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gave the heave ho

Sherman T. Potter

Colonel Sherman Tecumseh Potter was a fictional character from the M*A*S*H television show. He was portrayed by Harry Morgan.

At the end of the show's third season, McLean Stevenson had left the series, and his character, Henry Blake, died on his way home. Major Frank Burns had assumed full-time command of the unit at the end of that season, although it was to be short-lived (one full episode plus parts of two others). The producers wanted a different type of commanding officer for the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (MASH). They decided on a "Regular Army" commander, a man who had made a career out of the service, and was close to retirement. The producers chose Harry Morgan to fill the role, after the strong performance he gave as a visiting General earlier in the first episode of the third season, "The General Flipped at Dawn."

Background

Col. Potter's leadership qualities were easily matched by his superiority as a surgeon. He led mainly by example, always doing his best and encouraging others to do the same. He was at times willing to ignore the letter of regulations in order to abide by their spirit. Easygoing by nature, Potter understood the hellish realities of life in a MASH unit, and the need for jokes, pranks and recreation to boost morale. When he found out about Hawkeye and B.J.'s gin distillery, he offered advice on how to improve its yield, explaining that he had such a still while stationed on Guam during World War II; he even stated that he had received a Purple Heart as a result of that still exploding in his face. The maverick doctors in turn respected Potter's authority, and were as a consequence more willing to obey his orders than they had those of Col. Blake and/or Major Burns. At the same time, however, Potter did not suffer fools gladly; he was sterner and more decisive than his predecessor, and readily put his foot down if he felt things were getting too carried away, as well as castigating staffers who slacked in their duties. At the same time, his Regular Army background gave him a knowledge of the system and its foibles (and a number of superior officers with whom he was on first-name basis) that allowed him to cut through Army red tape that Col. Blake could not.

Despite the distance that military duty imposed upon him, Col. Potter was, at heart, a family man. He kept in regular contact with his wife, children, and grandchildren, and told them all about the people he served with at the 4077th. For the most part, Potter and his wife, Mildred, had to maintain a long-distance relationship, although he was able to meet her for a couple weeks in Tokyo at one point. Potter kept a framed portrait of his wife on his desk, and every morning gave his wife a salute. In the Season 6 episode "Lil", Potter befriends Colonel Lillian Rayburn, a visiting dignitary, much to Radar's consternation. But when the friendship begins to get too warm he reminds himself of the "lady back home with [his] picture on [her] piano." In "Strange Bedfellows" from Season 11, Potter's son-in-law, Robert Wilson, pays a visit. But after learning of a one-night stand Robert had with a woman in Tokyo, Potter admitted to Robert he once had a brief extramarital affair himself. After handing the departing Robert a picture frame with a snapshot of him and his family, Potter said to Robert "promise me you'll stay in the picture".

Colonel Potter also showed that he was a man of integrity, who, after surviving two World Wars, had grown tired of fighting. More than once, when old Army buddies committed serious errors that resulted in men being unnecessarily hurt or killed, Potter reported them to headquarters, even though it broke his heart to turn on his old friends:

  • In the Season 5 episode "Ping Pong", Lt. Colonel Harold Beckett, an old friend of Potter's, is given command of his own combat unit- needing five more days on the line to get his Combat Infantry Badge and an assured promotion to full Colonel. But when he and many of his men are wounded, one soldier reveals that it was Beckett's incompetence that got them in trouble; after suffering significant casualties the unit was ordered to withdraw and Beckett froze. But when Potter confronts Beckett about what happened he blamed it on Intelligence failure. Potter orders him sent back down saying "I don't give a damn about your promotion or your lousy C.I.B.; all I care about are those kids[...] and if one gets hurt the price is too high."
  • In the Season 11 episode "Friends And Enemies", Woody Cooke, a close friend of Potter's dating all the way back to WWI, and now a Colonel assigned to 'I-Corps', comes into the 4077th with a bad leg wound. Two others tell Hawkeye and BJ they were ordered to stay clear of the ridge where they were hit, Cooke, having no business being there much less not knowing what he was doing, wandered into the area and ordered the soldiers to hold their position. At first Potter refuses to believe it, but when he himself questions the wounded sergeant in charge of the unit, he later confronts Cooke about it saying he would have to report him. Cooke, angered at Potter's refusal to let the incident slide, storms off, ending their friendship.

