Nabbing a staggering 14 Emmys over the course of its celebrated 11-season run, there’s perhaps no sitcom (if it can even be called that) as universally beloved and continually celebrated as CBS’s M*A*S*H (1972-1983). The series—based, of course, on the 1970 film and 1968 novel, both of the same name—followed a gaggle of army doctors, nurses, and officers who used practical jokes and camp-wide hijinks to cope with the horrifying realities of wartime: an admittedly morbid premise that resulted in one of television’s most influential and cherished comedies. While viewers may have initially tuned into M*A*S*H to see what outlandish practical joke Hawkeye and Trapper would come up with next, the show slowly began to morph into something far greater than its humble comedy roots. Thanks to the cast’s increasing behind-the-scenes influence (spearheaded by Alan Alda, who frequently pulled triple duty as a writer, actor, and director) M*A*S*H transformed into a poignant, potent, anti-war drama that gracefully tackled everything from racism to homosexuality, without losing the signature sense of humor that drew viewers in to begin with.
Though each and every member of M*A*S*H’s impressive ensemble cast is worthy of in-depth examination, perhaps the most eccentric of the bunch is Corporal Klinger (Jamie Farr), the crossdressing company clerk in search of a section 8 discharge, and who forges an unlikely bond with Father Mulcahy (William Christopher), a kindly priest with an affinity for boxing. While much of M*A*S*H is celebrated for its transcendent writing—for a show celebrating its 50th birthday, it’s remarkable just how much of its messaging stands up to scrutiny under a modern lense—the show’s treatment of Klinger’s identity, Mulcahy’s faith, and the warmth of their relationship provide some of M*A*S*H’s most memorable and thought-provoking moments.
For a series that predates the legalization of gay marraige and the abolishment of “don’t ask don’t tell,” M*A*S*H always held a thoroughly modern attitude towards queerness in the few times that it was explicitly mentioned over the course of the series. While Alda and co. may not have been able to directly address the rampant homophobia in the military without invoking the ire of network censors, episodes like Season 2’s “George” leave no doubt in the audiences’ mind that Hawkeye and the rest of the 4077 have no place for homophobia in their camp.
Admittedly, when it comes to visible queerness on M*A*S*H, “George” is hardly the first thing that comes to mind: when you think M*A*S*H, you think of the zany soldier who wore increasingly outlandish women’s outfits in search of a discharge from the army for insanity. On paper, Klinger’s character sounds like a dated transphobic joke: watch the audience point and laugh as a hairy man in a dress parades around the camp toting purses and handkerchiefs. But, as any fan (or even casual viewer) of M*A*S*H will tell you, the series doesn’t approach Klinger with disdain or disgust.
Whereas contemporary productions like Tootsie built entire premises on the ridiculousness of a man in a dress, M*A*S*H embraces Klinger’s eccentricities. Never succumbing to low hanging fruit, Klinger’s outfits—or the fact that he continues wearing them even after it’s more than clear that his crossdressing won’t secure him a discharge—are never the butt of the joke. Instead, he’s constantly complimented and uplifted by his campmates, demonstrated to be a competent officer, and given just as much agency as the rest of the cast, even as the comic relief. In fact, the only time someone in the M*A*S*H camp expresses disdain for Klinger’s outfits is when there is a newcomer or a villain of the episode. And even then, the jokes always come at the expense of the intruding party, while Klinger remains as comfortable in his own skin as ever.
The warmth and camaraderie of the 4077th is a foundational element of the show’s success, and just because he wears dresses and heels, Klinger isn’t exempt from this fondness. Perhaps the most thoroughly modern and affecting element of his integration with the rest of the unit is just how much the other doctors and soldiers not only adore, but uplift and support Klinger in his pursuit of fashion—so much so that fans have made YouTube compilations of the 4077th paying Klinger endless compliments. One of the most noticeable elements of how the unit interacts with Klinger is that his outfits are only noteworthy to the others because of their fashion forwardness or bold style, not the fact that he’s a man in woman’s clothing. Sure, when Klinger enters the camp in a wedding dress and Hawkeye says “nice outfit”, there’s a tongue-in-cheek nature to the compliment that means it isn’t entirely straightforward, but what sentence that leaves Hawkeye’s lips is?
