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.”