Actor Mike Farrell talks about why he ‘sticks his neck out’ as a political activist
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: So go back to Vietnam. There’s a point you’re having a conversation about Cuba, and should we go back in, should we go to Cuba and save democracy in Cuba. So, I mean, is there some point where you decide, okay, this actually isn’t about world democracy, or no?
MIKE FARRELL, ACTOR AND POLITICAL ACTIVIST: I don’t know that I thought in terms of world democracy, but I began to think in terms of what’s fair, what’s right. And what’s fair is what’s right. You know, if giving other people an equal opportunity is fair, depriving other people of an equal opportunity is unfair. That began to make sense for me. And so it wasn’t so much about democracy as it was about providing opportunity.
JAY: Well, I’m talking more about, like, this idea that going to Vietnam for freedom, overthrowing governments in Latin America for freedom, the whole Cold War psychology. You grow up in that; you join the Marines with that. Is there some point where that—I mean, you were talking about at some point this starts to fall apart.
FARRELL: Yeah. No.
JAY: When did you start to form another view of things?
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FARRELL: That’s—I’m probably still forming it. Kennedy was a hero. My mother used to say—. Yeah, I’d say, “You know, this guy’s an Irish-American Catholic, just like I am.” And she’d say, “Yeah, but he’s from the lace-curtain Irish. We’re the shanty Irish.” But it didn’t make any difference to me. And then he’s struck down. And then there’s this lie about how he died and why he died. And then there’s this war, and it becomes quickly exposed as a lie, about why it’s happening and why we’re supporting it, and the people who are opposing it are evil communist supporters, you know, Ho Chi Minh supporters, traitors to their country. I mean, all of that stuff just made me want to stand up and spit in somebody’s eye and say, wait a minute, I was taught that I could speak my mind, I could believe in concepts like liberty and justice and equality, and didn’t have to pass your litmus test as to what made a patriot in this country. I’ve served my time in the military, now I’m serving my time on the street, and all of them are equally important, it seems to me, in terms of being a citizen of this country.
JAY: So what year does M*A*S*H begin?
FARRELL: For me, 1975. It began in ’72.
JAY: And so, very quickly, you’re a worldwide star in the hit series of all time. What does that do to your politics and how you see yourself as a political being?
FARRELL: Well, you know, as a result of the work at the House—the place I mentioned, this was called the House. That ended in probably ’66, ’67, so all of this stuff with the Vietnam War was happening. I was out on the street, you know, demonstrating. And then I began to work as an actor, and pretty soon I had a career happening as an actor. I was star in a television series, and people were asking me for my—this was before M*A*S*H—asking for my autographs. I used to sign my autograph “Peace”—I still do, actually—”Peace, Mike Farrell.” And a friend of mine said, “I don’t think you ought to do that. You know, that’s a little dangerous. People might—.” And I said, “Well, I’m sorry.”
JAY: Yeah, [inaudible]
FARRELL: Yeah. Actually, there’s a story I could tell you about that. But [inaudible] quickly, the character I played in the first prime-time series I did was a doctor, young doctor. And at the time I was wearing a peace symbol, so I made it part of his character. And the guy from the studio came up and he said, “That’s not such a good idea.” And I said, “Really? Why not?” And he said, “You might offend a certain aspect of the audience.” And I said, “Well, this guy Chris has got long hair. That’s going to offend part of the audience.” “Oh, yeah, but we need him for the—he’s the sort of teenybopper appeal.” And I said, “Well, this is the peace guy appeal. You know, I kind of like this.” And he said, “Well, we have this equal-time provision that we have to deal with.” And I said, “So you want me to wear a peace symbol one episode and a bomb the next episode?” He finally got up and walked away.
JAY: So you got away with it.
FARRELL: I got away with it, yeah.
JAY: You’re lucky it wasn’t during McCarthy days.
FARRELL: But, you know, one of the guest stars on the show later on in the end of our first and only season was Lou Ayers, and he said, “I love what you’re wearing.” And I thought, “Thank you.”
JAY: So you become a successful actor.
FARRELL: Successful actor. Working actor. Lucky, yeah.
JAY: Well, working, and such a hit series and working so much, you start making some real money. What does that do in terms of your activism and your political—?
