M*A*S*H star skewers politics, reality TV in Park City visit
Mike Farrell doesn’t need a laugh track when he talks to audiences on his 25-city book tour. Not to say his stories don’t get a few laughs. Although the actor, best known as easygoing Capt. B.J. Hunnicutt in the television series M*A*S*H, does share gossip and lore from the most popular show ever on television, he also carries with him serious questions about the administration of George W. Bush, human rights and the death penalty.
"For me it’s about citizenship," Farrell said. "It’s about being an active citizen. I’m uncomfortable with the term ‘activist’ because it has an us-and-them quality to it, like being an activist sets you apart, but I used it for the book anyway."
A few laughs come rolling in.
Farrell’s socially conscious autobiography, "Just Call Me Mike: A Journey to Actor and Activist," tells the story of his Irish Catholic family, his dreams of becoming an actor, and his political awakening. "It’s funny writing a how-to book about being an activist," he said to a crowd of about 50 at the Park City Library Thursday. "The book as I began to put it down charted two journeys. One was to become an actor. The other was about a boy searching for his place in the world."
Farrell said he found his place in the world, and his voice as a citizen, by traveling to far-flung, and often dangerous, places. "I have seen places and things that have humbled me in ways I didn’t know possible," he said. "Most people have nothing and most people have nothing because of policies of the Western world."
The actor has traveled to Cambodia, El Salvador, Somalia, Bosnia, Rwanda and the Gaza Strip to investigate human-rights violations for himself. He champions fair and open government and has publicly opposed the Iraq war.
Farrell and a group of fellow actors started Artists United to Win Without War in 2002, which held a then-controversial press conference decrying the Bush administration’s effort to invade Iraq. "There was no sort of debate going on and the media was just regurgitating what the administration was saying. We knew we could get media attention, so we did. We were immediately insulted and called Saddam lovers, terrorist supporters, and worst of all, French."
Coming of age in the 1960s and ’70s influenced Farrell’s social consciousness now and then, he explained. "When M*A*S*H was picked up in 1972, it had a very clear thesis as an anti-war show," he said. "The Vietnam war was still going on and there was still all that stuff about traitors."
Farrell said once the show became a hit, the network took a hands-off approach with the actors, writers and directors. But the actor did recall an instance of censorship in a scene between Alan Alda and Loretta Swit.
"They said, ‘You can’t use the term jock strap. You’ll have to say ‘athletic supporter,’" he laughed.
Network television has since taken a turn for the tawdry, Farrell said, and the former small-screen star doesn’t watch much TV. "M*A*S*H would never be allowed to be made today because it was political," he said. "We fought against having a laugh track on the show because we didn’t think it had any place in it. Nowhere else in the world does it run with a laugh track except in the United States. We said it was inappropriate for the laugh track to be in the operating room, and they said OK. So we wrote a whole episode in the operating room."
Farrell’s wife, Shelley Fabares, was supposed to accompany him on the book tour but broke her hip shortly before it was time to leave and underwent hip replacement surgery. She is expected to make a full recovery.
Barbara Bretz is the co-president of Friends of the Library, one of the organizations responsible for bringing Farrell to Park City. "It appealed to me because I knew that he had an audience in Park City," she said. "And I liked that more than half of his talk was a Q & A."
Bretz, like most of the crowd, was also a M*A*S*H fan. "I just remember laughing and crying a lot," she said. "They felt like old friends, and hearing Mike’s voice today, when he started talking, he felt like an old friend."
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