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William Christopher (1932-2016)

[NOTE: I wrote a very brief placeholder early this morning (at 12:16AM ET) before I had a chance to put together the following tribute to William Christopher.]

William Christopher, who played the kind but occasionally feisty Father Mulcahy, passed away early yesterday morning (December 31st, 2016) at the age of 84. According to news reports, he died of cancer, which he’d been battling for 18 months. He’s survived by his wife of almost 60 years, Barbara, and two sons. Obituaries can be found at Variety, NBC News, and CNN.

Christopher died exactly a year after the death of fellow M*A*S*H cast member Wayne Rogers on December 31st, 2016. I’m sure the entire M*A*S*H fan community joins me in extending condolences to the family and friends of William Christopher for their loss.

Image from the M*A*S*H 30th Anniversary Reunion Special showing William Christopher.

William Christopher in the M*A*S*H 30th Anniversary Reunion Special (2002)

William Christopher started his acting career in the mid-1960s with roles on TV shows like Hank, The Andy Griffith Show, and Hogan’s Heroes. He had a recurring role on Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. from 1965 to 1968 playing Private Lester Hummel. He also had a recurring role on Nichols from 1971 to 1972.

In the pilot episode of M*A*S*H, Father Mulcahy was played by actor George Morgan. According to Larry Gelbart, the producers decided to replace Morgan, wanting someone with “a quirkier personality” to portray the 4077th’s priest. William Christopher got the job and made his first appearance as Father Mulcahy in “Requiem for a Lightweight” in which he refereed Trapper’s boxing match. As the series progressed, boxing became a large part of the character.

For the first four seasons, Christopher received billing in the closing credits. It wasn’t until Season 5 that he was promoted to a full member of the cast. That same year, he missed several episodes while he was out sick with hepatitis.

Image from the M*A*S*H episode Dear Dad showing Father Mulcahy.

William Christopher as Father Mulcahy in “Dear Dad” (Season 1)

An early indication of William Christopher’s talent came in “Dear Dad” (Season 1) when Father Mulcahy talked Klinger into giving up a hand grenade. Many fans consider Father Mulcahy’s finest moment to be the following scene from “The Interview” (Season 4):

When the doctors cut into a patient and it’s cold, you know, the way it is now, today steam rises from the body and the doctor will will warm himself over the open wound. Could anyone look on that and not feel changed?

Who can forget the Father Mulcahy soundalike contest in “Movie Tonight” (Season 5)? Then there was the time he punched a soldier in “Dear Sis” (Season 7). And of course this memorable quote from “Life Time” (Season 8):

Dear God, I’ve never asked you for this before, and I don’t know what you’re going to think of me for asking now. But if you’re going to take him anyway, please take him quickly so we can save the other boy.

Some of Father Mulcahy’s best episodes include “Mulcahy’s War” (Season 5), in which he travels to the front with Radar and operates on a wounded soldier; “Out of Gas” (Season 7), in which he turns to the black market to acquire sodium pentathol; “An Eye for a Tooth” (Season 7) in which he’s passed over for a promotion; “Dear Sis” (Season 7), in which he writes a letter to his sister the sister; “Nurse Doctor” (Season 8), in which a nurse falls in love with him; “Captains Outrageous” (Season 8) in which he finally gets his promotion; “Blood Brothers” (Season 9), in which he worries about the arrival of an Army cardinal played by Ned Beatty; “A Holy Mess” (Season 10), in which he gives sanctuary to a soldier gone AWOL; and “Run for the Money” (Season 11), in which he’s pitted against the 8063rd’s runner in a foot race.

Image from the M*A*S*H episode The Interview showing Father Mulcahy.

William Christopher as Father Mulcahy in “The Interview” (Season 4)

Following the end of M*A*S*H, Christopher joined Harry Morgan and Jamie Farr on AfterMASH, which aired on CBS from 1983 to 1984 (with one last episode airing in 1985). He made a handful of TV guest appearances in the 1980s and 1990s, including Murder, She Wrote (1985), CBS Summer Playhouse (1987), Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman (1997), Mad About You (1998). In 1997, Christopher co-starred with Jamie Farr in a touring production of The Odd Couple. He came out of retirement in 2012 to play Father Tobias on the NBC soap opera Days of Our Lives, appearing in more than 10 episodes.

Image from the M*A*S*H episode Goodbye, Farewell and Amen showing Father Mulcahy.

William Christopher as Father Mulcahy in “Goodbye, Farewell and Amen” (Season 11)

Image from the AfterMASH episode It Had to Be You showing Father Mulcahy.

