Walter Mencken 6:15 p.m., Feb. 28
Though they look nothing alike, it remained a major point of childhood consternation. Did Harry Morgan lend Cara Williams henpecked-support as Pete Porter on Pete and Gladys, or was that Henry Morgan, the droll, chain-smoking jokester who frequently sat with chin perched atop fist on the panel of I’ve Got a Secret?
Harry Morgan (L), Henry Morgan (R).
Adding to the bewilderment was that fact that for the first fifteen years of his career, Harry Morgan was billed as “Henry.” In order to avoid further confusion with the popular comic, Morgan eventually changed his screen name to Henry “Harry” Morgan and eventually Harry Morgan.
Long before Harry Morgan began accumulating Emmys for his role on MASH, a show I continue to channel-surf past, the distinction between the two men had been made clear, thanks in large part to Officer Bill Gannon, Jack Webb’s stolid “Man Friday” on Dragnet 1967-70, inclusive. There is a dash of surrealism to be found in the clipped, hypnotic manner in which director Webb cuts on every period, frequently reducing the dialog exchanges to somnambulistic back-and-forths.
Harry Bratsberg, born in Detroit, Michigan on April 10, 1915, wasn’t always the cuddly (but crusty) voice of moral rectitude the boob tube eventually type cast his as. After enjoying years of his television performances, the first time Morgan appeared to me on a movie screen was on horseback! It was a sixth-grade, 16mm presentation of The Ox-Bow Incident exclusively for members of the Daniel Boone Elementary School’s Boone Booster Club. Morgan appears in the small, but crucial role of a drifter caught up in a small town's lynch-mob mentality. It wasn’t more than five seconds after Morgan hit the screen before a prankster in the back of the auditorium let loose with a Dragnet-style, “DUM-DEE-DUM-DUM!”
Dane Clark and Harry Morgan in Frank Borzage's Moonrise.
If asked to single out a cherished Morgan role, I’d have to go with Billy Scripture (a precursor to To Kill a Mockingbird’s Boo Radley and The Last Picture Show’s Billy) in Frank Borzage’s miraculous Moonrise. Morgan plays Scripture, a harmless, but slightly addled mute, who becomes the object of Dane Clark’s delusional paranoia. The film, memorable for cinema's only psychological chase scene on a Ferris wheel, shows Morgan at his supporting best, adding just the right combination of menace and sympathy to make the small role a standout.
Harry Morgan died on Wednesday morning at his home in Los Angeles. He was 96. Just the facts: Morgan was a versatile and prolific character actor who had a great run. He will be missed.
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