||Working in a world where speaking to
people that light up your local screens in a myriad of sizes is a common
occurrence, my natural tendency toward interview fright is something I
have been trying valiantly to overcome. After all, starting out conversations
with “Ummmm.....OK, so..... I’m a BIG...ummmm.....” doesn’t make the best
first impression. After chatting with a number of my favourites, I thought
I was managing to make headway in my quest to overcome that obstacle.
Thought so that is, until something happened to show me otherwise.....
I was talking with my Aunt Willow on the phone one afternoon, bantering back and forth about her job, problems selling her house, etc when my other line beeped. I clicked over and said “Hello!” An EXTREMELY AFFABLE male voice said “Oh Hi! I’m looking for Jen Johnston.” “This is she,” I answered. “Have I got her?” the voice asked again. “You sure have,” I replied. “Sorry about that, I should switch to my good ear” said affable voice.
While this exchange was going on, another one was taking place inside my head. My brain knew this was someone from the movie world and was frantically rummaging through its’ trivia files (currently in control of 95% of all dusty attic space) trying to place the voice.
INNER VOICE: “Mike Farrell? Nope, palms not sweaty. Christopher Walken? Nope, don’t feel the urge to flee the room in terror. Tom Cruise? Nope, not feeling urge to ask for refund of ticket price for “Vanilla Sky.”
My inner voice hit on the identity of affable voice, approximately 2 seconds before he identified himself.
“It’s Bill Christopher calling.”
I am very much afraid that the conversation temporarily continued without me as I rifled through my previous comments to see if my “fear-of making-a-goober-of-self” paranoia triggered by William’s unexpected arrival on my phone was about to be validated. (Not that I minded the call in the slightest. Quite the contrary, for the man synonymous with M*A*S*H’s Father Mulcahy has the enviable capability to put someone immediately at ease. Plus, when I called my Aunt Willow back, I got to respond to the question “Who was that?” with “William Christopher.”) William is so friendly, I found it quite impossible to be nervous. We made arrangements to speak the next day and hung up. I assume William went about his day per normal. I went into full pre-interview panic mode.
When I receive confirmation that an interview that I had REALLY hoped for (like this one) is going to take place I follow this procedure:
2. Think up some questions.
Then if time allows I proceed to step three.
3. Panic more.
I thought that re-examining my prepared list of insightful, thought provoking questions might calm the paranoia lobe of my brain. It didn’t. I had formulated a list of questions that in my calm, pre-phone call from one of the sweetest men on the planet state seemed fantastic. In my post-phone call state however they seemed woefully ridiculous, almost as though they had been concocted by someone who wished to get the absolute minimum amount of information from a person.
I spent all evening re-working my list with my mentor (Daily News Writer) Sandy Macdonald, who correctly gaged my concern, and responded to it with his usual level of savoir-faire. “These questions are FINE,” said Sandy. “Just keep telling yourself that William is a normal person just like you or me. Don’t think about the fact that William is someone you’ve been a fan of for the last ten years, and all you have to make a good first impression with is THIS LIST OF QUESTIONS. But they’re fine, really.”
This is the sort of good-natured, diabolical humour that runs rampant with Nova Scotia journalists.
It was with some anxiety that I called William the next afternoon. His affable voice came on the phone, and we chatted for a few minutes. Then when I could no longer stretch out commentaries about the weather in Nova Scotia vs the weather in California, I asked my first question. I must say, that despite my anxiety level at that point, I still managed to represent entertainment writers as a whole with the same degree of aplomb as a prom date leaving the bathroom trailing seven feet of toilet paper along on her shoe.
“Did you always know,” I began “that umm....that, well.... I mean it’s a BIG decision to choose a profession in the creative arts...The obstacles you would face as an actor...Was that....what you always wanted?”
This is only my sanitized version. I wasn’t nearly that articulate.
I kept on plowing ahead. “What I mean to say is, Did you always want to be an actor?”
“I have,” William replied. “I’ve often wondered about people that come to the profession late in life. I’ve wanted to be an actor since the first grade. I watched a play being performed by the third grade class, and it was...magic.”
I then asked William to tell me about his first job in the theatre. “Well,” he replied, “I’d just graduated from university in Connecticut. I had written letters to various theatres around the country looking for work, and I got a reply from a theatre in New Hampshire called The Barnstormers. It’s a remarkable theatre, it’s been running since 1935. Anyway, they didn’t want me as an actor, they needed a stage manager for the second half of their season. They thought since I had graduated from a theatre program I must be skilled in that area, but I’m not sure I was ever a terribly good stage manager. After a time the theatre director started using me in some small parts, the first being in a play called My Three Angels. The last play I performed in there was called The Happy Time. I was 21 years old, and was playing a 14 year old character.”
