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|Also Known As:||Died:|
|Born:||October 20, 1932||Cause of Death:|
|Birth Place:||Profession:||Cast ... actor|
If one were to hear the phrase "boxing priest," only one actor would come to mind - William Christopher - who had the heaven-sent fortune of playing Father Francis Mulcahy on the groundbreaking comedy, "M*A*S*H" (CBS, 1972-1983) for eleven seasons. Christopher's grandmother prayed he'd become a real priest like his grandfather (who was a founder of the First Methodist Church of Chicago) but from the time the youngster first found himself enraptured watching a school play, he knew he wanted to take to the stage. After nearly four decades in entertainment and credits ranging from Neil Simon plays to voiceovers for Saturday morning kiddie shows, it was his performance on "M*A*S*H" as the quirky, dry-witted priest who often surprised himself with his own strength. A similar process of self-discovery played out off screen as well, as he and his wife Barbara struggled with the challenges of raising an autistic son. As a result, Christopher's acting appearances grew further apart in the years after "M*A*S*H" wrapped, with him becoming increasingly active in education and autism fundraising - including co-authoring a book with his wife on their experiences with the puzzling emotional and developmental disease. The one-time TV Father's kind face and gentle demeanor continued to offer hope in unexpected places.
William Christopher was born in Evanston, IL on Oct. 20, 1932 and raised in the suburbs of Chicago. His family was believed to be direct descendents of Revolutionary War patriot Paul Revere. After graduating from high school, Christopher made the move from Winnetka, IL to Middletown, CT after being accepted at Wesleyan University. The budding thespian majored in acting and was also musically inclined, singing with the glee club and playing a mean ragtime piano. He studied classical Greek, and throughout his life would continue to enjoy reading classical Homer texts in their original format. Somewhere between his dramatic training, his intellectual pursuits, and his soccer and fencing schedules, Christopher found time to go on a blind date with a young gal named Barbara. The two married in 1957 and would eventually have two sons, John and Ned.
Christopher landed his first post-college acting gig with the Barnstormers Theater Group in New Hampshire - New England's oldest summer theater. At the end of the season, he headed to New York City, where he did enough knocking on doors to land roles in several Off-Broadway productions including "The Hostage" at One Sheridan Square. Before too long, he had made it onto Broadway with the National Company of the British Revue, "Beyond the Fringe." Around this time, Hollywood promised a wealth of new opportunities for young actors in the rapidly expanding field of television, so the young couple moved West with big dreams of the small screen.
Christopher made it to the small screen in 1965 with a guest spot on "The Andy Griffith Show" (CBS, 1960-68) spin-off, "Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C." (CBS, 1964-1970). This turned into two seasons of regular appearances as Private Lester Hummel on the program and also led to several appearances on "The Andy Griffith Show." During this time, Christopher snared roles in feature films such as "The Fortune Cookie" and the Doris Day film, "With Six You Get Eggroll," the latter of which featured he and future "M*A*S*H" co-star Jamie Farr playing young hippies. A string of appearances in late '60s hits like "Hogan's Heroes" (CBS, 1965-1971) and "That Girl" (ABC, 1966-1971) eventually led to an invitation to audition for "M*A*S*H" - a television dramedy based on the 1970 film of the same name and the 1968 Korean war novel by Richard Hooker. Christopher had finally become a bona fide working Hollywood actor, but his biggest career breakthrough was just around the corner and under some camouflage netting.
Despite a rocky audition, where Christopher chose to adlib his own dialogue rather than follow the script, he was eventually given the recurring guest role of U.S. Army Chaplain Captain John Francis Patrick Mulcahy. George Morgan had been cast in the role for the show's pilot, but his take on Mulcahy left show creator Larry Gelbart wanting someone with a more naturally quirky personality. William Christopher was offered the collar - provided he promised to stick to the script. At the beginning of the show's history, Mulcahy's soft-spoken manner, seeming naiveté, and squeamishness around the medical environment were generally met with cynicism by the more worldly staffers at the 4077. They also made the fact that the Chaplain had a history as an amateur boxer all the more ludicrously funny. As the show evolved, and Christopher was promoted to full-time cast member, Mulcahy gradually gained more confidence and respect from his peers by conquering new frontiers of physical and spiritual challenges. One of the Christopher's favorite episodes, during which Father Mulcahy was forced to perform an emergency tracheotomy while under enemy fire, was a memorable one for actor and viewer alike as new sides of the character came to light in a very real and inspiring way. Throughout the show's 11 year-run, Christopher proved himself to be an integral part of the award-winning ensemble cast and his Father Mulcahy remained one of the quirkiest, complex characters in television comedy.
The final episode of "M*A*S*H" aired on Feb. 28, 1983, earning the honor of being the most watched television episode in history up until that time - with a viewership of over 106 million Americans. During the finale, Father Mulcahy was deafened as the result of a mortar attack and decided to stay on in Korea to care for deaf patients after a cease-fire. In a short-lived spin-off series called "AfterMASH" (CBS, 1983-85), the actor reprised his role and joined Colonel Potter (Harry Morgan) and Corporal Max Klinger (Jamie Farr) at a Veteran's hospital, where he served as the chaplain and suffered the emotional aftermath of his wartime experience.
Christopher made guest appearances on the small screen throughout the '80s and '90s on shows like "Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman"(ABC, 1993-97), "Diagnosis Murder" (CBS, 1993-2001), "Mad About You" (NBC, 1992-99) and "Love Boat" (ABC, 1977-1986) - the latter of which found viewers that were used to thinking of him in a priest collar, quite disturbed to witness the former Father Mulcahy in a liplock on the Lido Deck.
He also returned to his original love - the theater - appearing in productions of "Run for Your Wife," "Move Over Mrs. Markham," "It Runs In The Family," "Don't Dress For Dinner," "Rumors," and "Lend Me A Tenor." In 1997, he and Jamie Farr teamed up once again for a touring production of Neil Simon's "The Odd Couple," and in 1999 he starred in a challenging one-man show depicting Vincent van Gogh and his brother Theo.
Throughout much of his acting career, William Christopher dealt with a different sort of drama off-screen - parenting an autistic son. In 1985, he and wife Barbara authored the book Mixed Blessings, speaking candidly about the bumpy road a family faces in diagnosing, treating, and understanding the complex disease. Perhaps aided by his on-screen persona, the book was hailed as a supportive and uplifting resource. Christopher served as honorary chairman of the National Autistic Society and a member of the board of trustees at the Devereux Foundation, which provided facilities for adults living with autism and other developmental disorders.
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