Potter's integrity and sense of fairness were also exemplified when the doctors discovered that a covertly racist Engineering CO was deliberately sending Black soldiers disproportionately into hazardous duty so that they'd be rotated out of his unit sooner, provided they weren't killed in action. Col. Potter participated in a sting that got the officer to reveal his true intentions, and forced him to resign his commission.

Although Col. Potter was able to keep his cool nearly all the time, he did occasionally lose his temper. In the season 10 episode, "Pressure Points", Col. Potter made a huge surgical mistake that nearly cost a soldier his life (and that Hawkeye had to go in and fix). The colonel quietly began to question his own surgical ability after finding out what happened. When a visiting captain came to the 4077th to discuss how to treat patients who came in with wounds caused by a then-new white phosphorus ammunition, Potter began to break. During the lecture, Potter became visibly upset and near the point of tears, and when the captain was nearly finished, Potter berated him screaming, "If they can invent better ways to kill each other, why can't they invent a way to end this stupid war??!" Following this outburst, Potter called on psychiatrist Sidney Freedman for a private consultation. Later, after finding out that Hawkeye had approved the release of the Colonel's patient, Potter, still showing how things had affected him, verbally castigated Pierce. So Freedman stayed on a few days with the unit, and helped Potter talk through his concerns. Potter slowly but surely regained his confidence.

History Prior to the 4077th

A Methodist, Sherman Potter was from Hannibal, Missouri, the childhood home of Mark Twain. (Two early episodes mention a home in Nebraska and in Ohio, however, and Potter implies in another episode that he's a Presbyterian.) His mother's name was Emma. Potter learned (among other things) Army foot care from a fellow Missourian — future President Harry S Truman. He also revealed early on that he was one-quarter Cherokee, when Frank Burns complained that Hawkeye "always gets the Cowboys, while I get stuck with the Indians!" (referring to friendly troops versus enemies, brought in for treatment).

Sherman Potter enlisted in the Army at fifteen, when he lied about his age to get into the cavalry. (His exact age during the series is debatable. In the episode, "Pressure Points", Potter gives his age as 62. With the episode set in 1952, he would have been born in 1890, and been fifteen years old in 1905. In 7.2, he mentions having been in the army for thirty-five years; assuming the year is 1952, he would have joined in 1917, the year the United States entered the First World War. Assuming he did enlist at age fifteen, he was born in 1902. In another episode, he mentions joining the cavalry during the days of Theodore Roosevelt's "Rough Riders", which existed during the Spanish-American War of 1898.) Potter's serious love of horses is noted in several different episodes. In 11.7 Potter rants that someone over sixty shouldn't go to Florida; both the previous and succeeding episodes reveal that the timeline is the June/July of 1953.

He married Mildred in 1916. A conversation with a wounded soldier in the episode "Point of View" reveals their wedding date as September 8. However, in the episode "Settling Debts", he states that his anniversary is Groundhog Day, February 2 (he picked that day so he wouldn't forget it). In 4.7 Potter writes to Mildred on their 27th wedding anniversary.

During World War I, recalling that he held the rank of private at the time, he and members of his Army unit spent the night in a French château while under fire. They came across a cache of brandy, and proceeded to drink all but one bottle. They made a pledge (a tontine) that the last survivor of the group would get the bottle, and make a toast to his old friends. (Years later, Potter turned out to be the last survivor of the group, and drank the toast together with his new friends at the 4077th.)

After World War I, Sherman Potter entered medical school, serving his residency in St. Louis and beginning his practice in 1932. Potter's uncle, a veterinarian, had sparked his interest in medicine, and he'd known several general practitioners at home, but he wanted most of all to become a surgeon. Potter remained in the Army, having married Mildred while still serving in the Cavalry, and served in a number of administrative positions before his final tour of duty, in Korea. He and Mildred purchased a home in Missouri "because she wanted to be able to put a nail in any wall she chose" (since they often lived on Army bases), and raised a son (who disappears later on, as he later mentions having only a daughter). He and Mildred were grandparents; in an early episode, their son had a daughter, Sherry Pershing Potter, but after their son got replaced with a daughter, they then instead had a toddler grandson, Cory Wilson. He also mentioned having an eight-year-old granddaughter.

