William Christopher, who played the US Army’s unpretentious chaplain, Father Mulcahy, struggling to bring spiritual comfort to an anarchist surgical unit during the Korean War in the long TV series “M * A * S * H”, he died on Saturday. He was 84 years old.
Christopher, who was diagnosed with cancer about 18 months ago, died in his bed at his Pasadena, California home, according to his longtime New York agent, Robert Malcolm. The wife of the nearly 60-year-old actor, Barbara Christopher, was with him at the time, Malcolm said.
Christopher got the role of Father Francis Mulcahy in “M * A * S * H” after another actor starred in the pilot episode of the show. He went on to play the speaking priest assigned to the mock 4077th Army Mobile Surgical Hospital for the duration of the series, which ran from 1972 to 1983 on the CBS network and continued to broadcast in syndication for decades later.
Together with Alan Alda as Captain “Hawkeye” Pierce, Loretta Swit as Major Margaret “Hotlips” Houlihan and Jamie Farr as Corporal Crosswell Maxwell Klinger, Christopher was among the only cast members to remain on the show for all 11 seasons.
Its 1983 finale attracted 106 million viewers, making it the most watched US television show to date.
In his portrait of Father Mulcahy, a character born in the 1970 movie that inspired TV’s “M * A * S * H”, Christopher was a supporting actor, but his role grew as the series progressed .
After the show’s producers decided to replace George Morgan, the actor originally chosen as chaplain, Christopher had the chance to audition for the part. Although he annoyed the producers with jokes during his rehearsal, he impressed them with his bizarre performance and offered him the job, provided that he followed the script.
As interpreted by Christopher, Mulcahy was a mild, sometimes timid presence in the chaos of “meatball surgery” on troops injured in the 1950-53 Korean War. The character resisted by offering a religious hard sell to army medical personnel and injured wounded.
Mulcahy’s character was Roman Catholic (Christopher was actually Methodist) but served all faiths. Mulcahy fondly referred to Hawkeye as “that crazy agnostic”. In one episode, Alda’s character instructs Mulcahy on the radio how to perform an emergency tracheotomy on a soldier wounded under enemy fire.
“I liked the character. I liked Father Mulcahy. The character is real enough for me,” Christopher told Fayetteville Observer newspaper in North Carolina in 2011.
Christopher joined his colleague “M * A * S * H” Farr and Harry Morgan in the short-lived spin-off series “After MASH”, set in a veteran hospital, which aired in 1983 and 1984.
“I feel lucky enough to be an actor with a job that lasted 11 years,” Christopher told the Patriot-News newspaper in Pennsylvania in 2009. “Actually, I extended it to 13 years because we did” After MASH ” “I was very happy to continue acting as Mulcahy. The actors always expect their job to end and then be out of work. It’s much more fun to work than to be out of work.”
Christopher was born on October 20, 1932, in the suburb of Evanston, Illinois, in Chicago, and attended the same high school that also produced actors Charlton Heston, Rock Hudson, Ralph Bellamy, Bruce Dern and Ann-Margret. Christopher attended college in Connecticut before landing in New York.
He moved to California and got recurring roles in 60s TV shows including “Gomer Pyle: USMC” and “Hogan’s Heroes” and small roles in films including 1968’s “With Six You Get Egg Roll” in which he appeared with the future “M * A * S * H” co-starred Farr.
In the 1990s, Farr and Christopher starred in a traveling production of the play “The Odd Couple”.
Christopher married his wife Barbara in 1957. They had two children. He was active in the cause of autism awareness. He and his wife wrote a book on the education of an autistic child.