"My first days were a mite uneasy. Nobody was jumpin' for joy over me. I was no Henry Blake; never tried to be..."
[~Colonel Potter (to Klinger in Period of Adjustment)]
Colonel Sherman T. Potter was one of the main characters from the CBS-TV series M*A*S*H; he replaced Henry Blake, who was discharged but never made it home as his plane was shot down over the Sea of Japan. Portrayed by Harry Morgan, Potter became the third of four main characters who did not appear in the original 1968 novel or the 1970 film.
The producers decided they wanted someone different from the lax and milquetoast Henry Blake to take command of the 4077th. They decided that the next CO should be "regular army", a career man close to retirement. After his strong performance as General Steele in The General Flipped at Dawn, Harry Morgan was chosen to fill the role.
- 1 About Colonel Potter
- 2 As commander
- 3 Relationship with Others
- 4 Hobbies and interests
- 5 Personal life
- 6 History prior to the 4077th
- 7 After the Korean War
- 8 References
About Colonel Potter
Potter's debut was in the final moments of Welcome to Korea where, in a preview, he is seen 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 his arrival date as September 19, 1952, adding that Potter is "Regular Army... God help us all."
Potter would be fully introduced in Change of Command. As he later told Klinger, his first few days in camp were "a mite uneasy", and "no one was jumping for joy" over his arrival (Period of Adjustment). The 4077th was still mourning Henry's death, and Hawkeye and B.J. feared having a "Regular Army" man in command, which they felt would be even worse than Burns, with whom they at least stood a chance of outwitting. Moreover, Hawkeye and B.J. were both concerned that Potter might do more harm than good, as Radar had found out that Potter had served in administration for two years prior to the 4077th. Upon his initial arrival, he seemed stern and humorless, consistent with a Regular Army background; after he looked at the discreditable incidents in Hawkeye and B.J.'s records, he made it clear that he had no time for hijinks and sternly requested that they stay out of trouble for the next 18 months.
But their fears were allayed when a sudden influx of wounded proved Potter's competence and earned respect from Hawkeye and B.J. as he helped the latter with a tough case. the three bonded during a night of post-surgery drinking, and Potter revealed his own experience with wartime drinking.
Potter eventually became close to most of the personnel in the unit, and eventually referred to them as "my family" when talking to others. Almost always giving off the aura of everyone's favorite father, he became especially close to Hawkeye, B.J., Radar, Father Mulcahy (whom he nicknamed "Padre"), Klinger, and Major Houlihan. In Dear Mildred, as Radar still felt uneasy around Potter, word came down that there was a wounded stray horse nearby; Radar decided to gift the horse to an overwhelmed Potter, who was delighted to have a horse again, and rode her regularly. In return, Potter supplanted Henry Blake as a father figure to Radar, and as part of his fatherly role towards Radar, he would defend him against abuse by Frank Burns.
His middle initial
It was never revealed in the series what Potter's middle initial "T." stood for. Harry Morgan himself was never told and never knew, though he speculated that it might have stood for Tecumseh, after Civil War Union Army General William Tecumseh Sherman. Morgan had also heard that writer Larry Gelbart based the name on his family doctor.
His cavalry background revealed a set of quirky eccentricities that blended well with his staff, given his use of "faux-fanities" including, but not limited to:
- "Horse hockey" (the first one he ever used in the series)
- "Buffalo bagels"
- "Mule muffins"
- "Pigeon pellets"
- "Bull cookies"
- "Donkey donuts"
- "Beaver biscuits"
Potter's superiority as a surgeon was easily matched by his leadership qualities. 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 rest and relaxation to maintain collective and individual morale. When he found out about Hawkeye and B.J.'s 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 earned him a Purple Heart. The maverick doctors in turn respected Potter's authority, and consequently they were 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.
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 adding his observation that if he did so, he felt that the unit would not get the excellent results that they were getting.
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. Potter also demonstrated that he knew every trick and dodge in the book, and like 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 quickly 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 had it pointed out to him by Father Mulcahy 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, and offered his help should he need it. Klinger eventually grew into the job and was awarded a promotion to Sergeant.
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 pained him to turn on his old friends:
- In 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; the unit was ordered to withdraw and Beckett froze, causing his unit to suffer significant casualties. 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 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 justice were exemplified when, in Season 7's An Eye For A Tooth, 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. Potter participated in a sting that got the officer to reveal his true intentions, and he was then forced to resign his commission.
Although 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.