Potter would later admit in an episode that he had been a prisoner of war in World War I, and that he had been tortured and beaten.

In 9.16, it is revealed that Potter is subject to hypertension. Various episodes also show that besides heavy smoking, Potter is a heavy drinker and prone to temper tantrums, and is a sore loser when he loses in anything, whether it is bridge games, betting on baseball, competitions with other military units, or even bingo games. Once, in "Settling Debts" {episode 11.7}, he nearly makes a fool of himself when he thinks his wife has bought a houseboat and they are retiring to Florida (she actually paid off the mortgage on their house).

Commanding Officer of the 4077th

As he later told Klinger, Potter's first few days in camp were "a mite uneasy", and "no one was jumping for joy" over his arrival. The 4077th was still in mourning over the departure and death of Henry Blake, and Hawkeye and B.J. feared having a "Regular Army" man in charge, which they felt would be even worse than having Major Burns in charge; with Burns, at least they stood a chance of outwitting him. Initially, Potter's demeanor seemed stern and rigid, consistent with a Regular Army background, as he made it clear, looking at Hawkeye's and B.J.'s records, that he had no time for hijinks. Both were concerned about Potter's not having done any recent surgeries. Their fears were allayed when Potter proved himself capable in both roles. A sudden influx of wounded proved the competence of everyone, forming the basis for mutual respect. A night of post-surgery drinking bonded Hawkeye and B.J. with Potter from then on as he revealed his own experience with wartime drinking.

Once Potter and his staff got to know each other, he became good friends with many of the people in the unit, and spoke of them as "my family". Almost always giving off the aura of everyone's favorite father, he was especially close to Hawkeye, B.J., Radar, Father Mulcahy, Klinger, and Major Houlihan. Potter became a father figure to Radar during his time at the 4077th, much as his predecessor Henry Blake had. In return, when Radar found a wounded stray horse (later named Sophie), he gave her to Potter, so he could care for her. Potter was delighted to have a horse again, and rode her regularly. As part of his fatherly role towards Radar, he would defend him against snide comments by Frank Burns. His cavalry background revealed a set of quirky eccentricities that blended well with his staff, given his use of faux-profanities like "horse hockey."

In the episode "The Interview", Potter, asked if his Regular Army background made it difficult for him to work with draftees, made it clear he did not care to run the unit by strict Regular Army standards, in part because of the conditions and also because "I don't want to," adding his view that if he did so, he did not believe the unit would get the results (high survival rates for wounded brought to the 4077th) that they were getting.

Potter quickly demonstrated that he knew every trick and dodge in the book, and like his predecessor Blake he continually refused to discharge Klinger while letting him get away with crossdressing. When Radar's Uncle Ed died at the beginning of the eighth season, Potter helped Radar get a hardship discharge so he could return home to Iowa, and when Radar began to have second thoughts about leaving, Potter sat him down and led him into a nice conversation, only to learn afterwards that Radar had already decided to leave after all, but liked Potter's speech anyway. When Klinger took over as clerk, Potter realized that Klinger needed time to adjust to the job. Remembering his own experience with having to replace Henry Blake, he told Klinger to make the job his own, as Potter had with Blake's former role. Klinger eventually did a good job, and won a promotion to Sergeant.

