William Christopher, who played Father Mulcahy on M*A*S*H, may have been the 4077th’s best Catholic priest, but in real life, he came from a long line of devoted Methodists.
Even Christopher’s great-great grandfather was a Methodist circuit rider in the Midwest and eventually founded the First Methodist Church of Chicago. His portrayal of a priest was no surprise, at least for family members closest to him.
“If my grandmother could see me in the role, she’d turn over in her grave,” Christopher said in a 1975 interview with The Independent. “My grandmother always thought I’d feel the call to ministry.”
He still made it to ministry, just maybe not in the way his grandma would have expected.
Christopher was the kind of actor who could be seen across many classic TV series as a guest star, but he was also an actor that many people struggled to remember the name of.
Prior to M*A*S*H, Christopher had recurring roles on Gomer Pyle: U.S.M.C., That Girl, Good Times and played various characters on Hogan’s Heroes. He was also known for his work in theater and his roles in a few classic films.
Most of his roles had been comedic in nature, and Christopher said that’s one of the things he liked best.
When Christopher made the jump to M*A*S*H, he knew his religious upbringing would help him prepare for the role. He was also aware that religion, even featured in a hit series, is a sensitive topic for some people.
M*A*S*H‘s success helped give producers and actors more freedom on what they could write and say on TV. However, Christopher said jokes about the church’s sacraments weren’t acceptable.
“We had a joke about the chalice, and that was dropped,” Christopher said in a 1975 interview with Muncie Evening Press. “Then, there was another funny scene that began with a guy saying to me, ‘Father, I want to confess.’ Because confession is a sacrament, that line was changed to: ‘Father, I want to talk with you,’ or something like that.”
However, in the season three episode, “Alcoholics Unanimous,” Father Mulcahy played a scene in which he gets drunk during a sermon. Christopher said he was afraid of the audience’s reaction to the bit, but trusted his gut.
“And the only comment I’ve heard about that was favorable,” Christopher said. “I don’t know that we have any set rules governing censorship, but we’ve not only dropped jokes involving sacraments, we don’t use the laugh track in the operating room.”
Playing the role of Mulcahy was like heaven for Christopher; however, poking fun at religion? That was his personal hell.