The uses of celebrity
Mike Farrell shares with Chicoans how his fame helps his activism
Like so many people, Mike Farrell had nothing but good things to say about Paul Newman, who had died just the day before Farrell’s appearance in Chico on Saturday (Sept. 27). In many ways the men were kindred spirits, so it was inevitable that someone in the audience at Trinity United Methodist Church would ask the former M*A*S*H star about the iconic movie actor.
He’d never worked with Newman, Farrell said, but he’d met him and greatly admired his talent, integrity and compassion. “So many people in our business are fools who easily get lost because they believe their own publicity too much,” he explained. “Not Paul Newman.”
The same can be said of Farrell. Famous for his long career in television and movies, especially his eight years starring as Capt. B.J. Hunnicutt on M*A*S*H, he has long had a parallel career as an advocate for a variety of causes, including prison reform, the death penalty, animal rights, human rights and refugee assistance.
He was in Chico, accompanied by his wife, actress Shelly Fabares, to promote his new book, Just Call Me Mike, which is subtitled “A Journey to Actor and Activist.” His appearance was co-sponsored by Lyon Books and the Chico Peace and Justice Center. Whether the 200 or more attendees were there to see the actor or the activist is hard to say, but Farrell was quick to acknowledge that his celebrity serves a useful purpose.
“I’ve been very lucky in my life, extraordinarily lucky,” he said. “As a result of this phenomenon called celebrity, there is this thing that happens that gives you the opportunity to have experiences, to go places and see things.”
The book, he said, is his effort to tell readers what he’s seen.
Farrell is a tall, lean, fit man who looks younger than his 69 years. He’s been described as “indefatigable” in his pursuit of social justice, and it’s clear to see that being in good shape has aided him in that work.
He talked briefly about the book, describing his childhood as the son of a “hard-drinking, two-fisted father” whose oppressive sway over him and his siblings had influenced his determination to help others who are oppressed.
“My connection with the oppressed came from the realization that I’d lived under the shadow of a destructive, powerful man who had given me the feeling of being powerless,” he said.
Growing up in Hollywood, surrounded by movie imagery and talk—as a teen he delivered groceries to stars’ homes—he dreamed of becoming an actor. But, as he writes in the book, he was “painfully shy, terribly fearful of being exposed and ridiculed. To give voice to such a fantasy was to ensure humiliation from Dad and risk it from others.”
A stint in the Marine Corps following high school and, soon afterward, a road trip through the South that brought him face-to-face with endemic racism and poverty in America signaled the beginning of his journey to activism.
He started taking acting classes, and that led to one- and two-line parts in television and then two years on a popular soap opera. Little by little his career developed, until he got his big break in 1975, when actor Wayne Rogers departed M*A*S*H and Farrell was invited to play the new character of B.J. Hunnicutt on what Farrell called—to much applause—"the greatest TV show that ever graced the airways.”
Shooting on M*A*S*H lasted for seven months each year, leaving five months for him to pursue his political and social-justice interests. He’s worked with Human Rights Watch, went to El Salvador in 1985 to work with war refugees there, and for more than 10 years has been president of Death Penalty Focus, a group working to end capital punishment.
For most of his presentation, Farrell took questions from the audience. Here are some of his responses.
Prison reform: Our prisons are “systematically dehumanizing” people who have made mistakes, and “they’re coming out worse than when they went in.” We need to practice correction—in the form of respectful rehabilitation—in our departments of corrections.
Death penalty: This is the ultimate example of dehumanization, not only because it takes lives, but also because it dehumanizes us, the people in whose names the state kills. Noting that 130 death-row inmates have been exonerated and freed in recent years, Farrell said we don’t know how many innocent people we’ve executed. “There are four very likely cases that we know of,” he said.
Authorities are reluctant to revisit death-penalty cases and check the DNA evidence, he said, because “they don’t want to be shown they are wrong.” And governors are “notorious cowards” when it comes to clemency out of fear of not being re-elected.
“Our governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, was a coward—I’ve called him that to his face—for executing Stanley ‘Tookie’ Williams,” Farrell charged. Williams had “transformed his life,” preaching against gangs and writing children’s books, but the governor refused to commute his sentence to life without parole. “The death penalty system isn’t about justice, it’s about politics,” Farrell insisted.
He reminded listeners that “the former governor of Texas was renowned for spending only 15 minutes going over the files at clemency appeals—and stopped only one execution, while sending 152 people to their death.”
M*A*S*H: The show was a “social phenomenon … that occupies a place in the world’s consciousness above and beyond anything we could have imagined.” Cast and crew formed an “extraordinarily loving and mutually supportive family.”
Actors not only were encouraged to make script recommendations, they were also urged to write scripts and to direct (Farrell did both). M*A*S*H was never anti-military, but rather “anti-dogmatic authoritarianism.” It liked to “thumb its nose” at the brass who made foolish decisions for those below them.
Alan Alda: The star of M*A*S*H never acted like the star, but rather as just another member of the cast. He knew that the strength of the show was the ensemble.
Farrell said said he doesn’t see Alda often these days because they live on opposite coasts. But he told of being in an East Coast city on his book tour when a man at the back of the room raised his hand to ask a question:
“You have very big feet,” the man said. “You know great men are known to have small feet. Winston Churchill had very small feet. The only famous person with big feet was Goofy. Do you know Goofy?”
It was Alan Alda.