Colonel Sherman T. Potter was one of the main characters from the CBS-TV series M*A*S*H; he replaced Lt. Colonel Henry Blake, who was discharged but was killed on his way home. Potter was portrayed by Harry Morgan.

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) totaling one week. 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".

The character was named Sherman T. Potter. Morgan had heard that writer Larry Gelbart based the name on his family doctor. What the T. stood for was however never revealed. Even Morgan never knew although he speculated that it might be "Tecumseh," as in General Sherman.[1]

Colonel Potter's first appearance on the series came at the end of "Welcome to Korea" where, in a preview, he is shown arriving at the 4077th MASH just as the P.A. system announces him as the new commanding officer reporting for duty. The P.A. announcer gives the date as September 19, 1952. Potter would be fully introduced in "Change of Command".

About Colonel Potter[edit | edit source]

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 war, and the need for jokes, pranks, and recreation to boost morale. When he found out about Hawkeye and B.J.'s gin still, he offered advice on how to improve its yield, explaining that he himself had a still while stationed on Guam during World War II; one night the still exploded leaving him with an injury that won him a Purple Heart.

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. In particular, they appreciated his Potterisms - witty remarks and sound folksy advice which he would disperse to his subordinates. At the same time, however, Potter did not suffer fools gladly; he was more stern and 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 remained a family man at heart, keeping in regular contact with his wife, children, and grandchildren, and telling 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 of 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 7 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 (and Lillian) of the "lady back home with [his] picture on [her] piano."

Col. Potter and wife Mildred have been married for twenty seven years, since about 1923. They have two children: daughter Evelyn, and a son, whose name is never actually mentioned on the series, although the name of his daughter-in-law is revealed as Jeanine. Evelyn has a son named Stuart, and is married to Robert "Bob" Wilson, played by Dennis Dugan, who is introduced in the Season 11 episode "Strange Bedfellows". This is the only Potter family member who shows up during the run of "M*A*S*H".

Colonel Potter also showed that he was a man of integrity, who, after surviving two World Wars, had grown weary of fighting. More than once, when old Army buddies committed serious errors that resulted in men being needlessly wounded or killed, Potter reported them to I Corps, 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 a guaranteed promotion to full Colonel. But when he and many of his men are wounded, one of them reveals to Hawkeye and B.J. 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 CIB; 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", a similar situation emerged when Colonel Woody Cooke, a close friend of Potter's from WWI, now assigned to the garrison at I-Corps, comes into the 4077th with a bad leg wound. Two others tell Hawkeye and B.J. that they were wounded while attacking a ridge they were initially ordered to stay away from; that order was illegally countermanded by Col. Cooke who simply wandered into the area and ordered the soldiers to advance on the same ridge regardless of that fact he was outside the unit's chain of command. At first Potter refuses to believe it, but then he himself questions the wounded sergeant in charge of the unit, he then later confronts Cooke 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 assignments 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 Point Of View, Potter was already in a rancid mood when a wounded Private Rich arrived in camp. Potter was bawling out everyone around him, especially Radar, but nobody could figure out why he was so upset. He later confides in Rich that he was angry at himself because he had completely forgotten to call Mildred on their anniversary. Rich then told Hawkeye, who quietly informed Radar, who put a call through to Mildred for the Colonel, explaining that he's been so busy he hasn't been able to get to the phone. Touched by Radar's gesture, Potter promised to make it up to everyone.
  • In Pressure Points, Potter made a surgical mistake that Hawkeye had to fix while he was away; the mistake nearly cost the wounded soldier his life. Afterwards, Potter quietly began to question his own surgical ability. 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 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 summoned Sidney Freedman for a private consultation. Later, after finding out that Hawkeye had approved the release of his patient, Potter, still showing how things had affected him, verbally castigated Pierce. Freedman stayed on at camp a few more days and helped Potter talk through his concerns. Potter slowly but surely regained his confidence.

History prior to the 4077th[edit | edit source]

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 in World War I — future President Harry S Truman, although Truman was from Independence, which is across the state; likewise, they were also in different branches of the service - Potter was a cavalryman, and Truman was an artilleryman. 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 and was a member of the "1st cavalry" {Presumably this is either supposed to be the 1st US Cavalry Regiment, which didn't go overseas in World War I, or the 1st US Cavalry Division which wasn't formed until 1921}. Potter's serious love of horses is noted in several different episodes–he claimed in one episode to be able to shoe his own horse, Sophie. His exact age during the series is debatable. When Potter first takes command September 19, 1952, he claims to be 51 which would place his birth date in 1900/or 1901. In 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; likewise, in a two-part episode when Major Burns is missing {gone from the show} he claims to have smoked cigars for 47 years - since 1905 or 1906 age 9 Fade Out, Fade In, Part 1 (TV series episode). 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 only existed during the Spanish-American War of 1898 which would have made him 69 in 1952, when the mandatory military retirement age for officers is 60.

