As if 2016 needed one more victim, only hours before the year ended, William Christopher died. To fans of the TV series MASH, he was the quintessential television padre.
It’s worth noting that Christopher was also an early advocate for autism. This came from his own child’s condition. Dustin Hoffman stayed with him to research his role in Rain Man.
As an actor, Mr. Christopher didn’t often revisit the TV series that made him famous. Part of it was the frustration he had as an actor. He replaced the original actor for the part of Fr. Mulcahy because, according to the producers, Christopher had a ‘quirky’ way about him. Initially he was a sideline character, a third tier without being listed on the opening credits.
As an actor, and as a person with bills to pay, he wanted his character to be more. He researched by going to local Catholic churches and talking to army chaplains. He did what he could to make his character, a Catholic chaplain, more believable. But his main adversaries were Alan Alda and the writers. Being generally non-religious and dismissive, if not outright hostile, toward religion, the writers had nothing to give to the character Christopher played.
In the interviews he did give over the years, he talked about the struggles he had making the role three dimensional. A big obstacle was in openly non-religious Alda. During development of the series, Alda came to play a bigger and bigger role in the show’s creative direction. During that time, Alda came up with the character of Dr. Sidney Freedman, an army psychiatrist who would help unpack some of the psychological traumas of war.
Christopher protested. That’s what a chaplain is for. Alda and the writers didn’t listen. They couldn’t conceive of a religious figure being anything other than fodder for jokes. The low point for Christopher came early on. In a particular episode, the camp was alerted to Major Margaret Houlihan’s tent, only to find her and Frank Burns together. The running gag was that they were having an ongoing affair they believed was secret, when everyone knew. Fr. Mulcahy , however, was supposed to show up and deliver the line: “What could they be doing in there?”
Christopher howled. He said it was almost degrading to think an army chaplain, or anyone, would be so stupid. The writers stood their ground. They insisted he deliver the line. Christopher acquiesced, but at shooting time, he added an eye roll. If you see the episode, you see him do it. In other words, the good chaplain knew darn well what they were doing. It was a big turning point according to Christopher. He realized he played a religious character surrounded by writers and producers who had nothing but contempt for religion.
Over the years, he fought to get more meaningful stories. Finally, they agreed to center more on his character. In one episode, he and corporal O’Reilly had to bring a seriously wounded soldier back from the front line aid station. On the way, the soldier began choking because his tongue had swollen. Using the radio, the surgeons guided Fr. Mulcahy through an improvised tracheotomy. Good, but not good enough. As Christopher said, it could have been anyone, and it had nothing to do with the religious nature of his role.
Finally he began to get his way. As the later episodes became less comedy and more drama, he used that fact to get roles delving into the spiritual, and his own character’s ability to minister accordingly. The role of Sidney Freedman diminished in later years as Christopher demonstrated that psychological training is part and parcel for chaplains in the army. They didn’t have to call Seoul for counseling and psychological help, they had someone there already.
But he didn’t try to make his character into a superman. He looked at the flaws that come with religious service as well. The later episodes aren’t usually considered the best, being heavy handed and preachy. But there are some gems, especially where developing the characters of Fr. Mulcahy or Charles Winchester are concerned.
In one, Fr. Mulcahy is all aflutter. His superior, Cardinal Reardon, is in the country on inspection. Mulcahy fears that he is irrelevant in the camp, and that the camp is awash in decadence and immorality. This is driven home by several scenes showing everyone acting as they will, without considering Mulcahy ‘s dilemma.
Meanwhile, a young Patrick Swayze plays a soldier who has just been told he has leukemia. Alda’s character Hawkeye is devastated by having to deliver the news. The day comes and Mulcahy’s superior arrives, only to find gambling, sleeping around, tomfoolery and licentiousness of all types, much to the chagrin of Mulcahy and camp commander Colonel Potter. Mulcahy storms into the mess tent and sits by Hawkeye, letting loose his frustration about how unfairly he’s being treated. Nobody in the camp cares about what he is going through! Hawkeye only politely listens. Getting no response, Mulcahy lashes out at Hawkeye for being so dismissive. That’s when Hawkeye explains the leukemia situation.
The morning then comes for the big service. Everyone is going to hear Cardinal Reardon, but Fr. Mulcahy is supposed to introduce him. The entire camp turns out in a show of support. They do care after all. But no Mulcahy. Panicking, they look around and find him, sitting at the edge of Patrick Swayzes’ bed, the two comforting each other. Mulcahy is unshaven and still in his bathrobe. Quickly they rush to the mess tent where everyone, including the cardinal, is gathered.
What follows is one of the greatest sermons I’ve ever seen in any fictional account of religion, ever.
I’ll miss him for what he brought to the character, and for revealing an industry so deep in its own prejudices that even for the sake of its art, it took a loud and persistent actor to let them consider the fact that religious people aren’t always stupid, and religion itself not always pointless.
Thanks for the memories and contributions Mr. Christopher. God’s blessings be on you and your loved ones. Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord, and let the Perpetual Light shine upon him.