January 3, 2017
Jan 6, 2017
William Christopher, the actor best known for playing Fr. Francis Mulcahy on the long running television series "MASH", died on December 31, 2016, at the age of 84.
Growing up in the 1970's, "MASH" was a weekly staple of my weekly television watching. Following the lives of the medical and support staff of the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (MASH) during the Korean War, it ran from 1972 to 1983. One of the most popular programs of the time, it remains widely seen today in syndication. Characterized as a comedy, it also presented serious subject matter related to war, violence, patriotism, life and death. Fr. Mulcahy was the chaplain assigned to serve the hospital's staff and patients.
During the show's run, the character of Fr. Mulcahy was not only the most visible Catholic priest on American television, he was also a rarity, a religious figure that was a regular character on a network program. During that time the issues of religion and faith, Christian or otherwise, were all but ignored on television. Clergy were largely absent unless the story line of an episode included a wedding or funeral, and then only as window dressing. Can anyone remember the Brady Bunch or the Partridge Family routinely going to church on Sunday? Me neither.
But in this period, Fr. Mulcahy was the exception as a visible, and positive, image of the Catholic priesthood. The original film vision of "MASH", released in 1970, inspired the television series. In the film, the chaplain of the 4077th was depicted as something of a naive fool.
Much to William Christopher's credit, along the television series' writers, producers and directors, Fr. Mulcahy was allowed to develop into a more than a simple caricature. Moving from a recurring to a regular character in the later seasons, he was humble, gentle, patient and possessed a quiet courage. Authentic and dedicated, he was respected by his peers, most of whom were non-religious.
Humility, gentleness, patience, courageousness, authenticity and dedication; all good qualities to have in a priest, and not only on television.
My thanks to William Christopher, who in real life was a Methodist, for his positive portrayal of a Catholic priest. He is survived by his wife of 59 years, Barbara, and two sons. May he rest in peace.