In Lt. Radar O'Reilly, when Radar is "promoted" to 2nd Lt. for, among other things "bugling," Potter claims to have been in the army for 40 years, implying he enlisted in 1912 at age 15. In 11.7, Potter rants that someone over 60 shouldn't go to Florida; both the previous and succeeding episodes reveal that the timeline is the June/July 1953. In 6.22, Potter is one year from retirement {which would be a date of September 2, 1953}. Yet, when he first comes to the 4077th at the end of Welcome to Korea, which the P.A. announced to be on September 19, 1952, he claims to retire in 18 months, which would be a date of March 1954.

He married Mildred in 1916. A conversation with a wounded soldier in a season 7 episode reveals their wedding date as September 8. However in Settling Debts, he states that his anniversary is Groundhog Day, February 2 (he picked that day so he wouldn't forget it). In Hey, Doc, Potter writes to Mildred on their 27th wedding anniversary which, with it being 1952, means he was married in 1925; had he married in 1916, it would have been their 36th wedding anniversary in 1952. In Change Day, Potter claims to have been married 38 years - since 1913. In Point of View, Potter is angry at himself for forgetting to call Mildred on their 35th anniversary. In Too Many Cooks, Houlihan remarks Potter's been married 40 years.

Potter was in World War I, but the series is not consistent with his service; he recalled that he held the rank of private at the time, he and members of his Army unit spent the night in a French chateau 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.) In two separate episodes, he claims to have been gassed and blinded and would that later he had been a prisoner of war in World War I, and that he had been tortured and beaten; the only problem is that as a cavalryman as a member of the 1st Cavalry regiment, this regiment never went overseas during World War I.

After World War I, 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 dentist 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 a five-year-old granddaughter, later referred to as about 8-years-old when comparing her to a wounded 8-year-old girl. When his son-in-law visits in Season 11, he mentions another grandson of Potter's named Stuart.

Potter was in World War II but the series is not consistent with his service-in one episode he claims to have gotten the Purple Heart medal when his still blew up in Guam-which would have been in the summer of 1944 in the Asia pacific Area; in another episode he claims to have been in the Battle of the Bulge-which was in the winter of 1944 in the European theater.

In "The Red/White Blues", it is revealed that Potter is subject to hypertension. Various episodes also show that besides heavy smoking, Potter is a heavy drinker, suffers blood clots in his legs 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", 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[edit | edit source]

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, he gave him to Potter, so he could care for him  (in later episodes, the horse is female, named Sophie). 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 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, "because these people aren't soldiers; they're doctors", 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 cross dressing. 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, who never got over being passed over for command, insulted Potter numerous times, once even calling him an "old dimwit" while he was castigating Radar, which Potter also didn't appreciate. 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 far better surgeon than Burns, but prideful and initially 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 all the others. In April Fools, he furiously rebukes Hawkeye, B.J., Margaret and Winchester after a very stern chief medical officer, Col. Daniel Webster Tucker pays a visit to the camp as the four are pulling pranks on one another. Tucker pushes the four past their limit and then threatens them with court-martial, swearing he'll make it stick. Determined to get in one last jibe before the axe falls, Hawkeye and the others douse Tucker with beer in the Officer's Club. When Tucker appears to have suffered a heart attack, Hawkeye approaches to help, and Tucker suddenly says, "April Fool!" and he and Potter laugh maniacally. Potter reveals that he and Tucker set the prank up weeks before, knowing that if Tucker pushed them hard enough they would pull a stunt like they did. Hawkeye concedes defeat, announcing, "Fellow jokers, we are in the presence of greatness. We have been royally had!" and they applaud.

After the Korean War[edit | edit source]

With the armistice declared in Korea, the 4077th was disbanded, and everyone went home to resume their respective lives, with Potter intending to return to Hannibal and become a semi-retired country doctor. He left the 4077th for the final time riding Sophie (whom at the request of Father Mulcahy, he dropped off at the local orphanage to be used productively), and was given a formal military salute by Hawkeye and B.J., as a sign of just how much respect the two doctors had for him.

AfterMASH[edit | edit source]

Harry Morgan, William Christopher, and Jamie Farr, the three who chose to continue the series at the end of the 11th season, were invited to co-star in a spinoff series on CBS, called AfterMASH.

After coming home, Potter becomes bored with retirement and is offered and accepts the position of administrator at nearby General Pershing VA Hospital ("General General"). Father Mulcahy, his hearing restored by special operation arranged by Potter in St. Louis, became the hospital's 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.

References[edit | edit source]

  1. Suzy Kalter, Complete Book of Mash (New York: H.N. Abrams Publishing, 1988), 179.
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