Category: Archive

The pursuit of justice

February 17, 2011

By Staff Reporter

There is also praise for “Just Call Me Mike” from, amongst others, former First Lady Rosalynn Carter, NAACP Chairman Julian Bond, Congresswoman Maxine Waters, Sidney Poitier, Ambassador Joseph Wilson, and Ambassador Robert White, whom he played in a TV film about El Salvador.
And let’s not forget Alan Alda (AKA Hawkeye Pierce), who, Farrell writes, generously shared the limelight with him on M*A*S*H.
But given Farrell’s high-profile liberal activism, it is O’Reilly’s name that leaps out from the back cover.
“I won’t say we like each other,” the actor said good-humoredly in an interview with the Echo. The former M*A*S*H star has, however, been on O’Reilly’s show several times. “We disagree virtually across the board, but he always treats me with respect,” he added.
And for the record, the right-wing anchor says: “First of all, Mike Farrell is an honest guy. Then you add in that he’s a stand-up guy as well. That combination means his book, ‘Just Call Me Mike,’ will inform you far beyond most autobiographies. Farrell’s life is fascinating and his journey is well worth your time.”
That journey began, on Feb. 6, 1939, in South St. Paul, Minn. His mother, Agnes Cosgrove, grew up poor in an Irish Catholic family in rural Minnesota. His father, Joe Farrell, was from a different town, but shared the same ethnic and socio-economic background as his wife. The actor was just a small child when his parents took him and his older sister out to the West Coast, where Joe Farrell, a carpenter, found work in Hollywood’s studios.
The family wasn’t long in California when his mother had to travel back to the funeral of her own mother, who was, he recalls, “a sweet woman of considerable girth and an even bigger heart.”
In contrast, his paternal grandmother, who often visited the family out West, was a “horror.” She was “tough, mean, hard, bitter, bigoted, strict, doubtlessly miserably unhappy.”
This helped explain his father’s personality. On the face of it, Joe Farrell headed a “happy” family, but his four children lived in constant fear of his temper, his belligerent nature and his “wicked, sarcastic tongue.”
He was “not given to tenderness or expressions of sentiment,” remembers his son.
Alcohol was involved to the extent that the elder Farrell’s preferred form of relaxation after working long hours was drinking beer.
“There were certainly laughs; it’s just that everything seemed overlain with a sense of potential explosion,” he writes.
He told the Echo: “They had been raised in a set of circumstances where certain things weren’t said or done, and they didn’t know they weren’t offering things.
“They were quite wonderful people on some levels,” said Farrell, who includes parents Joe and Agnes on the book’s dedication page. He believes that if they knew the pain they were causing they would certainly have changed. They felt they were showing love in other ways. “My father obviously worked himself to death,” he said.
“It wasn’t just their culture,” Farrell said. The surrounding Scandinavian culture in their native region had the same attitude when it came to raising offspring. Indeed he’s come to understand that his parents’ approach was widespread, if not universal in their generation. “Children were seen and not heard,” he said.
Joe Farrell died suddenly in 1956. Not long afterwards, his elder son joined the Marines. It was not an experience Mike Farrell remembers fondly, but he coped with it better than some.
He came out of the military with his worldview basically intact. He was still a Democrat, like his pro-union father, and a strict and devout Catholic. But he chaffed against the racial bigotry that he’d encountered on his travels.
Inevitably he was excited by the election of a fellow Irish Catholic to the presidency in 1960 and still sees it as an important milestone (shortly after M*A*S*H finished its long run, Farrell starred in “JFK: A One-Man Show” on television.)
Farrell did various jobs after his stint in the Marines, but he’d dreamt of being an actor since childhood.
Pursuing that path meant rejecting other, safer career opportunities. His marriage in 1963 to a fellow actor, Judy Hayden, increased the strains on a young man trying to break into a tough business.
At first, though, religion was a more important issue in their relationship than economics, as she was from a fundamentalist Baptist family. Her father said that in his experience a couple that couldn’t settle on either religion usually ended up with none. And so it proved, although Farrell describes himself as a “very spiritual” person.
In any case, his marriage was in trouble in its early years. Seeing that he was suffering enormously, a close friend recommended he try an institution called The House – a therapy-orientated, self-help program funded by the Salvation Army. It catered to and was run by people who’d come from jails, psychiatric institutions, the streets and, as in Farrell’s case, “straight society.”
“It was a place where people could find themselves, and hopefully find their way either back into society or find their find way into society, never having been there,” he recalled.