William Christopher as Father Mulcahy in the AfterMASH episode “It Had to Be You” (Season 1, January 1984)

Along with his wife, Christopher wrote Mixed Blessings, a non-fiction book about raising a son with autism. It was published in 1989.

In January 2016, Christopher was interviewed for a local half-hour TV special called “M*A*S*H Memories & Magic” along with Loretta Swit, Mike Farrell, Jamie Farr, and Gary Burghoff.

Tributes and Memorials

Scriptwriter Ken Levine has penned a brief tribute to William Christopher at his blog. “A sweeter, nicer, more gentle man you’d never find,” Levine wrote. “He was an absolute pleasure to work with. And he took a thankless role and turned it into a vibrant character.”

Loretta Swit released the following statement to ABC7/Eyewitness News:

“Our dear Bill and his goodness are a great argument for there being a heaven. I never heard him complain or lose his temper. Everyone adored him. A great sense of humor and a great humanitarian. He became TV’s quintessential padre as Father Mulcahy on ‘M*A*S*H.’ It was the most perfect casting ever known. He was probably responsible for more people coming back to the church. If God is nigh, then surely he or she will welcome Bill with open arms.”

Update – Alan Alda sent the following tweet remembering William Christopher:

If the tweet doesn’t load properly, here’s what Alan Alda wrote: “His pals from #MASH miss Bill powerfully. His kind strength, his grace and gentle humor weren’t acted. They were Bill. ❤️#WilliamChristopher”.

Monday, January 2nd, 2017 Update – Jeff Maxwell, who played Igor, left the following comment at Ken Levine’s blog yesterday afternoon:

I’m very sad at the loss of this nice nice man, the sweetest part of the MASH family. Bill and his wife, Barbara, shop at the same market I do in Pasadena. We’ve been running into each other at least twice a month for the last ten years, mostly in the produce section. One of the checkers loves MASH, and much to his delight at having two people from the show as regulars, beaming, he never misses a chance to tell me that I just missed Bill.

And I will, very much.

My heart goes out to Barbara and his sons. Navigating his illness and this loss during a holiday season must be excruciating.

21 Comments

  • TWoods says:

    Looking forward to it, RJ….. So sad. 🙁

  • futurenurse says:

    How sad. 🙁 2016 had to take one more actor before it went…

  • David G. says:

    Dec. 31 has now become a very dark day of the year for the M*A*S*H crew. And its fans.

  • Patrick says:

    RIP. Thank you for the wonderful character.

  • Seoul City Sue says:

    Now, 2016 both starred and ended on a terrible note for all of us M*A*S*H fans.

    RIP William Christopher. Godspeed, Padre!!

  • Oxy Osbourne says:

    No jocularity today. Goodbye, farewell, and amen. Rest in peace William Christopher.

  • Dan says:

    A very sweet man. His performance in “The Interview” was not just a high point for him as an actor but one of the highlights of the series. RIP.

  • LoveThe4077 says:

    Of all the celebrities that passed between New Year’s Eve 2015 and New Year’s Eve 2016, they were bookended by M*A*S*H stars……From Wayne Rogers (Trapper John McIntyre) to William Christopher (Father Francis John Patrick Mulcahy). Interesting peculiarity isn’t it? Or coincidence?

  • Sara Marie says:

    Rest in Paradise, Father Mulcahy <3 Oh what a cruel year 2016 was, so sad….I'm heartbroken again, another one gone from the 4077…."Well, goodbye, Father. I must say you've made this hellhole a trifle less unbearable"..Goodbye, Farewell and Amen :'( <3

  • Terry says:

    Very sad to hear the news about Bill Christopher, played Father Mulcahy character unbelievably well. Sadly it’s time to say goodbye to another MASH member. Go to heaven and hug the stuffing out of the rest of those up there waiting to see you.

  • DrSPH says:

    While 2016 did seem to sting pretty hard, this one hurts a bit more.

    I came of age during the M*A*S*H years, celebrating the finale in my college dining hall. It was the first series whose DVDs I actually collected as they were released, one season at a time.

    As much as I enjoyed all the portrayals, Father Mulcahey was always a particular favorite. In my teens, a life threatening illness prompted a crisis of faith, and I wished there had been a Mulcahey to help me navigate the journey.

    Often when I’m feeling battered, I will rewatch episodes where Mulcahey was prominently featured. Particularly, “Dear Sis” where Mulcahey was feeling unfulfilled, ends up hitting a patient, he grapples with that act and his role, finally the camp later sings Dona Nobis Pacem to honor his contributions. Also, “Blood Brothers” where Mulcahey is stressed by the visit of a supervisory monsignor and becomes surly and impatient with the 4077th. But then, he almost misses the Sunday service because he has stayed up all night ministering to a soldier who just learned he has leukemia.