Relationship with Others
As previously mentioned, the just and fair-minded Potter knew the horrors of combat all too well, having served in both World Wars, and understood that there was a time for discipline and a time to look the other way. Consequently, the maverick surgeons respected Potter's authority, and were more willing to obey his orders than they had those of Henry and/or Frank. In particular, they appreciated Potter's witty remarks and sound folksy advice which he would disperse to his subordinates.
Hawkeye & B.J.
When they first heard that Frank Burns was being replaced as CO, Hawkeye and B.J. were delighted, but when they heard that the new CO, Potter, was "Regular Army", Hawkeye and B.J. were both concerned that Potter might do more harm than good, especially after Radar had found out that Potter had served in administration for two years prior to his arrival. But their fears were allayed when Potter proved himself still capable in the OR as he helped B.J. with a difficult procedure. A sudden influx of wounded proved his competence and earned respect from Hawkeye and B.J. as he helped the latter with a tough case. the three bonded during a night of post-surgery drinking, and Potter revealed his own experience with wartime drinking, mentioning his Purple Heart, which he got after a still he had on Guam exploded.
Potter developed a fatherly affection for Margaret, who in turn came to care for him a great deal as well. The most prominent example of their closeness was in Peace On Us, during which Margaret learns that her husband Donald Penobscott had transferred himself back to the States permanently, ending any chance they had of reconciling their marriage; Margaret goes to Potter for advice, and he tells her to go with her gut feeling- to divorce him, which she eventually does. At the end of the series as they are about to part ways for the last time, Margaret refers to Potter as a "sweet, sweet man"
Frank Burns & Charles Winchester
Potter disliked Burns both personally and professionally. In his first letter to Mildred from camp, he referred to Burns as "the head twerp". Burns, who never got over being pushed aside for command of the 4077th, insulted Potter numerous times behind his back, and occasionally, though unintentionally, right to his face, once even calling him an "old dimwit" while he was castigating Radar, which Potter also didn't appreciate.
At the beginning of Season 6, when Burns ultimately had a nervous breakdown and was permanently transferred stateside, Potter arranged to have Major Charles Winchester, originally sent as a temporary replacement, assigned permanently to the 4077th. Charles was a far better surgeon than Burns, but prideful and initially not easy to get along with. Charles resented the assignment, and having to perform non-surgical jobs, which led to several arguments between the two. (As the unit disbanded, Charles 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)
In Dear Mildred, Radar, still uneasy around Potter who was still new in camp, was informed of a wounded stray horse nearby; Radar decided to gift the horse as an anniversary gift to an overwhelmed Potter, who was delighted to have a horse again, and rode her regularly. In return, Potter supplanted Henry Blake as a father figure to Radar, and as part of his fatherly role towards Radar, he would defend him against abuse by Frank Burns. 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, but with the camp still in dire straits without a generator, Radar began to have second thoughts about leaving until Klinger managed to steal one from I Corps supply. Potter sat Radar down for a deep conversation only to learn that Radar had changed his mind again and decided to go home, though he liked Potter's speech ("Thanks! Practiced all morning").
Like Henry Blake, Potter was never fooled by Klinger's endless schemes to get a psychiatric discharge. He quickly demonstrated to Klinger that he knew every trick and dodge in the book, and initially ordered Klinger back into uniform until an informal talk with Hawkeye, after which Potter, again like Henry, humored Klinger and allowed him to wear his fashions. However, as Potter observed Klinger's ability to care for Korean children, he says quietly, "...I should really think about giving him that Section Eight." In Period of Adjustment, after Radar was discharged, Klinger replaced him as company clerk, but had a very rocky start, which earned a snide but unjust observation from Potter that "We can't all be Radars". But then Potter has it pointed out to him by Father Mulcahy that, like Radar when he first started the job, Klinger needs the time to adjust to his new duties. Potter gets the point and tells Klinger as much, and offers his help should Klinger need it. Klinger eventually grew into the job and was later awarded a promotion to Sergeant.
Potter also had to occasionally deal with the intelligence officer Colonel Flagg, refusing to be intimidated by him.
Hobbies and interests
Potter had many private pleasures, including, but not limited to the following:
- One of his favorite songs is Tumbling Tumbleweeds by the Sons of the Pioneers. He and Mildred were also devotees of square dancing.
- He also an avid reader of Zane Grey novels.
- A fan of Doris Day, Potter loved her version of the song Sentimental Journey and had seen every one of her movies- alone. And while Mildred doesn't know, Potter quips that "Doris doesn't know either".
- He was also a fan of champion skater Sonja Henie, mentioning that he once fantasized about skating with her down a frozen fjord in Norway, and then saying "Yeah, I really fell for her... again and again and again!" (smacking himself on the rear end with every 'again').
