The answer? Col. Sherman T. Potter, the new CO who arrived in the fourth season with his many Potterisms, bringing a new style of leadership for the camp.

In many ways, the appearance of Potter ushered in a new era of M*A*S*H, with stories that got a little more progressive and characters like Margaret Houlihan who transcended beyond her cartoonish role in earlier episodes. This more mature M*A*S*H would eventually become the favorite episodes for a different group of M*A*S*H fans, who got their laughs and drew in sharp breaths at new characters like Winchester and B.J.

But according to Alan Alda, who played Hawkeye Pierce in addition to writing and directing episodes of the show, the addition of Potter didn't just feed the show another new character to plug into its seesawing rhythm between comedy and drama. Harry Morgan, who portrayed Potter, turned out to be one of the most enjoyable people Alda said he'd ever worked with when he spoke to the Archive of American Television:

"Harry was one of the most — and continues to be, for me — one of the most enjoyable people I’ve ever worked with. He could make you laugh, and you wouldn’t be able to write down what he said that made you laugh. There was just something about the way he said ordinary things. He had a little twinkle in his eye and there was a little attitude he had behind everything he said. We were laying on the floor laughing all the time at him. It was amazing."

Alda said the pair became close behind the scenes (the whole cast did, and the surviving cast recently reunited to renew their close bond) and that Morgan even once revealed why he was better suited for the atmosphere on the set of M*A*S*H than the other show fans love him for, Dragnet.

On Dragnet, Morgan played Bill Gannon, partner to Jack Webb's Joe Friday, and Alda recounted with fondness for his M*A*S*H costar:

"He’s very reserved and courteous and hilariously funny. He told a funny story about the police show Dragnet. … So Harry who just loves to be impish would hold it down because Jack Webb was all business. He would get a show shot in half a day or something. He just shot them very fast. … So Harry made a joke at 9 o’clock in the morning one day, he said, and then at around 5 o’clock the same day, he made another joke and Jack Webb said, ‘Well if you’re going to keep fooling around like this!’ I mean, when you shoot those shows really fast. … I don’t know how Harry survived in that situation, because he was just bursting to be funny."

But just because Alda became good friends with Morgan doesn't mean he ever forgot about his first CO, who skewed the camp dynamic so differently than his successor. Alda said of McLean Stevenson, who famously played Henry Blake, that he also had them on the floor laughing all the time, saying it was just drastically different:

"McLean was like that, only McLean was different. McLean did comic routines that he would improvise that were hilarious and disjunctive, sort of insane. There was something, he like opened up a part of his head and strange stuff would come out, but you couldn’t help laughing. It was just really funny."

Ultimately, whether you loved Potter or Blake best, the first three seasons or the more seasoned writing, it seems clear from Alda's interview that both actors brought endless laughs behind the scenes as much as onscreen.

Alda said, "We laughed all the time. And those two guys made us all laugh. You know, one replaced the other, and it was interesting. They were completely different characters and different kinds of people as actors. They worked in a different way as actors.”

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AlF 2 months ago
Harry Morgan will always be one of my all-time favorites. That voice, and his confidence and self-assuredness. Helped make "The Shootist" one of the best movies ever also...
Connor 2 months ago
Sorry but after the 1st three seasons...Hearing BJ whine about his kid and Hawkeye being holier than thou got to be too much.......He pushed me waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa waaaaaaaa
Dave 2 months ago
The first three seasons aired while the Vietnam war was active. After that war ended in 1975, our country's attitude changed and I think the subsequent seasons of MASH reflect that. Henry Blake's death resonated deeply for many people my age who had worried about being the last causality of that war.
Oldfart1 2 months ago
I actually liked Potter more than Blake, even though I did like Henry. Potter was old school military, having actually started out as Infantry. But Potter could pull off practical jokes and have fun with guys like Hawkeye and Radar.
Sooner 2 months ago
MASH is really boring and worn out. Wish you would let it go to rest. It's on about another million channels, anyway.
garykevinware 2 months ago
Also, in the episode where Radar loses his hero worship of Hawkeye, after that, Radar is no longer an enjoyable character.
garykevinware 2 months ago
The first three seasons were definitely the best. Another measure of the decline of the show was, the more lipstick that 'Hot Lips' put on, the angrier she was, and the worse the show. At least with Frank Burns, she had a romantic foil, as opposed to the only twice seen Penobscott, not even played by the same actor each time.
BrittReid 2 months ago
Jack Webb had to be a stiff to work with.............
harlow1313 BrittReid 2 months ago
If only he had swung his arms when walking...
harlow1313 2 months ago
As the years of the show progressed, I found the writing to be more contrived and heavy handedly preachy. I consider the first three years to be best.

Another observation is that in the earlier years, many characters were funny in their behavior, but in later years, each main character was constantly zinging out one liners.
Wiseguy harlow1313 2 months ago
That's in the last five seasons. The best years were the middle three years, better characters, better writing and a little more serious. It's only when BJ grew a moustache that the writing (and series) went downhill.
laurarogers80 2 months ago
When Radar O' Reilly delivered that line, I bawled worse than a 2 year old. Even as an adult now knowing it's acting, I still bawl.
MichaelYost 2 months ago
Between Morgan and Blake I liked Potter best. Plus I liked Winchester over Burns and BJ over Trapper. I think the writing improved over the years as well
garykevinware MichaelYost 2 months ago
I disagree on all counts.
djw1120 garykevinware 2 months ago
I agree on all counts.
I think Potter made a better CO and BJ was definitely MUCH better than Burns.
At least Winchester knew medicine, which is more than can be said for Frank.
Connor MichaelYost 2 months ago
BJ over Trapper? so you loved the whining bout his wife and kid evvvvvvvvvvvery show
Adam 2 months ago
I am always hard-pressed to pick one character (or actor) over another. They all had different Dynamics. Sometimes, I DO wonder things like: how would BJ get along with Spearchucker, or Henry. How would Winchester and Burns get along?
djw1120 Adam 2 months ago
That one is easy.
Winchester would put Burns in his place so fast and so far down that Frank would never know what hit him (figuratively speaking of course).
As far as BJ and Spearchucker, I'm not too sure about that one.
I think they might get along pretty well.
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