We recently lost a great, unsung talent. I’m taking a look back at the best performances of William Christopher as Father Francis Mulcahy in the long-running classic series, M*A*S*H.
“Dear Dad,” original airdate December 12, 1972
With few exceptions, I really love the early seasons of my favorite television shows. There is something intriguing and comforting to me about seeing a season one Monkees or M*A*S*H episode, with the sometimes shifting cast or uncertain series premise. Actually, I generally find season two, especially of longer running series, to be a sweet spot in terms of having a lot of the elements place but carrying the freshness and promise of the plots yet to spin out. See: The Office season two, with the Pam and Jim tension established yet barely realized, or Sex and The City season two, where Carrie is fresh from her first breakup with Big and about to embark on many, many dates with a variety of characters, along with more breakups with Big to come. Season Twos are often when things begin to hit a stride, or at least stop the jerky gait and get close to a good pace.
I guess I love the promise of things and while it’s up to me and my therapist to tease out the larger implications of that, when it comes to television, those early seasons do it for me. This M*A*S*H episode, “Dear Dad,” hits all those notes. It’s late in Season 1 and most of the characters we will come to know and love and consider as part of the 4077th family are here. The main players are firmly established (Hawk, Trapper, Henry, Margaret, even Radar), and we’ll lose a couple who don’t really settle in well (Ugly John, Lt. Dish), but some of the side characters are just beginning to step up here, namely our own Father Mulcahy. At this point, Mulcahy is a small, but pivotal part of the ensemble. He’s a moral touchstone, a peacemaker, and a reminder of something greater than the violence and loss surrounding the doctors and nurses in the mobile surgical army hospital every day of the Korean Conflict. As time, and seasons, move on, the producers finally began to understand what they had in the character, and in the delicate surety of William Christopher’s performance. It wasn’t until season five that they upgraded his credit (and hopefully, his pay!) to series regular, and his name appeared in the opening credits right after Jamie Farr, instead of the ending “also starring” footnote.
The through line of this episode is one that will repeat over several episodes in several seasons: a narrated letter home, in this case from Hawkeye (Alan Alda) to his father. This one is also the first of an incongruous number of Christmas episodes, something hard to avoid when the show outlasted the real Korean War by eight years. Being the first, though, it has a crisp perspective on the strains people so far from home labor under at a time in the year that culturally focuses on family togetherness. Hawkeye not only shares his longing for home comforts (though, in another of those Early Season Gaffes that so often happen, he misses his home in Vermont, when is it firmly established from season two on that he’s from Crabapple Cove, Maine), but also tours his Dad through the happenings of most of the characters around him at the 4077th. This allows for a fairly gripping scene between Father Mulcahy and Jamie Farr’s Corporal Klinger, who has been ordered by an officious and by-the-book authoritarian Major Burns (the always sublime Larry Linville) to take off the lucky neckerchief he always wears (although, I’m not sure we ever see it again…). Klinger stubbornly refuses, and they tussle. When Burns sends him out of Post Op with a direct order and a threat of punishment, Klinger returns with a grenade. Whoa. Now, putting aside that the Klinger we know from future seasons (he’s still in mens’ clothes and is little more than an orderly at this point) would not pull such a dangerous and provocative stunt, the exchange here between him and Mulcahy is powerful.
Mulcahy stops Klinger from entering Post Op with the weapon and doesn’t flinch when the Corporal threatens to pull the pin. Mulcahy calmly requests the grenade, over and over. As Klinger begins to relent, we learn that the bandana is more than a civilian accessory and he’s terrified to take it off. It’s another reminder of the minute to minute uncertainty of war, and the strength of even the most tenuous connections to Home.
Father Mulcahy: Give it to me
Klinger: Don’t touch me or you’re going to be a lot of little priests
Father Mulcahy: (takes a step forward) Klinger…
Klinger: I can’t take this off! Somethin’ll happen to me!
Father Mulcahy: (takes another step forward) Klinger…
Klinger: Another step and I’ll take us both out!
Father Mulcahy: He’s tired. We’re all tired.
Klinger: You’re tired too?
Father Mulcahy: I can’t get to sleep. Unless I count sacrificial sheep. (takes another step) Give me the grenade. Please.
Klinger: (hesitates) Can I keep my bandana?
Father Mulcahy: I guarantee it.
Klinger: (lets his arms fall, exhausted) It’s from my ma you know… she said to never take it off.
Father Mulcahy: There’s no reason why you should.
The scene is well-written, and William Christopher leaves a strong impression with his performance as a man, who in the face of certain danger, is unshakable in his faith – not faith in God, necessarily, or the church – but faith in the ultimate goodness of humanity. He knows Klinger will back down. He knows he can convince Burns to let the issue go. He knows. That’s faith. And that’s perhaps Christopher’s greatest contribution to this landmark in television: that faith in something more than yourself is possible, even under the most difficult circumstances.