Potter disliked Burns both personally and professionally. In his first letter to Mrs. Potter, he referred to Burns as "the head twerp". Burns made a lot of disparaging insults about Potter's age and once even called him an old dimwit, while he was castigating Radar, which Potter also didn't appreciate. When Frank said he loved serving in Korea, Potter told him that either he (Burns) or Klinger was nuts, and Potter would have to figure out which one it was. When Burns ultimately had a nervous breakdown and was transferred stateside, Potter arranged to have Major Winchester, sent as a temporary replacement, assigned permanently to the unit. Winchester was a much better surgeon than Burns, but prideful and not easy to get along with. Winchester resented the assignment, and having to perform non-surgical jobs, which led to several arguments between the two. (As the unit disbanded, Winchester told Potter he admired his surgical skills, and that he, having recently attained a supervisory position at a Boston hospital, hoped to be inspired in the future by the memory of Potter's wisdom and gentle good humor). Potter also had to occasionally deal with the intelligence officer Colonel Flagg, refusing to be intimidated or pushed around by him. Potter is also a confessed lover of cowboy ballads, Zane Grey and the song Sentimental Journey by Doris Day, having listened to the song more than 28 times. He'd seen every Doris Day movie... alone. But, while Mildred didn't know, he said "Doris doesn't know either".

He also showed he had a sense of humor far superior to that of Hawkeye or Hunnicutt, or Margaret, or even Winchester, for all of his aristocratic pride. In the episode "April Fools," he furiously dresses down all four of them when the chief medical officer, Col. Daniel Webster Tucker (played by Pat Hingle) comes in (see Quotes, below). Tucker pushes the four past their limit and threatens to bring them up on charges — he will court-martial them (He says in a smug, ominous voice, "Let's see you laugh that one off, gang...") Determined to get in one last jibe before the axe falls, Hawkeye and the others douse Tucker with beer in the Officer's Club, after Tucker appears to have suffered a heart attack, Hawkeye approaches to help but Potter growls, "Get the hell away, Pierce! Haven't you done enough?" Tucker suddenly says, "April Fool!" and he and Potter laugh maniacally, showing Hawkeye and the others that they have a lot to learn from two old pros ("We set this up weeks ago!"). Hawkeye concedes defeat, announcing, "Fellow jokers, we are in the presence of greatness. We have been royally had!" and they applaud.

Decorations

Several times throughout the series, the awards that Colonel Potter had earned during his service in the army could be seen on his uniform. He had earned the following:

Army Commendation Medal

Purple Heart With Oak Leaf Cluster (1 Purple Heart earned when his still on Guam exploded).

Army Good Conduct Medal, (he stated he got it while an enlisted man).

National Defense Service Medal

Korean Service Medal

United Nations Service Medal, (later to be renamed UNITED NATIONS SERVICE MEDAL KOREA)

Several other awards were not shown, but Potter could have been eligible to receive:

World War I Victory Medal

World War I Army of Occupation of Germany Medal, (officially called OCCUPATION OF GERMANY WW I)

World War II Victory Medal

World War II Army of Occupation Medal

American Campaign Medal

European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal, (if he had served in the European Theatre of Operations during World War II)

Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal

American Defense Service Medal

After the Korean War

With the armistice declared in Korea, the 4077th was disbanded, everyone in the unit parted ways, and they went on with their respective lives. Col. Potter retired from the military, and returned to Missouri. In the final episode, Col. Potter announced his plans to go home to Mildred, and become a semi-retired country doctor. Leaving the 4077th on his horse Sophie (whom at the request of Father Mulcahy he dropped off at the local orphanage to be used productively), he was given the second military salute by Hawkeye Pierce and B.J. Hunnicutt, as a sign of just how much respect the two doctors had for him.

However, Harry Morgan, William Christopher, and Jamie Farr — the three who voted to continue the series at the end of the 11th season — were invited to star in a spin-off series at CBS, called AfterMASH. Potter became the administrator of a veteran's hospital in Missouri. Father Mulcahy, after losing his hearing from an explosion in the M*A*S*H series finale, was now the hospital's Catholic chaplain. Max and Soon-Lee Klinger, after experiencing discrimination in Toledo, moved to the area so that Max could take a job as Potter's assistant.