    William Christoper’s portrayal in those and many other scenes I’m sure left many others wishing, as I did, for a Father Mulcahey in their lives. There’s also the simple reality that such a portrayal was possible because Christopher himself was just a good and decent man.

    Goodbye, farewell, and amen Father Mulcahey.

  • 007 says:

    2016 sure was another bad year for celebrities passing away wasn’t it. This is really sad. Like Leonard Nimoy, Christoper Lee, and Wayne Rogers last year, and then Carrie Fisher this year, this one hits much closer to home.

    As fans of a show that was on so long ago, I guess this is something that is going to keep happening over the next decade, maybe less. It’s like a part of our lives being taken away each time.

    RIP Padre

  • BDOR says:

    This is so eerie that he died exactly a year later as Wayne Rogers . . . it’s a lot like how McLean Stevenson (TV Henry) and Roger Bowen (movie Henry) coincidentally died the same day of the same cause, but Roger Bowen’s date of death was legally changed to a day later to make it seem less eerie.

    As I’ve written before, Father Mulcahy was a lot more of a complex character than people may know: he often went back and forth feeling completely useless in a camp that seemingly didn’t even need him (“Mulcahy’s War,” “Dear Sis”) and feeling like he is an important figure in the camp and that a lot of people depend on him (“Hepatitis,” “An Eye for a Tooth”).

    One thing you can say about Bill was that he was certainly dedicated to the role, consulting with actual priests on how he should respectfully and realistically, yet endearingly portray Mulcahy, while also having the mindset that the show was really about, “a priest in Korea.”

    I recall some of his other TV appearances: his appearance as Mayberry’s young new doctor on THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW was pretty much the only memorable episode from the color seasons; he also showed what a talented mimic he could be by doing British and German accents on HOGAN’S HEROES (and somehow, with his high voice, that made his German accents all the more convincing). I even caught a glimpse of him on DAYS OF OUR LIVES in 2012 quite by accident.

    But one of my favorite appearances of his was in the Doris Day movie, WITH SIX YOU GET EGGROLL, where he and Jamie Farr were the leaders of a hippy motorcycle gang (of which, director Horward Morris, better known as Ernest T. Bass from THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW, was also a member) . . . we even later encounter Vic Tayback wearing Radar’s hat and coat:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a1RVXpiffLk

    It’s really sad that we’re beginning to lose more and more of the cast like this: Harry Morgan in 2011 (and apparently again in 2016, somehow), Wayne Rogers last year, now Bill Christopher this year.

    From what I understand, despite playing a Catholic priest, Bill was actualy Methodist in real life. Whatever his denomination, I hope he’ll bring some of his jocularity to Heaven with him.

    Thanks, Father Mulcahy; you will be missed.

  • buckeyebabe says:

    Yesterday I was feeling sentimental about the anniversary of Wayne Rogers’ passing so I watched some of my favorite Trapper moments. Today I will do the same for William Christopher. I will laugh at Father Mulcahy’s temperance lecture in “Alcoholics Unanimous” and I will cry as the cast sings Dona Nobis Pacem to Mulcahy in “Dear Sis” and when he breaks down during his sermon in “Blood Brothers.” I will say a prayer for his family and for the surviving members of the cast who have lost another friend. Thank you Bill for the memories. As Colonel Potter said ” you were a Godsend.”

  • Crabapple Cove says:

    Heard this news last night on the radio. So sad to end another year with the loss of another cast member. Christopher seemed very dedicated to playing Mulcahy and stuck with it all of those years, despite rarely get many lines in the show.

    RIP Bill and prayers for your family and friends.

  • RJ says:

    Alan Alda tweeted the following a few minutes ago:

  • Doc Funnypants says:

    Godspeed, Francis Mulcahy. You made the 4077th a lot more bearable. Say hello to Trapper, Henry, Sherman, and Frank Burns when you arrive at Rainbow Bridge.
    My favorite Mulcahy quote is: “When they say we have to do time in purgatory, we call all say ‘No thanks, I’ve done mine’.

    RIP, Padre

  • Andrea says:

    Very sad news, such an understated actor and apparently a very nice man too.

  • Father Angus says:

    To hear the death of the actor of my favourite character of my favourite TV show is very sad. RIP Bill Christopher. You will be missed.

  • TWoods says:

    A gentle man who was a true gentleman. He will be missed!

  • Chauncey Uppercrust says:

    My husband and I had the opportunity to meet William Christopher several years ago, along with Loretta Swit and Jamie Farr. He spent a few minutes talking with us and signed our book. He really was as kind and personable as he aways seemed to be on tv. I am grateful that we had the chance to have that experience with him. Rest in peace.

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