A Salute to George Morgan

When M*A*S*H premiered on September 17th, 1972, viewers were introduced (per the opening credits) to Alan Alda, Wayne Rogers, McLean Stevenson, Larry Linville, Loretta Swit and Gary Burghoff. Guest stars in that first episode included G. Wood as General Hammond, Patrick Adiarte as Ho-Jon, Karen Phillip as Lt. Dish and George Morgan as Father Mulcahy. George Morgan? Who’s that? I thought William Christopher played the good father?

George Morgan as Father Mulcahy in M*A*S*H--The Pilot
George Morgan as Father Mulcahy in “M*A*S*H–The Pilot”

George Morgan (not to be confused with country singer George Morgan) played Father Mulcahy for the first and only time in “M*A*S*H – The Pilot.” When the character resurfaced in the third episode, “Requiem for a Lightweight,” William Christopher had taken over the role. It’s not uncommon for actors who appeared in a pilot episode to be replaced once it has been picked up by a network. In the unaired pilot episode of Gilligan’s Island, for example, the characters played by Tina Louise, Russell Johnson and Dawn Wells do not appear. When the pilot was picked up, however, they were added to the cast.

George Morgan as Father Mulcahy in M*A*S*H--The Pilot
George Morgan as Father Mulcahy in “M*A*S*H–The Pilot”

When CBS picked up M*A*S*H, and the producers were faced with the prospect of a weekly series, they decided to replace George Morgan. I assume, but don’t know for sure, that George Morgan auditioned for the role of Father Mulcahy when the pilot episode was under production, and he obviously got it. (I’ve read that when William Christopher came in to audition for the role, he ignored the material prepared for him and instead improvised a priestly speech. But I can’t find any source for this, be it a newspaper/magazine article or a television interview. Was it something he mentioned during a retrospective or documentary special about M*A*S*H? If anyone knows for sure, please let me know.)

George Morgan didn’t have any lines in “M*A*S*H – The Pilot,” at least none that I’ve managed to catch during numerous viewings. Here’s a breakdown of all the scenes that he appeared in:

  • Prior to the extended opening credits, Father Mulcahy is seen napping in front of his tent. He crosses himself while asleep.
  • During the extended opening credits, Father Mulcahy can briefly be seen in a mass of people including Hawkeye and Lt. Dish.
  • In the O.R., as Hawkeye narrates a letter to his father, Father Mulcahy is seen in the background; Trapper later calls for some “cross action” and Mulcahy comes running.
  • He does not show up again until he is seen waving goodbye to Colonel Blake at the chopper pad.
  • He watches as Hawkeye throws a rock at the loudspeaker after an announcement is made confining everyone to duty the following night, on the order’s of Frank Burns.
  • At Ho-Jon’s party, Father Mulcahy is seen several times in the background.
  • While standing next to Hawkeye, he takes a drink and nearly gags.
  • Finally, when Hawkeye announces that he is the winner of the raffle, Father Mulcahy is shown with an incredulous expression on his face.

Additionally, following the tag scene, when the PA announcer lists off the “personnel assigned to the 4077th mobile army surgical hospital,” George Morgan is the fourth-to-last name. The scene in which Father Mulcahy crosses himself while asleep is repeated as his name is called by the announcer.

George Morgan as Father Mulcahy in M*A*S*H--The Pilot
George Morgan as Father Mulcahy in “M*A*S*H–The Pilot”

Despite only playing the role of Father Mulcahy in one episode, George Morgan can actually be seen in the opening credits to every episode. If you watch closely, he is shown crouching, hat in his hand, next to Radar as Hawkeye runs toward a chopper.

Cowboy Bug Out
Left: “Cowboy”; Right: “Bug Out”

Why was George Morgan replaced? Here’s what series creator/executive producer Larry Gelbart wrote in a May 1999 post to the alt.tv.mash Usenet group:

For reasons having nothing to with that gentleman’s ability, Gene Reynolds and I decided [to] go with Bill Christopher in the role.

And here’s what Gelbart wrote in August of 2002 (I can’t find the original post, but it was quoted in full in a November 2002 post by someone else)

George Morgan is a perfectly fine actor. We wanted someone who had a quirkier personality – one we wouldn’t have to write into the script.

