Choosing a career in acting is a real gamble, and many times the payoff doesn’t come until further down the road. One’s faith in one’s craft must come before the security of a safe, dependable job, as actors work project-to-project, sometimes going through long droughts between roles. And that’s just the ones who are cast in roles — many times, one might attempt to act and find out they’re just not what casting directors are looking for.
The road is long and paved with jobs that pay very little. At least, that was the case for William Christopher, who played M*A*S*H‘s Father Mulcahy. Like many other actors trying to break into the profession, Christopher faced a ton of adversity when he was first cutting his teeth. Acting is so frequently glamourized that it’s refreshing when performers share how much they really struggled.
“I had been living at the ‘Y’ in New York, doing my laundry in the wash bowl and drying it over the bathtub, and it was pretty grim. But Barbara, my bride, had a nice apartment in Greenwich Village and she had a steady job.”
Those were William Christopher’s words in a 1976 interview with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. While the details are specific, the experience is universal. Most people find that, in order to get what they want in life, they must sacrifice a great deal. William Christopher is a shining example of the ways the universe rewards those who take risks.
“I felt rather guilty, getting married when my only plan was to be an actor,” said Christopher. “To sort of compensate, I would get up first each morning, start a fire in the fireplace, make breakfast, and then wake Barbara gently.” He must’ve been doing something right: The pair were married from 1957 through til Christopher passed away in 2016. “I still do it,” said Christopher in ’76. “It’s been 18 years, but it’s a tradition.”
His wife, Barbara was able to get Christopher a job when he needed it. At the time, Barbara was working for the company that manufactured Lionel toy trains. “She was working [there], answering letters from children,” said Christopher, “and she persuaded the firm to put her in another department and let me write the letters.”
“It was a fine job for me, The youngsters usually asked for something about trains, so I’d write them a note and send a colorful folder. I was able to try out for parts in New York shows whenever they came up, as long as I kept up with my correspondence.”
Success followed when Christopher was cast in “Beyond the Fringe,” a play that filled seats for three weeks at the American Theatre in St. Louis in 1964 after its New York run. The show was, coincidentally, the first time William Christopher appeared onstage in clerical clothing.
Even in success, though, it seems William Christopher was a humble man, living well within his means with his wife and two sons.
“We have our own home in Los Angeles and I’ve spent a lot of time working on it,” he said. “To build our front yard, I dug holes for 50 2-by-4s and poured concrete for a retaining wall. We put in a patio with redwood sides, and Barbara has planted camellias.”
In the end, the gamble paid off.