With the continued support and admiration of the 4077th, M*A*S*H follows Klinger’s journey with fashion as he progresses from dressing up for a discharge to dressing up for himself and his affinity for style—a startlingly progressive character progression for a network comedy from 1972. And there’s a genuine pride and craftsmanship that Kligner takes in his work; not only does he have the style and the nerve to pull off his endless outfits, but he does so on an army clerk’s salary, and often, sews his elaborate garments himself. The respect and warmth with which the 4077 (and M*A*S*H as a series) treats Klinger is a feat in and of itself, but what’s even more extraordinary is the character with whom the show frequently pairs Klinger off with in the early season: John Patrick Francis Mulcahy, a Jesuit priest and the camp chaplain.
For a show with such progressive ideologies, the question of its attitude towards religion would seem like a pointed one. But, as with so many other elements of its writing, M*A*S*H continued to challenge expectations by treating its religious character with dignity and respect: Father Mulcahy is not a parody of Catholicism or an overbearing, bigoted figure (as so many of M*A*S*H’s real-life religious critics were). Instead, William Christopher’s Father Mulcahy is a warm, benevolent figure—an embodiment of the compassion and idealism that the most basic tenants of religion stand for.
Not only that, but Mulcahy is accepting. As a core tenant of his character, the padre makes a point of delivering last rites (or whatever alternate variations may be called) in any language or religion of the wounded, regardless of the fact that their faith conflicts with his. Father Mulcahy is the pinnacle of Christian grace and compassion: he continually goes out of his way to bond with outsiders, make others feel welcome, and embraces the troubled whether they’re dying in the operating room or just in need of a shoulder to cry on.
So, with a crossdressing corporal and a Roman Catholic priest in the same camp, how would any other series conventionally approach their relationship? Surely, even the most open-minded of priests would struggle with Klinger’s unorthodox (no pun intended) attire; and certainly. M*A*S*H met its fair share of criticism from religious groups and conservative organizations over the course of its run. But perhaps unsurprisingly, M*A*S*H seeks to capsize convention, and instead of keeping its two (on paper) most diametrically opposed characters on opposite ends of camp, M*A*S*H builds a bridge, and Father Mulcahy and Klinger from a close friendship whose affection permeates the show’s entire run.
As with everyone else in camp, Father Mulcahy has no qualms about complimenting Klinger on his stylish outfits and loud accessories: in one particularly memorable moment, he even goes so far as to encourage others to do so in an attempt to lift Klinger’s spirits. Just as Mulcahy has no reservations about the faith under which he prays for the wounded, he also has no convictions about attempting to change Klinger or dissuade him from his flare for fashion—if anything, Father Mulcahy is one of his biggest supporters.
Where the show’s top-notch writing birthed the Mulcahy/Klinger relationship, what truly breathed life into their dynamic were the combined performances of Jamie Farr and William Christopher, both without whom M*A*S*H would’ve sorely suffered. From Farr’s unflinching confidence and matter-of-fact attitude to Christopher’s unforgettably gentle warmth, both actors elevate their character to new heights and make the improbable friendship a tangible element of the dynamic around camp.
Though Klinger may be most frequently thought of “the soldier in the dress trying to plea insanity” and Father Mulcahy the “priest with the high voice,” to write either off as a cliche, stock character, or one-note joke would be to overlook the depth with which Klinger and Mulcahy are written and performed. As M*A*S*H celebrates its 50th anniversary, may we celebrate the beguiling and even inspirational friendship between Father Mulcahy and Maxwell Klinger above all.