By Charles Morgan

(Morgan is a Beverly Hills attorney. He graduated summa cum laude from the University of California at Berkeley in 1966 and  was a  Fulbright Scholar at the National University of Chile (1966-1968), then at UCLA, where he was a member of the Order of the Coif. Morgan received his law degree from UCLA in 1971. He is a past president of this organization and is the son of actor Harry Morgan.)

The founder of this Norwegian American Bar Association of which I am proud to be a past president, Roger Grace, has asked me to say a few words about Norwegian Americans in Hollywood.

I am not a student of Hollywood; and while I have met some of the Norwegian American film people who are depicted on this organization’s web site, these meetings occurred when I was a child or at best an adolescent living with my parents. These weren’t the sort of meetings among adult peers which might leave me with impressions worth commenting about.

Still, I’ve known Roger since we were both around 15 and worked on the student newspaper at University High School here in West Los Angeles. He was the editor of that school paper, I was the associate editor, so by and large he called the shots and I followed his lead. Old habits die hard, so I couldn’t turn him down when he asked me to speak on this topic now some 40-odd years later.

While neither a student of the industry nor of the Norwegian American community within it, I surely ought to qualify at this point as a student of my father, Harry Morgan, who is surely the Norwegian American with the longest and most prominent career in the film business. So perhaps I can fashion a few comments about him and how he relates to Norway, and then leave you with a few film-related anecdotes which he has shared with me and which pertain in one way or another to Norwegians, and then perhaps I might sneak away from this podium and claim “mission accomplished.”

Harry Morgan arrived here from New York in 1941 in order to do a film called “The Ox Bow Incident,” a classic Western in which he and Henry Fonda play a couple of cowboy drifters who fall in with a mob of vigilantes, and in the end a few innocent men including Dana Andrews and Anthony Quinn are put to death. It has a lot to say about group behavior and the crumbling of human values when confronting a perceived enemy, with parallels running from witch hunts to cross-burnings and to prisons in Iraq. For many years in my youth the film was shown in high school civics classes.

My father never went back to New Yorkafter that film, but stayed on here to appear as a character actor in more than 100 movies and a total of 12 television series. The movies included “High Noon,” “How the West Was Won,” “Not as a Stranger,” “Inherit the Wind,” “The Glenn Miller Story,” “Support Your Local Sheriff” and “The Shootist.” Television started with “December Bride” and “Pete and Gladys” in the 1950’s (both of those shows were produced by Desilu and shot on a stage adjacent to where they shot “I Love Lucy”) and continued on with “Dragnet” and MASH” in the 1970’s and 80’s. When you add it all up. My father appeared as an actor on prime time television in the homes of Americavirtually nonstop for 35 years.

My father enjoys good health and is mentally quite sharp, but his mobility is limited now that he has passed his 89th birthday. I wanted to bring him with me today, and we did talk about it right up until last night, but today wasn’t the right day. I haven’t given up hope that he may come to one of our future meetings.

There have been a host of actors with Norwegian parentage on one side or the other, and virtually all of them I think are listed on the web site of this organization. I think the number might have been greater, but it seems to me that people who grew up in Norwegian households as my father did don’t take naturally to the stage or screen.

I wonder if there is not something in the Norwegian character that is resistant to getting up on a stage, or putting face in front of camera, or indeed to doing anything that might attract attention to oneself. This is a trait that is certainly akin to shyness, but I think it is shyness with a philosophical underpinning, and that is the considered belief that it is just sort of unseemly and show-offish to seek to be the center of attention.

I discovered evidence of this Norwegian trait when I first visited Norway in the mid-1960’s and stayed with close relatives whom I had never met nor seen before (my father’s uncle and his two cousins) in Trondheim. I had sent word a few days before that I would be coming up on the train from Oslo, but I had never seen any of my Norwegian relatives (we had no recent family photographs at home), and so I was a bit worried about how I would find members of the Bratsberg clan—that is the family name—among the dozens of people waiting at the station. All of the people waiting at the station, it turned out, were fellow Bratsbergs.

We left together and went on to share a smorgasbord meal in a large room, where people remained mostly silent, with a lot of bright eyes and smiles, enjoying each other’s company without a lot of verbalization. It seemed familiar to me from the home that I had grown up in. No one felt the urge to speak up beyond a sentence or two, and it’s funny how you can enjoy people’s company in relative silence, and enjoy the feeling that things are as they should be and no one needs to speak up and take the risk that in doing so there might be harm done to the more subtle and quiet niceties that make the moment special.

And so my father has been able throughout his professional life to become immersed in a role and a character, and he is a consummate actor like few others. He has a near-photographic memory and always spoke his lines as if they were his own, as if they had just occurred to him rather than arriving as imports from a screenplay.

But he has never appeared on a talk show despite a lifetime of requests, he has never been interviewed on Steve Allen or Johnny Carson or Jay Leno or the Today Show, because it did not seem appropriate or necessary.  Appearing on a talk show to focus on himself because he was Harry Morgan was not nearly as natural as appearing in a role as Pete Porter or Bill Gannon or Colonel Potter, or as the cowboy drifter who wandered into town with Henry Fonda and got wrapped up in a vigilante brigade in “Oxbow Incident.”