Potter's most visual hobby was that of painting. An exceptionally good artist, Potter painted nearly everything and everyone, including, but not limited to:
- Portraits of:
- Hawkeye in repose holding a drink (Hawkeye Get Your Gun), and in another standing next to his tongue-depressor tower (in Depressing News)
- Klinger (from behind holding a discus)
- Charles (in an angry mood)
- A self-portrait mounted on Sophie -using Klinger in Potter's uniform as a model (Dear Uncle Abdul)
- A portrait of his own thumb
- A portrait of the whole senior staff as an anniversary gift for Mildred, though Hawkeye, B.J. and Charles were too busy fighting among themselves at the time
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.
Marriage to Mildred
Potter is happily married to his wife Mildred, though the exact day and year of their wedding is open to debate.
In the series, a conversation with a wounded soldier in a season 7 episode reveals their wedding date as September 8, but 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, Margaret remarks Potter's been married 40 years. Despite the distance that military duty imposed upon him, 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 the right hand corner of his desk, and every morning gave the picture a salute.
They have a daughter named Evelyn (though Potter once mentioned a son with a wife named Jeanine). Evelyn is married to "Bob" Wilson, and they have a son named Stuart (Potter's grandson). Bob is introduced in Strange Bedfellows, and remains the only Potter family member who appears in the series.
Though a devoted husband, Potter did have his own share of run-ins with the fairer sex:
- 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 my picture on her piano".
- In That's Show Biz, stripper Brandy Doyle (Gwen Verdon) takes a shine to Potter while she and her USO troupe are detained at the 4077th. One evening, the two get drunk together, and a lonely Brandy tries to make a move on Potter, but he passes out before she can do anything.
- In Strange Bedfellows, after finding out that his son-in-law Robert (who was visiting him at camp) had an affair with another woman in Tokyo, Potter opens up and admits that he himself had been unfaithful to Mildred once and was so wracked with guilt that he couldn't look Mildred in the face for a week. Bob then admits that he knew what he was doing and felt the same. Potter forgives Robert and gives him a picture of the whole family, asking him to be sure he stays in the picture.
History prior to the 4077th
Sherman Potter was from Hannibal, Missouri (although in two early episodes he mentions Nebraska and Ohio). His mother's name was Emma, but his father's name was never revealed. Though never clearly mentioned, Potter may have been an only child. He was raised in the Methodist faith, although in Period of Adjustment he identified as Presbyterian. 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).
Potter enlisted in the Army at age fifteen, lying about his age; he was assigned to 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 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.
Potter's deep affinity for horses is noted in several different episodes: he claimed in one episode to be able to shoe his own horse, Sophie. In Old Soldiers, when a group of refugees test allergic for tetanus shots, Potter knows that the only meat the locals get is horse meat which sensitizes their systems, and then briefly goes into an emotional tirade about the nobility of the horse.
Like his wedding date and year, Potter's exact age and years of military service are also inconsistent throughout the series.
- 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.
- In Fade Out, Fade In, Part 1 he claims to have smoked cigars for 47 years - since 1905 or 1906 age 9 .
- In Peace on Us 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, Potter claims to have been in the army for 40 years, implying he enlisted in 1912 at age 15.
- In Settling Debts, 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 Temporary Duty, 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 claims to have served during World War I, but the series is not consistent with his service; In Old Soldiers, as a private, 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 when they got down to the last 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 that he had been tortured and beaten while a prisoner of war; 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 WWI, 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 their own home in Missouri because, as Potter explained, Mildred "wanted to be able to put a nail in any wall she chose". They raised a son who later became a dentist- he was only mentioned once or twice before being replaced by a daughter, who married and had a son named 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 also served in World War II which, like much of his past, is riddled with inconsistencies. In Change of Command he claims to have gotten his Purple Heart 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. It is the Guam story that is the most improbable; although the Army did assist in the recapture of Guam in July-August of 1944, they moved on to other campaigns, leaving the Navy and Seabees behind to re-establish a presence, offer medial aid, and rebuild the island's infrastructure. If Potter was on Guam, he would have been there only briefly - not long enough to build a still. (Everyone was extremely drunk when Potter told this story; it's possible he was joking.)
In Bug Out, Potter reveals that he was stationed in Hawaii just prior to coming to Korea.
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 is prone to temper tantrums. He is also highly competitive, and is shown to be a sore loser when he loses in anything, whether it is bridge, 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.
After the Korean War
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.
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 a 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.
- Suzy Kalter, Complete Book of Mash (New York: H.N. Abrams Publishing, 1988), 179.