William Christopher, the actor who played the chaplain on the classic TV series M*A*S*H, died Saturday at his home in Pasadena, California. According to Reuters, Christopher was diagnosed with lung cancer about 18 months ago. The 84-year-old actor was with his wife of 60 years, Barbara, at the time of his death.
William Christopher was not the first person to play the Father Mulcahy character. Rene Auberjonois played the role in the 1970 Robert Altman film on which the TV series was based, and George Morgan played the role in the pilot episode of the TV series. Christopher took over the role of Father Mulcahy after the pilot and was one of the few cast members to remain on the show for all 11 of its seasons from 1972 to 1983. It aired originally on CBS, but is still in syndication to this day.
M*A*S*H was a groundbreaking and wildly successful show. The show’s finale in 1983 drew 106 million viewers, making it to this date the single most watched TV show in the history of the United States. In earlier seasons, William Christopher’s Father Mulcahy character was a supporting character, but his role grew as the series continued due to his popularity with audiences.
Father Mulcahy was Roman Catholic on the show, but ministered to all faiths in the surgical hospital where the show took place. According to IMDb, William Christopher completely ignored the prepared monologue during his audition and instead improvised a speech in the manner of a priest. The producers were disappointed that he failed to read the prepared lines, but liked him anyway so they offered him the role on the condition that he would stick to the script.
William Christopher became active in the National Autistic Society after his adopted son, Ned, was diagnosed with autism in the early 70’s. Christopher and his wife, Barbara, wrote a book about their experience raising an autistic child called Mixed Blessings. According to a 1989 issue of People magazine, it took six years of constant tests and doctor visits before the diagnosis of autism was reached.
“The Christophers tried a variety of therapeutic approaches, including one program that required Bill to run five miles a day with Ned to stimulate his neurological development. Cruelly, just as their prayers and hard work seemed to be paying off, Ned’s condition deteriorated. Ned, 21, now lives at the Devereux Foundation near Santa Barbara. Calif. William and Barbara, whose book, Mixed Blessings, a chronicle of their life with Ned, was published earlier this year, are active in the Devereux Foundation and have become outspoken advocates for the rights of the developmentally disabled.”
Although his role as Father Mulcahy on M*A*S*H is how he is best known to millions of fans, William Christopher had a long career in Television. In 2012, he returned to TV as a priest when he played Father Tobias on 11 episodes of Days of Our Lives. Prior to that, he was the voice of Angel Smurf on The Smurfs. Before being cast in M*A*S*H, Christopher had recurring roles on Hogan’s Heroes and Gomer Pyle:USMC. Christopher also had a number of guest appearances on shows throughout his career, such as Mad About You, The Love Boat, and The Andry Griffith Show. He also reprized the role of Father Mulcahy in the spin-off series, After MASH, which aired for two seasons.
William Christopher’s role as Father Mulcahy will not soon be forgotten, as M*A*S*H lives on in syndication on AMC and other channels.
[Featured Image by Red McLendon/AP Images]