I inquired as to whether or not he was nervous about committing to M*A*S*H. “No, I wasn’t nervous about joining the cast,” answered William. “I was nervous about going to read for the part. (Father Mulcahy) But I had been working in front of the camera for some time then, and had become relaxed about it.”
I then asked him to tell me about his first day of filming on the show. “Well, I wasn’t too nervous. I was very curious about what the day would be like. There was lots of time between shots for the actors to sit and talk with each other, the people were so friendly. The M*A*S*H group had a great enthusiasm for the work they were doing, and the work that they were going to do. They were all friendly with each other, and with me. When the show started I wasn’t a regular, and I was impressed that there wasn’t any hierarchy between the regular cast members and me. I was impressed by how quickly they embraced me. M*A*S*H was always a lovely experience.”
When I put him on the spot to describe his fellow cast members William said:
Alan Alda: “I really don’t think M*A*S*H could have existed without Alan’s magnetism. He’s a very generous person. I liked the fact that as more of Alan’s writing was used, and he gained more clout he always distributed the work evenly among the cast, making sure that the ensemble feeling of the show was maintained.”
Mclean Stevenson: “I think he created a very special character. He was very funny. He had an improvisational quality to his performance that was fantastic. He really was a very genuine person.”
Mike Farrell: “He really proved himself in his first year on M*A*S*H. Such a remarkable man, and humanitarian. He’s very committed to helping the world. I felt, and do feel a great rapport with him, he’s so easy to talk to.”
Loretta Swit: “She is a very sweet person. When we were doing the show the regular cast had dressing rooms inside the building where we were shooting, and I had a trailer outside. When Loretta went to perform in a Broadway play, she gave me the key to her dressing room, so that I might use it while she was gone.”
William went on to say that “Everyone there trusted each other, we were proud of each other. There was a real warmth and trust to the set.”
I asked William if he had a favourite M*A*S*H episode. “I do. I can’t quite remember the name but it was in the first year of the show. The episode where Father Mulcahy does a trachiometry in a hostile area by phone.” When I asked which he found the most challenging to film he said “I think it’s called ‘Point of View.’ The episode shot from the point of view of a wounded soldier. There was a long, long, long, shot (7 minutes) in the episode, and nobody could make a mistake. If we did, we would have to start all over again.
I then switched the topic from TV to
something far closer to William; the cause of autism. William and his wife
Barbara wrote a book Mixed Blessings available at:
“Edward (or Ned) is 34 years old now. He lives at a Devereux Facility near Santa Barbara. He lives in a group home that helps people with these disabilities, people with these problems. We’re a pretty lucky family. We had a lot of other resources to help us. The state of California has wonderful laws in place entitling disabled people to many services. I also had M*A*S*H, going on during a great deal of Ned’s growing up time. We really wanted to share our experiences with this book, as I have found that when you share your experiences with other people, you get a little bit of extra strength. You both grow stronger for the sharing.”
Mixed Blessings is written in
such an open style, that I frankly wondered if it had been difficult to
Interspersed with all of my questions I found myself sharing details about my life with William. Everything from my daughter, to my wish that I played the piano more often, to my thoughts that more people should see French films came pouring out. This is an odd experience for me, as I generally don’t share those kinds of details with people I’ve just met. I really couldn’t help myself as William is easily one of the most disarming people I have ever encountered. His sincerity, and genuine warmth come out in his every comment. (Not to mention his exceptional dry wit.) He has left me with the portrait of a lovely, (from his genuine sweetness), exceptional (from his huge heart), and brave (from his patience and love for Edward) man to paint. What a marvellous man.
“A wonderful man and a good friend. He’s very droll, very funny when you get to know him. An intellectual with an in-depth understanding and appreciation of classical music and literature. He reads Homer in the original Greek and studies languages for fun. He’s married to an artist with very similar tastes. They raised two adopted boys, one of whom is Autistic, so they became - and remain - very active in working to raise awareness of the problem of Autism. Lovely people.”
If you would like to contribute to an Autism organisation (either with time or money) you can:
1. Look for a local autism society to
contribute to. Most large centres have one.
And if you would like to contribute
directly to William’s cause please send an email to:
and ask how you can help.
For an episode guide to M*A*S*H
plus cast and crew details go to:
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