Quotes

  • [to Winchester]"You'll be making gravel at Leavenworth! Comprende?!"
  • [to Burns, after being called a old dimwit by the former] "Watch that dimwit talk, Burns; your bulb's been out since I met you!"
  • [To Burns, after his complaining that his phone call to his wife was much more important than his] "You'll be in a lot of trouble here, if you don't quit shooting off your bazoo!"
  • [Defending Radar against Burns] "Don't blame the boy, Burns, he knows a good joke (referring to Burns) when he sees one!"
  • [Defending Radar again against Burns] "Burns, don't be abusive!!"
  • [to Burns, after denying him permission to find Major Houlihan] "A mental pygmy!"
  • [to Klinger]"Now, son, none of us wants to be here. I don't want to be here, Radar doesn't want to be here, the doctors, the nurses, certainly the wounded don't want to be here. But we've got to do our best."
  • "I've got a soft spot for Klinger. He looks a little like my son, and he dresses a lot like my wife."
  • [Dressed as Santa, as he sees BJ, Hawkeye and Margaret working on a soldier injured by sniper fire] "If you three don't take the cake."
  • "Beaver Biscuits!"
  • [Angrily responding to, BJ, Hawkeye, Charles, and Margaret's late-night ruckus]"What in the name of Marco blessed Polo is going on here?!
  • "Horse hockey!"
  • [Upon seeing Hawkeye sprawled across his cot after a fight with B.J. which the former destroyed their still and suckerpunched him] "What in the name of Sweet Fanny Applegate happened here?"
  • [upon seeing Colonel Flagg in his chair] "Oh, Pony pucks!"
  • "That is Grade A, one hundred percent, bull cookies!"
  • "Monkey muffins!"
  • "Mule fritters!"
  • "Great Mother Macree, I think I'm gonna die"
  • "Buffalo bagels!"
  • "That stuff comes right off the stable floor."
  • "Buffalo chips!"
  • "Holy hemostat!"
  • "Cow cookies!"
  • [confronting legislative aide R. L. Williamson, who accused Margaret of being a Communist Sympathizer] "Williamson, your case is a busload of bushwah!"
  • "Sufferin' saddlesoap!"
  • "Sufferin' sheepdip!"
  • "Jumpin' Jack Armstrong!"
  • "Shiverin' shinbones!"
  • "Pigeon Pellets!"
  • [responding to an angry Korean woman after Klinger with a pitchfork]"Now, what in the name of Beelzebub is goin' on here?"
  • [to Winchester]"Major, get your mind off collecting fees. This is the Army, not Park Avenue."
    Winchester:"This is Hell's Kitchen!"
  • {to Winchester] Between you and the mumps, Winchester, I would rather prefer the mumps! At least I know they will go away!
  • [to Winchester]"See those boots? Picture them kicking you across the compound!"
  • [to Winchester]"Stay away from that phone, or you'll be bunking with my horse."
  • [to Winchester]"I'll put my bum leg against your fat head any day! You're no match for me in anything! I can drink you under the table, and out-operate you over the table!"
  • [to Winchester]"How'd you like to spend the rest of this war with a bulls-eye on your dome?"
  • "Pierce, are you deef? I'm giving your hijinks the heave-ho posthaste! I'm the boss here! I can do that!"
  • "Klinger, you're a fine medic and a snappy dresser...I've always admired that outfit [dress]!"
  • [To Winchester] "Winchester, I'm sick of you. Ever since you set foot in this place, you've done nothing but whimper and whine. It's not my fault this war interrupted your Park Avenue career! For all your griping, you're just not worth it! Nobody's that good!"
  • [refusing to be intimidated by Colonel Flagg]: "I'm not fond of personal abuse, Colonel. I was in this army when the only thumb you cared about was the one you had in your mouth!"
  • {After Colonel Flagg busted an alleged "spy ring" but was merely a weekly bridge game, with the mayor and chief of police of Uijeongbu} "Flagg, put that thing down; I don't know how your nimble brain cooked up this goofy plot, but you just bought yourself a peck of trouble!" (and later on, after the MPs leave) "Flagg, you'll pay for this, right through your twitchy nose!!"
  • {confronting Hawkeye, B.J. Charles and Margaret on their joking shenanigans} "Oh, you're a peck of pips, all right. Despite my direct orders you had to put 'Be Stupid' first on your list of 'Things to do Today'! [...] Silencio! The senior inspecting officer of the entire Far East medical command comes in here at full boil--so you jokers just have to turn up the heat! Guarantees we all be wearing his boot-prints tomorrow--no matter how spiffy we carry on! Thank you all very much! [turns and sees Margaret's tent is missing] Good grief, Margaret--where in the name of Carrie's corset is your tent?"
  • [Throws a pile of papers in the air in disgust]"I can't stand it anymore! The next person who's nice to me is gonna die with boots on! MINE! I'll have no more of this from any of you, UNDERSTOOD? [calms down and smiles] Boy, that sure felt good."
  • [While debating who is to give a physical to an orphan baby]"I'm going to make a Solomon-like decision: I'll cut Winchester in half, ignore you two [meaning Hawkeye & BJ] and do it myself!"
  • [After meeting Klinger for the first time and hearing his plea to be discharged] Horse hockey! I've seen these dodges for forty years, all the tricks. Had a soldier pretend he was a mare. Carried a colt in his arms for weeks! Another fellow said he was a daisy. Insisted we water him every morning! No, no, soldier, it ain't gonna go with me. Now you get out of that froufrou and into a uniform, and you STAY in uniform!
  • [To Hawkeye, after he pantsed Winchester] "Pierce, there is a fine line between fun and imbecility, and you just pole-vaulted over it."
  • [To Hawkeye, after Hawkeye's claim that the "pantsing" was a joke] "Well, it was just about as funny as a sword-swallower with swollen glands."
  • [When Klinger came to wake up Colonel Potter to answer the telephone] "Telephone?! It's three-thirty in the blessed AM! Even the roosters are comatose!"
  • [To Sgt. Rizzo, who was his remedial driving teacher] "No wonder your breath smells of Shineola! I've been driving since I was SIX! Now step aside and let me at that vee-hicle!!"
  • [to Hawkeye, who has been in command for the past three days] Look what you're like sober!

