By DAVID A. KING, Ph.D, Commentary | Published March 20, 2015
For over four years at The Georgia Bulletin, I’ve written a monthly column devoted to culture and the Catholic Church.
In over 50 articles, I’ve addressed novelists, filmmakers, poets, painters, athletes and cultural figures and public intellectuals who have integrated their Catholic faith with their work. These are among the most important and influential Catholic voices of the 20th century, and they are not the only ones. Rest assured, there are many more articles to come, for the Church’s intellectual and aesthetic tradition has been remarkably vibrant in the modern world.
I’m often asked by readers of this monthly fixture in the paper which of my essays has generated the most response. My columns on F. Scott Fitzgerald and Jack Kerouac, two deeply troubled Catholics, but Catholics nonetheless, provoked much positive feedback. So have columns on particular films, especially the work of Alfred Hitchcock, Sergio Leone, and Francis Ford Coppola. Everyone, it seems, is fond of Tolkien, and of course here in Georgia, my pieces on Flannery O’Connor have also been appreciated.
But of all the articles I’ve written, the one that generated the most mail—all of it positive—was the piece I wrote on the actor and television producer Jack Webb of “Dragnet” fame.
For a long time, I was puzzled by that response. Yet the more I’ve thought about it, the more I realize I shouldn’t be surprised by the reaction. After all, Jack Webb created a character who became in the minds of an enormous audience a real person. Webb’s Joe Friday transcended fiction as only the best television characters do. In a medium as massive as television, very few characters actually endure in the public consciousness, especially long after their actors’ careers have ended and their shows have declined in syndication. The very best, however, remain in the places where everything lives forever; they inhabit our imagination and collective memory and when we need them, they spring into the present as real as they were when they were consigned to a weekly network time slot.
One such character who is especially relevant to Catholics is William Christopher’s Father Francis John Patrick Mulcahy, better known as Father Mulcahy, of the iconic television show “M*A*S*H.”
“M*A*S*H” is arguably the greatest television show ever made. It ran for 11 seasons from 1972-1983, and featured 251 episodes. Its final episode, the two-and-a-half hour film “Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen” was until 2010 the most watched television program in history, with over 70 percent of the population tuned in. For three decades since its conclusion, the show has remained one of the most widely syndicated series in history, and its characters and most memorable moments are engrained, even enshrined, in American culture.
“M*A*S*H” began as a novel, published in 1968 by Richard Hornberger under the pseudonym Richard Hooker. Hornberger had been a surgeon in a real Mobile Army Surgical Hospital in the Korean War, and 15 years after the war ended, he wrote a book—much of it based in fact—about his experiences as a doctor in combat. The novel was a hit, and piqued the interest of the eccentric filmmaker Robert Altman, who directed the great, though flawed, feature film “M*A*S*H” in 1970. The success of the film led to the conception of the television series, which got off to a slow start in 1972 (it almost never made it past the first season); but the show’s emphasis on quality (it was one of the very few television shows to have a rehearsal day, and it was shot on film rather than video tape); its insistence upon risk-taking; and its respect for its audience quickly endeared it to the public. “M*A*S*H” was especially relevant to its early 1970s audience, who sensed correctly that the show was really about the current war in Vietnam. As such, it became a means of lamentation, atonement and healing for a generation who had endured arguably America’s longest and most tragic war.
In both the novel and the film, Father Mulcahy was a bit of a joke. Nicknamed “Dago Red,” he was bumbling and naïve, a bit of a buffoon. Though he was well liked by the hospital staff, he was an irrelevant fixture in a deeply irreverent camp. In the movie, for example, Father Mulcahy is interrupted in administering the Last Rites to assist with a surgery. The surgeon shrugs, “I’m sorry, Father, but that man is dead and this one is alive.” Even in one early episode of the television series, Mulcahy bemoans to Hawkeye Pierce that while Hawkeye gets to see the immediate consequences of his surgery, he is never allowed to see the results of his spiritual work.
