Disabled Dealer Magazine May 2007
William Christopher Actor & Author: From M*A*S*H to Mixed Blessings
The Winner’s Circle
By David Block
M*A*S*H Star William Christopher Recalls Raising his Autistic Son
Since the huge success of M*A*S*H during the ‘70s and early ‘80s, and now in syndication, the name William Christopher has become synonymous with the character he portrayed; the compassionate Father Francis John Patrick Mulcahy. However, Christopher’s acting career spans over five decades. Since the ‘50s, he has appeared on stage, in motion pictures and on many TV series such as The Andy Griffith Show, Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C, The Love Boat, Good Times and Murder She Wrote.
Christopher’s own warm-hearted nature came through in many of his roles. His generosity of spirit and optimistic nature was put to the test in 1968 when he and his wife, Barbara had an autistic son, Ned. In William Christopher style, he rose to the occasion and immediately created a loving and positive environment.
“There are autistic people who seem to be brilliant, but some of their symptoms might make it hard for them to utilize their potential,” said William Christopher. “Other people who have autism might be less advantaged where some people would mistakenly think of them as retarded. That mistake has not bothered me because people with retardation can do positive things, too. You shouldn’t give up on anybody, disabled or not because everyone has strengths and positive things going for them. People with severe retardation can triumph at something, reach a certain level of potential, and find something positive.”
Christopher said that when Ned was born, fewer people understood Autism than they do today.
“Autism was first identified in the ‘40s,” said Christopher, “but it wasn’t well understood. Since the ‘40s there’s been a gradual awareness on the public’s part. Recently, we find that a lot more kids are being diagnosed as autistic. There are two ways of looking at it: Some people think we’re more aware of it, so they look more carefully for the symptoms, while others think that a lot more people are being born with Autism than before, but none of these people can explain why.”
In 1972, four years after Ned’s birth, William Christopher was cast as Father Mulcahy. This was a blessing for his family.
“Being on M*A*S*H made it easier to raise Ned because I was making a living in a way I never could before. It was the first time that I became a regular on a series. M*A*S*H kept getting renewed year after year, that gave Barbara and I financial security and peace of mind. As for working on a series, that was just six months out of the year, so I was able to spend a lot of extra time with Ned. I had more time than most parents who work everyday. For some of them, it’s hard to give a lot of attention to their children, especially those with special needs.”
Christopher said that Ned rarely saw him portray Father Mulcahy. “Ned doesn’t like to watch TV, but I never thought that there’s anything wrong with that because a lot of fully able-bodied people don’t like to watch TV either.”
In discussing Father Mulcahy, Christopher said that people found the character convincing: “There’s a lot of Father Mulcahy in me. The writers continued to create lines and scenes best suited for Father Mulcahy. They did a good job.”
In the last M*A*S*H episode, Father Mulcahy unexpectedly lost a lot of his hearing.
“Introducing the deafness was an interesting thing,” said Christopher. “I wasn’t given enough warning that that was going to happen.” There wasn’t time for him to research deafness, yet he said that that had no effect on him being believable because Father Mulcahy had no preparation either. “I thought Father Mulcahy would continue to be deaf in its short lived sequel, After M*A*S*H, but the writers wanted the character to get all of his hearing back, so on the first episode, he had a miraculous operation. “I felt cheated because it would have been interesting to explore what it would be like to continue pretending to be deaf.”
When After M*A*S*H ended, William and Barbara Christopher wrote the book, Mixed Blessings, which focused on their experiences of raising Ned.
Christopher concluded the interview with advice to parents apprehensive about raising autistic children: “Understand that if it’s a stress on your emotions, don’t worry because you can get over it. Realize your child needs you, so be an advocate. Don’t give up on them.”
He also found organizations such as the Autism Society of America beneficial because doctors, scientists and other parents of autistic children offered invaluable support.
For more information on the Autism Society of America, log onto www.autism-society.org, and to order Mixed Blessings go to Amazon.com