Sherman T. Potter’s life was a fusion, a mix of two dreams: As a boy, he decided to become a surgeon when his Uncle Roy, a veterinarian, let his young nephew watch him operate on a mare. At the age of fifteen, Sherman joined the cavalry in time for World War I. He rose in rank, and the army sent him to medical school. After the 1953 cease-fire, he retired with his wife in Hannibal, Missouri.
The character was a great counterpoint to the horrors of war: Amputations, starvation, filth, disease, and endless blood. When the Colonel joined the cast, the series had already started the shift from a comedy set in a war zone to a half-comedy, half-melodramatic, thoughtful show. The gentle but volatile C.O. gradually became the anchor of the show.
I looked at some old MASH episodes after I read that Harry Morgan, the actor who originated the role of Sherman Potter, had died. I expected to find more stories focusing on Colonel Sherman T. Potter than I did. More subtly, the longer the character was part of the show, the more irreplaceable he became.
There were only a handful of “Colonel Potter” episodes, but the Colonel’s stamp was all over the show. As a regular-army doctor, in charge of the outfit, he helped Margaret Houlihan, steeped in military order and discipline, to relax; and the MASH unit almost certainly wouldn’t have gotten (or held onto) Major Winchester, their most talented surgeon, had Henry Blake still been in charge.
Change of Command
Colonel Sherman Potter replaces Henry Blake as the MASH unit’s permanent commander.
It was a mere two episodes since the unexpected departure and off-screen death of former C.O. Henry Blake. Much of what Harry Morgan did on-screen to establish the character of Sherman Potter so strongly was apparent in what he didn’t do—no reaction to Klinger’s dressing in ladies’ clothing (which was already getting somewhat embarrassing as a trope in the 70’s), little reaction to Burns’s temper tantrums. We learned that Potter was a career army doctor: serious about his work, very grounded and practical, willing to listen to his officers; and that he loved his wife very much. He also loved horses—he started in the army at the age of fifteen, in the cavalry.
Colonel Potter writes a letter to his wife on their wedding anniversary. Radar nurses a wounded horse back to health, with medical help from Hawkeye and BJ.
The four episodes following Colonel Potter’s introduction wouldn’t have been much different with Henry Blake still behind the C.O.’s desk, but not this one. In the letter—the framing device for the episode—Potter told her that he was aware of being the “new kid on the block” and needed to learn to fit in. While we hadn’t seen Potter’s temper just yet, in some ways this felt like the second half of “Change of Command”, which left me empty. When Radar presented his Colonel with a horse as a present, it feels like we knew the misty-eyed Colonel a little bit.
Over the next several episodes, we learned that the Colonel painted, and maybe we learned a little about Mrs. Potter. We also saw the grudging respect that Major Houlihan developed for Potter’s easy-going but punctuated command skills.
Clete Roberts, a real-life television correspondent during the actual Korean War, interviews the MASH personnel.
Filmed in black-and-white, this episode was probably the most important of season four in terms of changing the tone of the series.
The Colonel told his interviewer quite a bit: That he was well aware of his role as a father-figure; that he was a military man, but he hated war—particularly what he saw as “modern” war. (He mentioned the his cavalry days as a counterpoint, which he saw as having an element of glamour.) Also that he recognized the need to have a very light hand as a commander, particularly of a medical unit. He also talked politics with the interviewer: When he was asked about his heroes, he launched into a speech about personal responsibility and accountability.
In future stories, he would show an acute awareness of political realities in the Army, knowing generals on a first-name basis, often having a personal in with them. This sometimes crossed into the realm of being a little two-faced, but he somehow managed to make us okay with it all.
The themes of sentimentality and Sherman Potter’s fear of getting older would come up many times over the course of the series, but so would the character’s zest for life, his awareness that he’d lived a very special life. He was someone who’d accomplished much, but had much to look forward to when he returned home at the end of the war.
Harry Morgan created a memorable, beloved character in Sherman Potter, and made a huge mark on a television show that’s affected many people. War may have been hell, and he may have spent much of his life apart from the wife he loved so much, but he went through it all gracefully and with dignity.
Ceil Kessler contributed several helpful opinions that helped improve this essay.