If it weren’t for the part of Father Mulcahy in the television show M*A*S*H, it’s hard to say if the death of actor William Christopher would be one “of note”. However, as Loretta Swit is quoted, “He became TV’s quintessential padre as Father Mulcahy on M.A.S.H. It was the most perfect casting ever known”
The character Father Mulcahy was quite a bit different in the book upon which the movie and television series were based on, as well as even the pilot to the series. First credit must be given to the M*A*S*H writers for creating a character that was religious but not a religious parody or caricature; someone set in a place of constant struggle and suffering, but who had not given up hope; a man who strove toward virtue, but was aware of the faults of his comrades and loved the sinners whom he served; someone with a unshakable faith and quiet strength of character rather than a hypocrite or acting in a holier-than-thou manner. In the history of television, it is incredibly rare to find a member of the clergy written with such depth and care, and even more extraordinary is finding it in a show that was not meant to be in any way religious. Mr. Christopher rose to the occasion, even in limited screen time managing to embody this character well, portraying the nuances above, but also keeping the character of Fr. Mulcahy human, interesting, and relatable.
That being said, Mr. Christopher was not just merely a good actor, someone who could take a well-written script and play it well. While good writing can certainly help a show, it is a process that doesn’t occur in a vacuum. Especially in long-running series, the writers don’t just write a character, but often write a character for a specific actor, allowing the actual personality of the actor shine through. I never met the man, but William Christopher always struck me as an especially kind and good person, like Fr. Mulcahy, and while the writing for Fr. Mulcahy in the series remained consistent, Mr. Christopher never allowed himself to play the part with any sort of creeping cynicism or irony. He very much demonstrated the types of qualities that make chaplains important – faith in God, love of people, patience, humor, and self-sacrifice, to name a few.
In his own life, though, Mr. Christopher and his wife Barbara were married in 1957, and ended up adopting two boys. The younger of the two, Ned, was eventually diagnosed with autism. Rather than accepting the idea that Ned was retarded and disabled beyond help, the family struggled through many years of trying to figure out what the actual issue(s) were and in finding treatment that would help him. In the 1980s, the Christophers wrote a book, Mixed Blessings that chronicles that journey. William and Barbara stayed together throughout, only death bringing an end to their nearly 60-year marriage. There is an episode of M*A*S*H from Season 4, Dear Mildred, where Fr. Mulcahy ends up in a performance singing with a couple of women who are either nurses or nuns. While I was watching, there was the way that he just looked at the one woman, as if he were totally smitten and in love with her, and I couldn’t help but thinking, “Oh, Fr. Mulcahy, you have to be careful there or people will get the wrong idea”. In reading Mixed Blessings, I learned that this woman was his wife. Furthermore, when one considers that by this time they had been married well over 15 years and were going through all the issues with their son, it’s even more amazing that even through all of that, this look of true love and adoration could not be quelled. Things like this lead me to believe that besides being a good actor, he was truly a good man as well.
In today’s world, where celebrity deaths often bring about days of maudlin public mourning; I doubt Mr. Christopher’s death will be considered ‘great’ enough to set off such a grotesque public spectacle. Better so. However, of all the celebrity deaths of 2016, it is his that is the only one that saddens me on a personal level. As is now customary after a celebrity death announcement, the tweeting of tributes has commenced, and while most will always be of little substance, the one by Alan Alda, star of the show M*A*S*H, is as touching as it is succinct; “His pals from #Mash miss Bill powerfully. His kind strength, his grace and gentle humor weren’t acted. They were Bill. #WilliamChristopher”.