Dec 31 (Reuters) - William Christopher, who played the unassuming U.S. Army chaplain, Father Mulcahy, struggling to bring spiritual comfort to an anarchic surgical unit during the Korean War on the long-running hit TV series "M*A*S*H," died on Saturday. He was 84.
Christopher, who was diagnosed with cancer about 18 months ago, died in his bed at his home in Pasadena, California, according to his longtime New York-based agent, Robert Malcolm. The actor's wife of nearly 60 years, Barbara Christopher, was with him at the time, Malcolm said.
Christopher landed his signature role of Father Francis Mulcahy on "M*A*S*H" after another actor played the part on the show's pilot episode. He went on to portray the soft-spoken priest assigned to the fictional 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital for the duration of the series, which ran from 1972 to 1983 on the CBS network and continued to air in syndication for decades after.Together with Alan Alda as Captain "Hawkeye" Pierce, Loretta Swit as Major Margaret "Hotlips" Houlihan and Jamie Farr as cross-dressing Corporal Maxwell Klinger, Christopher was among the only cast members to remain on the show for all 11 seasons.
Its 1983 finale drew 106 million viewers, making it the most-watched U.S. TV show to date.
In his portrayal of Father Mulcahy, a character originated in the 1970 film that inspired TV's "M*A*S*H," Christopher was a supporting player, but his role grew as the series went on.
PHOTOS: A look back at William Christopher's roles
William Christopher: A look back at his life
William Christopher: A look back at his life
Wayne Rogers as Trapper John, William Christopher as Father Mulcahy, and Alan Alda as Hawkeye in a scene from the long-running US television series M*A*S*H (1972-1983) about a US Army medical surgical unit during the Korean War.
Jamie Farr, Loretta Swit, David Ogden Stiers, Harry Morgan, Mike Farrell, Alan Alda, and William Christopher in publicity portrait for the film 'M*A*S*H', Circa 1978. (Photo by 20th Century-Fox TV/Getty Images)
Portrait the cast of the television show 'MASH,' mid- to late-1970s, From left American actors Mike Farrell (with light sleeves), David Ogden Stiers (in rear), Alan Alda, Jamie Farr (sitting in foreground), Loretta Swit, William Christopher (in rear), and Harry Morgan. (Photo by CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images)
Loretta Swit, Mike Farrell, David Odgen, Jaime Farr, Alan Alda, Harry Morgan, William Christopher and the Cast of MASH (Photo by Ron Galella/WireImage)
LOS ANGELES - JANUARY 24: The Cast of 'M*A*S*H' after the 1980 People's Choice Awards. From left: Mike Farrell, Loretta Swit, Harry Morgan, Alan Alda, William Christopher and Jamie Farr. 'M*A*S*H' won for Favorite TV Comedy Program. Image dated January 24, 1980. (Photo by CBS via Getty Images)
American actors Harry Morgan (left), William Christopher, and Jamie Farr appear in a courtroom scene during an episode of the CBS spin-off from 'MASH' called 'After MASH,' California, 1983. (Photo by CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images)
LOVE BOAT - 'The Last Heist/Starting Over/Watching the Master' which aired on November 10, 1984. (Photo by ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images) DELTA BURKE;BERNIE KOPELL;WILLIAM CHRISTOPHER
BURBANK, CA - MARCH 29: Former 'M*A*S*H*' castmates William Christopher and Loretta Swit arrive at the Closing Night Gala for the 1st Annual Burbank International Film Festival, held at Woodbury University on March 29, 2009 in Burbank, California. (Photo by Michael Tullberg/Getty Images)
William Christopher during M*A*S*H Reunion on the 'Today' Show at NBC Studios in New York City, New York, United States. (Photo by Derek Storm/FilmMagic)
NO SALES RESTRICTIONS. 3/6/00 Los Angeles, CA. Actor Wayne Rogers (center) is caught between gestures by his former cast members Jamie Farr (L) and William Christopher of the popular television series M*A*S*H during a reunion March 6, 2000 in Los Angeles. Rogers, Farr and Christopher were on hand to participate in the William S. Paley Television Festival which celebrates television's rich and diverse programming. The festival, which offers 13 events, salutes a program chosen for its artistic merit, cultural impact and historical significance. Photo by Chris Martinez Online USA, Inc.
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After producers of the show decided to replace George Morgan, the actor originally cast as the chaplain, Christopher got a chance to audition for the part. Although he irked producers by ad-libbing lines in his tryout, he impressed them with his quirky performance, and they offered him the job, provided he followed the script.
As portrayed by Christopher, Mulcahy was a mild-mannered, sometimes timid presence amid the chaos of "meatball surgery" on troops wounded in the 1950-53 Korean War. The character resisted offering a religious hard-sell to the hard-boiled Army medical personnel and the wounded patients.
'I LIKED FATHER MULCAHY'
The Mulcahy character was Roman Catholic (Christopher actually was Methodist) but ministered to all faiths. Mulcahy affectionately referred to Hawkeye as "that crazy agnostic." In one episode, Alda's character instructs Mulcahy by radio how to perform an emergency tracheotomy on a wounded soldier under enemy fire.
"I liked the character. I liked Father Mulcahy. The character is pretty real to me," Christopher told the Fayetteville Observer newspaper in North Carolina in 2011.
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Christopher joined fellow "M*A*S*H" alumni Farr and Harry Morgan in the short-lived spin-off series "After MASH," set in a veterans' hospital, which aired in 1983 and 1984.
"I feel pretty lucky to be an actor with a job that lasted 11 years," Christopher told the Patriot-News newspaper in Pennsylvania in 2009. "Actually, I extended that to 13 years because we did 'After MASH.' I was very happy to keep playing Mulcahy. Actors always expect that their job will end and then they are out of work. It's a lot more fun to be working than to be out of work."
Christopher was born on Oct. 20, 1932, in the Chicago suburb of Evanston, Illinois, and attended the same high school that also produced actors Charlton Heston, Rock Hudson, Ralph Bellamy, Bruce Dern and Ann-Margret. Christopher attended college in Connecticut before landing acting roles in New York.
He moved to California and landed recurring roles on 1960s TV shows including "Gomer Pyle: USMC" and "Hogan's Heroes" and small roles in movies including 1968's "With Six You Get Egg Roll" in which he appeared with future "M*A*S*H" co-star Farr.
In the 1990s, Farr and Christopher co-starred in a touring production of the play "The Odd Couple."
Christopher married his wife, Barbara, in 1957. They had two children. He was active in the cause of autism awareness. He and his wife co-authored a book about raising an autistic son. (Additional reporting by Steve Gorman; Editing by Bill Trott, Diane Craft and Mary Milliken)