One of the most depressing episodes for Father Mulcahy on MAS*H, “Dear Sis” finds the priest losing faith that anyone in the camp needs his guidance. At Christmas, of all times.
At one point in the episode, he vows to sob himself to sleep. Throughout the episode, Mulcahy writes a letter to his sister, a nun, explaining how broken he feels. He knows she can understand his unique struggles as a man of the cloth, and he feels lucky to have a woman of faith in his family.
For William Christopher, the actor who played Father Mulcahy, the notion of choosing a priest’s life was always “a definite no,” but that doesn’t mean his religious family didn’t try to push him in that direction.
In 1978, he told the UPI that the closest he came to taking the pious road was singing in the Wesleyan University choir.
“That’s as close to becoming a preacher as I ever came,” Christopher said. “I never heard the call.”
This disappointed Christopher’s grandmother, who was especially proud of a distinguished family member who was a Methodist circuit rider in the 1840s. This was Christopher’s great-great-grandfather. Christopher’s grandma saw the spirit of this ancestor’s greatness in her grandson.
“My grandmother wanted me to become a clergyman,” Christopher said. “She could not forget the circuit rider in our family tree. She would probably roll over in her grave if she knew I was playing a priest. But grandmother would have liked the idea of me in a clerical collar.”
Christopher’s wife Barbara, who once appeared on MAS*H to sing a duet with her hubby, was Catholic, and he said she served as his faith advisor while playing Father Mulcahy. He also did a ton of religious research for the part which made him feel “at home” in the role.
Christopher said throughout his life, people confused a stare he honed in acting classes as a coping mechanism for his stage fright with deep spiritual contemplation.
“People often believe I am thinking deep thoughts when I look off into space,” Christopher said. “It’s not that at all, but I don’t like to disillusion them. What they mistake for a spellbinding, enigmatic stare is actually fright on my part. I put that stare to good use in improvisation sessions during acting classes. People thought I’d seen the light.”
During those moments, Christopher said he wasn’t spinning his mind’s gears — he wasn’t thinking of anything at all.
“I used the same stare on my teachers in school,” Christopher admitted. “They believed I was deep into the subject they were teaching when actually my mind was as blank as a mind can be.”
After he appeared on MAS*H, Christopher recognized a bit of his grandmother — who believed he would make a good priest — in the fans of the show who never saw him as anything but Father Mulcahy.
“People who watch MAS*H do approach me and ask if they can call me ‘father,'” Christopher confessed.
“I tell them my name is William Christopher, but they can call me Bill,” he joked.
Although he says he never would’ve chosen the cloth outside of MAS*H, Christopher wasn’t completely ignorant to the qualities he had that would’ve made him a decent priest. He just said he lacked a fundamental quality of men of faith.
“Come to think of it, I do have some of the qualities for a good cleric,” Christopher said. “I like people. I’m a student. But the trouble is I don’t want to be a preacher, and that’s the most important thing. Desire.”
Channeling that desire is what made “Dear Sis” such a powerful episode. It ends with Father Mulcahy’s determined generosity of spirit inspiring Winchester to become extremely charitable in the knick of time, saving Christmas. The episode culminates in a toast to the priest.
In a touching scene that leads to the cast singing about peace on earth, Hawkeye raises his glass to Father Mulcahy, “someone who’s too modest, too utterly simple a man to know how much strength he gives us just by the decency of his life among us.”