The House made him see that from childhood he’d been “hungry for attention and love, respect, but also just acknowledgement.”
It turned his life around. Indeed he said The House had significantly changed the lives of four out of every ten people who went through its doors. His discovery that lives could be altered in a positive way helped inspire his later activism.
In time, his career began to take off. The Farrells also got their marriage back on track and had a son and a daughter. (They divorced later and remarried fellow actors. Farrell dedicates his book, first of all, to “Shelley [Fabares], My Hero.”)
In 1975, he was approached by the producers of the successful show M*A*S*H. Wayne Rogers, who played Trapper John McIntyre, was in difficult contract negotiations, and they were looking for a possible replacement. Farrell told them he didn’t think it would be a good idea for him to assume the role of Trapper. But they already had a new character in mind, someone who intended to be faithful to his wife while in Korea, a contrast to the womanizing Hawkeye and Trapper. After Rogers finally quit the show, the gentle and witty B.J. Hunnicutt was born.
Each season was shot over seven months, which gave cast members the rest of the year to pursue other interests.
Farrell had been a “fringe participant” in the anti-Vietnam war movement and in the struggle for civil rights, and over the years he became active in campaigns opposing racism, sexism and homophobia. But the M*A*S*H downtime allowed him to deepen his commitment to justice issues. On the domestic front these days, he’s most involved with the needs of people without shelter and prisoners, in particular those on death row. He is an admirer of the now imprisoned former Illinois Republican Gov. George Ryan, who declared a moratorium on the death penalty and commuted the sentences of 167 people on death row.
“I think Ryan is a great hero. He’s been very ill-treated by the Federal government,” Farrell said.
His involvement with international issues began about halfway through his M*A*S*H run. A medical doctor, a graduate of The House, asked him to help publicize a documentary film about the plight of refugee children in Asia. She introduced him to the Irish aid agency Concern and the man who made the film, Fr. Michael Doheny. He also met Denis Garvey and Marianne Loewe, a former priest and nun who are now married and run Concern America.
Concern arranged for him to travel to Asia. “That really was a searing event in my life in terms of seeing the extraordinary horror that these people suffered and were continuing to suffer. And it helped me better appreciate the work that this organization was doing,” he recalled.
A couple of years later, he volunteered to go to Central America for the aid agency to look at the refugee camps that had set up for people fleeing El Salvador.
“The awakening again was stupefying. To see the effect of U.S. foreign policy, particularly U.S. military policy, was having on the people of El Salvador was enraging,” he said.
He went back and forth to Central America through the 1980s. On one occasion, he accompanied an American doctor who’d volunteered to operate on a captured guerrilla commander. No local doctor had dared incur the wrath of the Salvadorian military by treating the prisoner. But when the Americans got there, they found out that there were no nurses available either. So for once, the M*A*S*H “doctor” was forced to scrub up for real. The patient, Nidia Diaz, is nowadays a member of El Salvador’s parliament.
Concern connected Farrell to his Irishness in certain ways (most of the agency’s volunteers he met in Asia and Central America seemed to be called Mary, he says in the book), but his brother has taken the more direct route.
“He’s been actively pursuing the family tree,” he said, adding that he has traced one line back to Michael Farrell, an immigrant from County Longford. Jim Farrell went to a Farrell clan meeting in Ireland in 2002 “And in 2004, the entire family went back and we’d love to go again,” Mike Farrell said.
His other extended family comprises several of the writers, directors and cast members of M*A*S*H. Of the actors, he said he is close to Alda, Loretta Swit (Margaret Houlihan), Jamie Farr (Corp. Klinger), William Christopher (Fr. Mulcahy) and David Ogden Stiers (Charles Winchester). “We get together when we can and reminisce,” he said. The group still has dinner regularly with Harry Morgan [Col. Potter] who will be 93 next month.
On the day he was interviewed, Farrell was starring in no less than eight M*A*S*H episodes on cable television. And he was preparing to attend that weekend the unveiling of the restored M*A*S*H site where external scenes were shot. The L.A. Times later reported that Farrell, Swit, Christopher and 89-year-old director Charles Dubin attended the event at the site, which is now part of Malibu Creek State Park.
In syndication and in a state park – it’s not a bad legacy after 25 years.

“Just Call Me Mike: A Journey From Actor to Activist” is published by Akashic Books.

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