Harry Morgan's Legacy: One of Film's Most Crucial Courtroom Scenes Ever

Not only was the late actor front and center on every American television set for 20 years, but he also played a role in the most important legal dramas in cinema

Inherit the Wind (1960), MGM

Millions of American parents this week, or aunts or uncles anyway, have been telling the kids about the soothing presence of Harry Morgan, which is to say they have been telling their children and the young adults in their lives about Bill Gannon and Sherman T. Potter. Those two characters, in two famous hit shows with completely polarized political views, ensured that Morgan was pretty much front and center on every television set in America for 20 years—from the start of Dragnet in the 1960s to the memorable end of M*A*S*H in 1983.

Think about it. There is a generation of Americans who remembers Morgan as the clipped, straight, buttoned-up cop from Dragnet. And there is another generation that remembers him as the cranky, old, hard-with-a-heart-of-gold commanding officer of a mobile hospital in the middle of the Korean War. I was too young for his Dragnet days. But I still can picture him slipping on (unseen) horseshit in his office in that episode of M*A*S*H when Radar O'Reilly (Gary Burghoff) presented him with a horse. And, thanks to Morgan, I now know that the word "tontine " means more than a Ponzi scheme.

But upon Morgan's death Wednesday I come to draw attention to another part of Morgan's career—his work in a film that has always been near and dear to my heart. He was the dogged Judge Mel Coffey in "Inherit The Wind," the masterful 1960 film adaptation of the play of the same name. This means that he was, on film anyway, the judge who presided over the fictionalized account of the 1925 Scopes "Monkey Trial" in Tennessee, where a young teacher was convicted of the crime of teaching the theory of evolution. What a role.

No one can truly understand American law—where it was and where it is—without reading the drama Inherit The Wind and seeing the 1960 movie. In this sense, on an historical level as much as a cultural one, it is like Harper Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird. It's epic and true, and more than the sum of its parts. And Morgan was at the center of it all. Here is the transcript of one of the classic scenes from the movie, one of the most important law-related scenes in the history of American film.

(Drummond, played by Spencer Tracy, is the lawyer for John Scopes, the teacher who was on trial in the circus-like atmosphere, Brady, played by Frederic March, is supposed to be William Jennings Bryan, who prosecuted the case for Tennessee):

Judge: [after Drummond asks the judge for permission to withdraw from the case] Colonel Drummond, what reasons can you possibly have?

Henry Drummond: [Indicates the crowd] Well, there are two hundred of them.

[Crowd reacts angrily]

Henry Drummond: And if that's not enough there's one more. I think my client has already been found guilty.

Matthew Harrison Brady: [Rises] Is Mr. Drummond saying that this expression of an honest emotion will in any way influence the court's impartial administration of the law?

Henry Drummond: I say that you cannot administer a wicked law impartially. You can only destroy, you can only punish. And I warn you, that a wicked law, like cholera, destroys every one it touches. Its upholders as well as its defilers.

Judge: Colonel Drummond...

Henry Drummond: Can't you understand? That if you take a law like evolution and you make it a crime to teach it in the public schools, tomorrow you can make it a crime to teach it in the private schools? And tomorrow you may make it a crime to read about it. And soon you may ban books and newspapers. And then you may turn Catholic against Protestant, and Protestant against Protestant, and try to foist your own religion upon the mind of man. If you can do one, you can do the other. Because fanaticism and ignorance is forever busy, and needs feeding. And soon, your Honor, with banners flying and with drums beating we'll be marching backward, BACKWARD, through the glorious ages of that Sixteenth Century when bigots burned the man who dared bring enlightenment and intelligence to the human mind!

Judge: I hope counsel does not mean to imply that this court is bigoted.

Henry Drummond: Well, your honor has the right to hope.

Judge: I have the right to do more than that.

Henry Drummond: You have the power to do more than that.

[the Judge holds Drummond in contempt of court]

A creative law professor could construct an entire constitutional course based upon that brief exchange. Now, enjoy the video of the same scene. It is breathtaking.

Rest in Peace, Harry Morgan.