Wednesday, December 07, 2011

R.I.P. Harry Morgan

Officer Bill Gannon has finally retired. Others around the web will write about Col. Sherman T. Potter, but I choose to pay homage to Mr. Morgan's second-best remembered role.

I interviewed Mr. Morgan in 1998 for my book, My Name's Friday. Until that time it had never occurred to me that simply writing a book about Dragnet might be credential enough to speak with some of its participants.

Back then, Kenneth Starr's investigation into President Clinton's indiscretions was in full bloom, and during a press conference, Mr. Starr made a comment that, like Sgt. Joe Friday, his interest was for "Just the facts, ma'am." "Let's don't have politics, let's don't have spin... let's let those facts come out." A writer from the National Enquirer thought it would be make a good story to get opinions about this from people involved with Dragnet in some way. He contacted Harry Morgan and, as I'd announced on that I was writing a book on the show, he contacted me. When our interview was over, he graciously gave me Mr. Morgan's telephone number.

I think it took me at least a week to work up the nerve to dial it, and two or three messages left before we finally connected. Truth be told, I wasn't sure what to expect. I hadn't seen him on screen in quite a while, and the last time I did, I thought he'd looked pretty wan. I wondered if age had dimmed his faculties in some way.

I needn't have worried. The man was an absolute delight. He shared some marvelous anecdotes about working and socializing with Jack Webb, and even remembered doing some of the earliest Dragnet radio episodes. (Seek out The Big Book from 1950, where he portrays a scoutmaster attending a seminar that Friday and Romero are giving on keeping pornography out of schools.) He was well-aware that he'd been Webb's second choice (Ben Alexander had just been hired for Felony Squad), and considered Webb's acting and directing styles "fascinating." He was also free with his opinions about different aspects of the show. My favorite quote was this one:

Jack and I wore the same clothes for the whole damn series. The same suit, the same shirt, the same tie, the same... well, maybe not the same underwear. But nobody ever said, 'Jesus, don't you guys ever change clothes?' It's funny how little an audience will notice.

Since confession is good for the soul, I might as well explain that Mr. Morgan did not "write" the Foreword for my book. I asked him if he'd be interested in doing so, and he graciously declined. However, when I asked if I could compile some of the more pertinent quotes about his work with Webb, and use that as a Foreword, he was agreeable. I sent him a draft; he made one correction, and that was that. When it was published, I mailed him four copies of the book: one for him and one for each of his three sons.

Interviewing Mr. Morgan, and experiencing the gracious way he treated me, gave me the confidence to seek out other folks who'd appeared on Dragnet or in Webb's movies, or who worked behind the scenes. As it happens, those interviews really made the book as successful as it was, and I'll always be grateful to Mr. Morgan for the jump-start.

In particular, though, I'm grateful that Harry Morgan said "Yes" to Jack Webb when Ben Alexander had to say "No." Thanks for being Bill Gannon, Harry.