According to his Internet Movie Database entry, George Morgan made only one additional television appearance after “M*A*S*H – The Pilot,” in an episode of ABC’s Wide World Mystery in January of 1973. And he only had a handful of earlier credits, including a pair of episodes of Bonanza and an episode of The Interns (which co-starred Mike Farrell).

It’s impossible to imagine how different M*A*S*H would have been had George Morgan not been replaced by William Christopher. Viewers are obviously used to seeing William Christopher as Father Mulcahy and the thought of anyone else playing him seems strange. Still, part of me wonders how George Morgan would have handled a line like the following:

I’m incensed! I am outraged! Where is your decency, man? Your humanity? I am acrimonious! I am not a man given to physical demonstrations of emotion, but let me tell you, I can be persuaded to violence.

(That’s from “Fallen Idol,” by the way.)

16 Comments

  • Sam says:

    Larry Gelbart did mention Bill Christopher originally auditioning for the role, but them turning him down because of his improvisation, but later bringing him back on the condition that he stuck with the script in the 30th Anniversary Reunion Special.

    I actually think George Morgan’s Father Mulcahy more resembles Rene Auberjunois’ Mulcahy from the original 1970 movie, to a degree.

  • Lisa says:

    Here is another mention about it. Listen to Bill Christopher’s syntax: It’s really funny! Kinda ambiguous and rambling. His interview is about 40 minutes in. There is also Mike Farrell at the beginning – very charming. Jamie Farr is about an hour in – great stories, especially about touring in Korea with Red Skelton. Plus, the funny PA Announcer Todd Susman!

  • RJ says:

    I actually listened to parts of the Just My Show interview when it first went up. I guess I didn’t get to William Christopher’s segment. He explains that he doesn’t know why George Morgan was replaced, aside from saying that the producers “wanted a slightly different quality.” Here’s his response when asked about not reading what was given to him at his audition (it’s a fairly accurate transcription):

    “Oh, you’ve heard that. That story is true. Yeah. I was in an improv group at the time and we used to improvise comedy every Friday night in a little theater. So I felt very confident this role was right for me so I thought I’d just improvise instead of using the lines they-Larry Gelbart, who’s such a premiere writer, and who wrote the plot for MASH and who did so much writing on the show. He was the writer of the show I was using to read by. It never occurred to me that he might really want to hear his own words. It was a mistake. But after that first reading and I was told that was not the way to go, happily they called me back to do another. And I went back the next day and then they were much more pleased. I did it the way you were supposed to.”

    What’s interesting to me is that this wasn’t his first audition. He already had quite a few credits to his name, including a recurring role on Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C., so I can’t imagine why he thought it was a good idea to ignore the script he’d been given for an audition. It’s a pretty funny story, though, and a testament to Larry Gelbart and Gene Reynolds that they let him come back a second time. I’ll have to take a look at the 30th Anniversary Reunion Special later to see what Larry Gelbart had to say.

    I do wish there was a recording of his improvised audition somewhere, though.

  • Dave says:

    I am an avid MASH fan. I own all twelve years on DVD. I often look up some actors from the show to see what they went on to do. Always surprised to see how many were essential flash in the pan actors. Odessa Cleveland and the guy who played Egor. I suspect Gary Burgoff and other regulars like Wayne Rogers and Larry Linville may have become independently wealthy from the show and never really did much after it ended. Some went on to other less celebrity based endeavors like Burgoff and Cleveland. Being a DAV from Viet Nam this show did much to help me transition back into regular life after I left the service.

  • I would be very interested to learn if Morgan is still alive, and how he might be contacted. I am also quite curious as to whether he ever said or wrote anything about his experience with MASH.

  • george says:

    let’s not forget George’s Birthday this Nov. 18 !! Happy birthday George!!

  • Gaynor Williams says:

    Hi,I can honestly say that for the last 15 years maybe longer that I watch mash every .night when I ‘m in bed.I have the 11 series and I start at no.1 until I get to no.11 and after ive watched them all I start all over again.I just love the series .

    • Mike says:

      I have been doing the same thing recently. Ah, hotel time on the road. I’m glad they added it to Netflix. I often stop and Google the references to old actors and nutty lines written in.

  • Aaron Handy III says:

    A vow of silence, perhaps? πŸ™‚

  • Dougdenslowe says:

    i too was brought here by my curiosity about George Morgan.Im always curious about actors that get replaced. The “peek behind the scenes” always has appealed to me.I know he could’ve been too happy considering how long and successful the show was.

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