Trivia

  • Potter wears a Model 1911 US Cavalry hat, nicknamed "Boss of the Plains", whereas American soldiers in the Korean War (when not wearing helmets) wore either Matthew Ridgeway hats, or fatigue caps.
  • Potter was mentioned on a Frasier episode, when Daphne said Colonel Potter reminded her of Martin.
  • Harry Morgan also appeared as crazed Major General Bartford Hamilton Steele ("with three E's, not in a row") before he portrayed Colonel Potter.
  • Potter's own taste for culture includes horses (among his personal kit is a cavalry saddle and a collection of photographs of racing horses), Zane Grey novels, Western films such as My Darling Clementine, playing horseshoes, trout fishing in Arkansas, and painting. Another episode sees Potter and Winchester discussing cameras; Potter has an old-fashioned Brownie while Winchester uses the latest German cameras.
  • In 4.16, Potter mentions that he likes tomato juice. Radar goes to great lengths to get him some, but at the end Potter reveals that while he likes tomato juice, he is allergic to it and shouldn't have any.
  • In at least 3 episodes, Potter claims to have been stationed at Camp Grant; Camp Grant was a training establishment for infantry, not cavalry.
  • While the rest of the cast refers to him as "Father", when speaking to Father Mulcahy Potter usually calls him "Padre", the Spanish word for "Father", a term commonly used by military personnel for chaplains.
  • Potter is apparently a baseball fan. In 9.6, he is a fan of the St. Louis Cardinals, and in several episodes he can be seen wearing a Toledo Mudhens baseball cap. {Note: he is not wearing a "mudhens" but a "Texas Rangers" baseball cap-a team which didn't exist until 1972!}
  • As noted above, Potter claims to have learned "foot care" from Harry S Truman; it is unlikely, but not impossible, that they met while both in the service, as Potter was a cavalryman and Truman an artilleryman. As fellow Missouri natives, albeit from opposite ends of the State, they may have met in civilian life.
  • In 4.6, Potter claims he was a World War I POW and also mentioned his old outfit-the "1st Cavalry".
  • Once when Potter was Company Clerk he showed himself to be a terrible touch typist.
  • The photograph on Potter's desk representing his wife Mildred, often misidentified as being a picture of Harry Morgan's onetime December Bride costar Spring Byington, was actually of Eileen Detchon, a stage actress and Morgan's real-life first wife. Mildred Potter was portrayed onscreen in the AfterMASH series by Barbara Townsend.

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