In fact, Mulcahy wonders if his work even has results. No one comes to his ecumenical services. No one makes confessions. In fact, later in the series, Mulcahy even takes to tending bar in the camp officer’s club. It’s the only place he can get anyone to confess!
Of all the characters in “M*A*S*H’s” wonderful ensemble cast, Father Mulcahy took perhaps the longest to fully develop. Along with Corporal Max Klinger, played brilliantly by Jamie Farr, William Christopher patiently went along with the gags, enjoying occasionally a more serious or dramatic moment, until his character was finally allowed to reach his full potential. By the end of the series, however, Father Mulcahy had become an essential member of the cast.
In a show that at times over-reached in its attempts to moralize, Father Mulcahy never became didactic or sanctimonious. Yes, he was sometimes pious, but he lived his piety in a sincere sense of vocation. He was genuine. He was real. Like very few actors before him (Bing Crosby comes to mind), Christopher’s Father Mulcahy became for Catholic and non-Catholic viewers alike the ideal of what a priest should be. This is an enormous responsibility, a burden that perhaps approaches that of a real priest, and the fact that Christopher wasn’t even Catholic makes his achievement even more remarkable. He did what only the finest actors can ever do; he became Father Mulcahy.
As the series progressed, and Christopher became a full-time member of the cast in the fifth season, viewers began to learn more about Father Mulcahy. He could box. His sister was a Sister. His great love in Korea was assisting with the nuns who ran an orphanage. Most of all, Father Mulcahy was always willing to listen and willing to help with whatever needed doing. Yet, he remained dogged by the feeling that he wasn’t useful.
In Season Five’s “Mulcahy’s War,” an episode described by Christopher as one of his favorites, Father Mulcahy disobeys orders and goes with Radar O’Reilly to the front lines. His defiance comes after talking with a patient in post-op, a former altar boy who has shot himself in the foot to avoid combat. Father Mulcahy says he can only “imagine” how terrible it must be at the front. The soldier is astonished. “You imagine? Haven’t you ever been up at the front?” Father Mulcahy feels foolish. “How useless I feel here.” At the front, he is amazed by the violence and agony of combat. He and Radar are helpful, however, and they agree to take a severely wounded soldier with them back to the hospital. Shelled heavily on the journey, the soldier’s condition worsens and he stops breathing. Father Mulcahy and Radar phone the hospital from the battlefield, and under the telephoned instructions of Hawkeye, Father Mulcahy performs an emergency tracheotomy on the boy. The procedure is successful, and the boy resumes breathing. Though he’s playfully admonished by the doctors that “we save the bodies; you save the souls,” Father Mulcahy is delighted to have finally done something with immediate tangible results. From that moment in the show, the character of Father Mulcahy began to evolve into a more rounded character.
Perhaps the most revealing testimony to Father Mulcahy’s essential decency comes when Hawkeye composes his will. He leaves Father Mulcahy five cents. Hawkeye writes, “I know you are a spiritual man and material things mean little to you, but I leave you one other thing: my everlasting respect.”
In the season’s final episode, ranked by TV Guide as the greatest finale in television history, Father Mulcahy becomes deaf—presumably permanently—as the result of a mortar attack. He keeps the condition a secret, and before exiting the camp informs the staff that now that the war is over, he is going home to work with the deaf and hard-of-hearing. He thinks he can be useful in that work.
There is one final personal testament to the lasting influence of Father Mulcahy. When I was a boy, my childhood best friend Mark Bloniarz and I were “M*A*S*H” fanatics. We watched the show, even after it remained only in syndication, every day after school. We adored all the characters, but as Baptists, both of us were particularly intrigued by Father Mulcahy. What exactly was confession? What was this strange thing called the Mass? What were those beads he carried? And where did he get that great hat?
Mark and I both converted to Catholicism as young adults. For over 20 years, I’ve hoped Father Mulcahy knows about it.
David A. King, Ph.D., is an associate professor of English and film studies at Kennesaw State University and an adjunct faculty member at Spring Hill College, Atlanta. He is also the director of adult education at Holy Spirit Church, Atlanta.