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LYNN NEARY, HOST:

One of television's most beloved commanding officers has died. Harry Morgan, who played Colonel Potter on "M*A*S*H," died today at the age of 96. As NPR's Neda Ulaby reports, Morgan brought an avuncular authority to a show about the absurdity and horror of war.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: "M*A*S*H" was funny, one of the best satires on television, about doctors cracking wise in an Army medical unit during the Korean War.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "M*A*S*H")

HARRY MORGAN: (as Colonel Potter) I always look forward to the fall when the new line of weapons comes out.

ULABY: It was often Harry Morgan as Colonel Potter who provided the moral outrage.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "M*A*S*H")

MORGAN: (as Colonel Potter) Every month, there's a new procedure we have to learn because somebody has come up with an even better way to mutilate the human body. Tell me this, captain, how the hell am I supposed to keep up with it?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (as character) I'm only the...

MORGAN: (as Colonel Potter) If they can invent better ways to kill each other, why can't they invent a way to end this stupid war?

ULABY: Colonel Potter was decent, sympathetic, and he embodied a kind of folksy Middle American sensibility. Take this moment when a higher officer is trying to strong-arm Potter into letting a talented, wounded marksman back into the field.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "M*A*S*H")

MORGAN: (as Colonel Potter) Chandler will be able to return to action a couple of days.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (as character) Good.

MORGAN: (as Colonel Potter) But it takes more than four sound legs to make a stallion run. It takes a sound heart and a sound mind.

JAMES PONIEWOZIK: It was one of those one-of-a-kind fits of character to actor to role, and they all served each other's needs.

ULABY: James Poniewozik is the television critic for TIME magazine.

PONIEWOZIK: He just seemed and carried himself like the last reasonable man in the middle of craziness.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

MORGAN: A couple of days ago, somebody asked me if I thought "M*A*S*H" had made me a better actor.

ULABY: In 1983, Harry Morgan spoke at a press conference about the ending of a series so beloved the last show drew a record 125 million viewers.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

MORGAN: And I said I didn't know about that, but I know it's made me a better human being, and there aren't many shows you can say that about.

ULABY: Morgan alluded to his long career as a character actor, playing on Broadway, movies and the TV show "Dragnet" before he got cast on "M*A*S*H" during its fourth season.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

MORGAN: I've done about 100 movies plus, and this is my eighth television series. And believe me, in my experience, there's never been a congregation of actors put together that would come within a mile of this bunch.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "M*A*S*H")

JAMIE FARR: (as Corporal Klinger) I was holding this paper that said: Klinger is hereby declared nuts. Signed, Colonel Potter.

ULABY: Jamie Farr played Corporal Klinger, the obnoxious cross-dressing company clerk. He had a ton of scenes with Harry Morgan, and he says even in a cast filled with cutups, Morgan was infamous for being funny.

FARR: Oh, he was terrible. He was absolutely the worst. I mean...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FARR: ...I wish you could see some of the outtakes. We had some great ones.

ULABY: Farr says he spent most of the day exchanging emails and phone calls with members of the cast. He says Mike Farrell, who played B.J. Hunnicutt, was a huge presence in Harry Morgan's last days. He kept everyone updated from the hospice with emails. The last one he sent today said Harry Morgan died today around 3 a.m. peacefully and in his sleep.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ULABY: Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

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