Our family name of Bratsberg is apparently a traditional Norwegian name; the family at the center of Ibsen’s play “The League of Youth” is named Bratsberg. It is the name that appears on my birth certificate, but my father had to take up Morgan at the behest of a producer, who at first had suggested that he use the name Eric Norway. I guess I’d rather carry forward the name Morgan, and am glad that he decided to pass on Eric Norway, but it is awkward to go through life with a name that carries an ethnicity to which one is basically a stranger.

Morgan is a Welsh name, and I am sure that the Welsh have wonderful customs and folklore, but I’m not going to learn them in order to keep faith with a name that came to me because of a producer, and so I have to beg off when people want to know about my Welsh heritage. I casually mentioned to my wife prior to our marriage that we could go back to the Bratsberg name which after all remains on my birth certificate, but she was set on Charlotte Morgan and the mention of the Charlotte Bratsberg possibility had her suggesting that we call the whole thing off.

Harry Bratsberg was born in Detroit in 1915 and was raised in Muskegon, Michigan, where he played varsity football at the high school, was a regional debating champion and president of his senior class. Throughout his youth, Norwegian was spoken on the streets in Muskegon and his Norwegian father and Swedish mother carried on most conversations with others in their mother tongues, but they wanted the family to be American, and so they used only English in the home. My dad can understand a fair amount of Norwegian, but cannot really speak it, and has always wished that he could.

Well, with that as an introduction, I want to share with you just two anecdotes that I have picked up from my father’s lore about life in the film business, anecdotes that relate in one way or another to things Norwegian.

My dad appeared in the excellent 1955 film “Not as a Stranger,” which has a terrific starring cast that includes Robert Mitchum, Charles Bickford, Gloria Graham and Olivia de Havilland. Frank Sinatra also has a role in it. Olivia de Havilland plays a Norwegian nurse whom Robert Mitchum marries for all the wrong reasons, and his awkwardness within that relationship is brought home in a dinner table scene which features my dad as Olivia de Havilland’s brother-in-law, Ole, married to her sister, Bruni. Mitchum wants to break the ice at the table and so he tells a joke which unfortunately involves a play on words; it’s pretty plain that his Norwegian bride and her sister Bruni and the sister’s husband Ole do not follow the joke; but after an embarrassing pause my dad sets out to inject some fun and save the moment by announcing, “Ya, dat’s pretty funny!”  

Earlier, in 1949, he appeared in another gem of a picture called “Down to the Sea in Ships.” It was directed by the legendary Henry Hathaway, and starred Lionel Barrymore and Richard Widmark. Dick Widmark became a lifelong friend of my dad’s and really of our entire family, and he is a wonderful human being—but Widmark is Swedish, not Norwegian.

Anyway, “Down to the Sea in Ships” is a coming of age story in which a young boy played by Dean Stockwell is taught lessons in life aboard a whaling vessel in turn of the century America

Hathaway wanted everything about the boat to be authentic, and somehow they managed to find a very elderly Norwegian man named Sven who had actually spent his youth as a crewman on a whaling vessel. He was introduced all around as the man in charge of being sure that the set with the ship on it was as close as possible to the way a true-to-life whaling ship would have looked.

Well, they got to a key scene wherein Barrymore was to relate this very meaningful story about fundamental things in life to the young boy. The ship deck was attached to rollers so that it could be made to sway back and forth, and rising above the deck was a tall mast. Hathaway wanted just those stark elements, the deck and the mast, with a lantern hanging from the mast way up high to light up the deck while Barrymore was telling the story. The lantern would then sway a bit from side to side as the boat swayed on the rollers, and the light from the lantern would hit the deck intermittently so that the rolling of the ocean would seem to dictate the lighting of the scene just like on the open sea, or so it was supposed.

So Mr. Hathaway had everything in place, but nothing could be committed to film until they had heard from Sven as to the authenticity of what had peen planned and set up on the stage. Hathaway called for Sven, and said to him, “Now. Sven, I want you to tell us, you’re the one who experienced all of this, isn’t this just the way that they would have had things on the whaling ships, with the lantern up there just like that?”

Sven had to be straightforward and honest, for that was his job as well as his nature:

“No, Mr. Hathaway, no sir, never in the history of whaling would you have the lantern up high like that on a ship’s mast. You wouldn’t be able to control it, and it would swing wildly and perhaps fall and cause a fire. It would be dangerous, irresponsible in fact, to have it up there like that. No sir, never in the history of whaling.”

Hathaway looked up at the lantern, looked back at Sven, and announced, “F— it, Sven, I like the lantern up there just like it is!”

Sven suffered through a couple of more humiliations like that trying to do his job, and muttered once to my father, “You know, I am supposed to be the expert, but he won’t listen to me.” Eventually he quit coming to work.

My father missed old Sven on the set. Sixty years using the name Morgan has not made my father any less Bratsberg. He liked being around authentic people like old Sven, also like Henry Hathaway, William Wellman, John Ford and all of the others great directors and characters he has met in the film business.

 As I have said, I hope to bring him to one of our upcoming luncheons, for I know that my father would like being around you—well, all of us part Norwegians like him—in the same way.