This M*A*S*H episode quietly paid tribute to Harry Morgan's movie career
From carnival barking in 'State Fair' to hiding from Gary Cooper in 'High Noon'.
In the 1952 western High Noon, Gary Cooper plays a marshal ready to retire into quiet family life when an outlaw gang comes for revenge. A dashing hero, Cooper's character Will Kane refuses to run and aims instead to round up his own gang to settle the matter with a gunfight.
But Will Kane doesn't find a lot of volunteers in his town to step to his side for this fight. Perhaps the most cowardly among them is Sam Fuller, who hides in his house and instructs his wife to lie to Kane when Kane comes looking for him.
The character of Sam Fuller is played by Harry Morgan, who more than 20 years later would become Col. Sherman Potter on M*A*S*H.
Although his hair is dark brown and he's got a mustache that could rival B.J. Hunnicutt's, Morgan is unmistakable in this early role, his nostrils flaring after his wife fails to convince Will Kane that Sam Fuller isn't at home.
"Do you want to be a widow, is that what you want?" Fuller bellows at his wife, beads of sweat on his wimpy brow.
That's something you'd just never expect Potter to say to his beloved wife Mildred, but most TV fans of Harry Morgan were extremely familiar with the range of the veteran character actor.
After watching him star as a serious TV detective on Dragnet for years, hearing his silly Potterisms on M*A*S*H was a change of pace. (Potter even once told Alan Alda that he had more fun on the set of M*A*S*H in general.)
But while many fans of Alda's might be very familiar with his long movie career, not as many fans of Morgan's are likely as familiar with the elder actor's movies.
Perhaps that's why in an episode of M*A*S*H, writers paid tribute to Morgan's movies, dropping hints to viewers at home that there was more to see in this special actor's cinematography. In "The Moon Is Not Blue," one of Morgan's earliest movies was even partially screened for the 4077th.
In the 1945 film State Fair, Morgan played a carnival barker who suspects the movie's star is cheating at his ring-toss game after winning several rounds in a row.
The State Fair screening happened in the episode's final three minutes. And although Morgan's scene in the motion picture wasn't shown, guess who introduces the movie? Harry Morgan as Sherman Potter, of course.
"Fellow movie buffs," Potter began, "As we all know, our scheduled movie for tonight is State Fair." He then went on to announce a change in schedule, promising instead to air The Moon Is Blue, a movie Hawkeye spent the entire episode trying to get screened instead.
The joke arrived when, instead of Hawkeye's dicey movie of choice flickering on the screen in the tent, it was, in fact, the boisterous musical State Fair that they show. M*A*S*H nearly blatantly gave away its clever nod. We see the opening title card of State Fair, followed by the credits for the stars — Jeanne Crain, Dana Andrews, Dick Haymes and Vivian Blaine. One more second and the audience would have seen the subsequent cast, including "Henry Morgan." The scene ended with Hawkeye shaking a fist in mock frustration.
But this wasn't the only time in this episode that Morgan's early movie career was referenced. True fans caught another reference in an earlier scene when High Noon also got a nod.
This happened when Hawkeye and B.J. confronted the man in charge of choosing the movies to screen for the 4077th. The movie man insisted that he sends only the best movies to the medics, but then a general called with a special request. And what movie did the general want to see?
"High Noon?" the movie man repeated on the phone to the general. "Yessir! I've got a print of that. Saving it just for you!"
When Harry Morgan was cast in High Noon – which won four Oscars and got a Best Picture nom – they were picky about who they put in that movie.
You see, Carl Foreman, the screenwriter of High Noon, knew he needed a big star to make his movie sing, and casting Gary Cooper was not cheap.
Once Foreman paid Cooper $100,000 to appear, he only had $35,000 left in his budget to cast the rest of his movie and he knew he couldn't surround Cooper with just anyone.
He had to figure out how to get top-notch character actors like Harry Morgan to get involved for cheap, so he figured out that if he only hired the character actors for one week at a time, he could stay within his budget. That meant he also had to shoot all the scenes with those actors in that one week — so you could say High Noon had to deal with a time crunch both as its central plot and as its filming strategy!
For his role of Sam Fuller in High Noon, Morgan was only paid $1,000 – exactly 100 times less than the star, but hey, at least he got paid more per week than Lloyd Bridges, who took $800 a week to step in as High Noon's deputy marshal.
Morgan appeared in more than 100 movies in his six years as a cherished actor. In an interview with EmmyTVLegends.org, Morgan looked back at his time on High Noon saying, "That was a lot of fun. Wonderful picture."