William Christopher Avoided Jokes About Religion As Much As He Could
William Christopher, known for his portrayal of Father Mulcahy on MAS*H, may have been considered the finest Catholic priest of the 4077th, but in reality, he hailed from a lineage of devout Methodists. Going back generations, even his great-great grandfather served as a Methodist circuit rider in the Midwest and went on to establish the First Methodist Church of Chicago. Thus, Christopher’s depiction of a priest did not come as a surprise to his closest family members, who always believed he would follow a calling to ministry, much to his grandmother’s expectations.
While Christopher achieved a ministerial role, it unfolded in an unexpected manner, unlike what his grandmother envisioned. As an actor, he frequently appeared in prominent TV series as a guest star, yet many struggled to recall his name. Prior to MAS*H, Christopher had recurring parts in Gomer Pyle: U.S.M.C., That Girl, and Good Times, and he portrayed various characters on Hogan’s Heroes. Moreover, he earned recognition for his theatrical work and performances in several classic films.
Most of his roles leaned towards comedy, which Christopher particularly enjoyed. When he transitioned to MAS*H, he recognized that his religious upbringing would aid in preparing for the role. Additionally, he was conscious of the sensitivity surrounding religion, even within a popular series.
The success of MAS*H afforded producers and actors greater creative freedom in terms of content. However, Christopher emphasized that jokes concerning the church’s sacraments were off-limits. A humorous reference to the chalice, for instance, was dropped from the script. Similarly, a scene where a character approached Father Mulcahy for confession was altered to a more general conversation due to the sacrament’s significance.
Nevertheless, in the episode “Alcoholics Unanimous” of the third season, Father Mulcahy portrayed a scene in which he becomes intoxicated during a sermon. Christopher admitted to being concerned about the audience’s reaction to this comedic bit but ultimately trusted his instincts. Fortunately, the response was largely positive, with only favorable feedback reaching his ears. While there were no definitive censorship rules in place, the show abstained from incorporating jokes involving sacraments, and they also refrained from using a laugh track in the operating room scenes.
Portraying the character of Mulcahy brought immense satisfaction to Christopher, akin to heavenly bliss. However, he personally found it distressing to make light of religion, which he considered his own personal hell.