FARRELL: Well, you know, I’d already been involved in—with César Chávez I’d already been involved in a number of other things. But what this did was sort of open the door for extraordinary possibilities. People came to me. When I came to M*A*S*H, little of my activities were known. And some of the people who interviewed me said, “Now, here’s a guy who will answer a question about a political thing or will actually volunteer to speak.” Anita Bryant had started when—first year I was there, Anita Bryant started her anti-homosexual campaign, and it devolved into Proposition 6 here on the anti-gay resolution on the ballot. And I was just so deeply offended by that. And I wrote a piece and got a number of members of the cast to sign on to it and was contacted by some people in the Proposition 6 campaign and said, “We need a straight guy to stand up on this. It can’t just be all gay people.” And I said okay and got into debates and all that stuff. So I became—well, Ellen used to call me “the communist”. [inaudible] you know, if there’s a fight, Mike wants to be in it. So what happened was people would come to me, opportunities would be presented to me. I became involved with a refugee aid organization. Just I did a little thing for them, and when I found out about their work, I got more and more involved in it, and pretty soon they wanted me to be attached to them officially. So I said, then I’ve got to go out into the world and see where—.
JAY: So at some point does it occur to you that this might jeopardize your position in the show?
FARRELL: It never occurred to me. I mean, the people on the show, on M*A*S*H, were, if not completely in agreement with everything I said, supportive.
JAY: And no flak from the network.
FARRELL: No flak from the network—none that I’m aware of. Actually, we used to twit them about things. There was a show in which we were ribbing Radar about being a virgin, and the—what are they called?—business affairs said, “You can’t use that word; you can’t say ‘virgin’.” So we had to change the script. So the next episode, Alan [Alda] and I were doing a little contest, and we were talking. It was a game we were playing. And he names a place, and I have to name a place that begins with the first letter of the place, blah-blah-blah. So I said, “St. Croix.” And he said, “X? St. Croix? I challenge you: there is no such place as St. Croix.” I said, “Oh, yes, there is. It’s in the Virgin Islands.”
JAY: So M*A*S*H goes for which years—your participation?
FARRELL: My participation? Nineteen seventy-five till the end in 1983.
JAY: And so we’re now moving into the period of Reagan. And what does that do to you politically?
FARRELL: Oh, it was a savage blow. I mean, I was not a Carter supporter. I went out and campaigned for Fred Harris in the Democratic primaries. But I certainly voted for Jimmy Carter, then was terribly disappointed by some of his—. I thought his articulation of human rights was extraordinary, as in human rights as a basis for our foreign policy, but I hated what he did with regard to the Shah, you know, bringing the Shah here, and what he started in Afghanistan and stuff. So I supported John Henderson, alternative Republican, independent candidate in the Reagan-Carter fight, and was stunned when Ronald Reagan won, literally stunned. A friend of mine had been working in the Carter administration, and she called me during the transition, and she said, “This is scary.” She said, “These are not nice people. We’re trying to help them, you know, know how to come in, and they just are brushing us off and blowing us off.” She said, “This is a scary time.” But by that time I was already involved with the refugee aid organization. The year Reagan came to office, I went to Cambodia with this refugee aid organization and looked at the work they were doing. Two years later, I was in Central America for the first time while Reagan was supporting the Salvadoran government waging war against its own people, into Nicaragua where the contras were just beginning to start up. So I testified in Washington after one of the human rights delegations I was on down there—. I mean, it just all begins to be self-propelling. You get involved in one thing, and then somebody says, “Will you do this?” And then this opportunity opens up.
JAY: Reagan may have had one of the worst international human rights records in the history of US presidencies.
FARRELL: Until today.
JAY: But when he died and during his last years, and certainly since, it’s all more or less been forgotten. The reclamation of a revisionist history about Reagan, which includes sections of the Democratic Party—and I have to say even Obama sometimes, when he’s asked about his foreign policy, you know, he’ll go back and say, Truman, he’ll say Bush I, and sometimes he’ll even say Reagan. I’m hoping, assuming it’s for some tactical reasons. But still, even to evoke the idea that there’s something to buy into this mythology about Reagan, what do you make of this?
FARRELL: I think it’s awful. I think it’s politics, you know, as you say, a nod, deferential nod in some area that gives you a little more credibility with the other side. I personally hate it. But, you know, I’m sure Ronald Reagan was a nice man, but he was a disastrous president. And all of this stuff about lionizing him is just—. I will tell you that after having been in Central America for I don’t know how many times, I contacted Patty Davis, Reagan’s daughter, who was at that time estranged from her family, ’cause we had met on one occasion, and we had lunch. And I said, “Look, your father’s lying. What your father is saying about what’s going on in Central America are lies. And I don’t know if you have any access to him, but he needs either to understand the truth about what’s going on. Maybe he’s not being told the truth. Or, if not, he is simply a villain.” And she said, “Mike, he is surrounded by people who enclose him, encapsulate him. They tell him what the reality is, and he repeats it.” You know, what are you going to do?
JAY: This taking on this mythology, the narrative of where America’s been and what it is, is something the Democratic Party doesn’t want to do either. I just want to say that. I mean the leadership of the party, and one, at least up until now, has to include Obama in that. Do you think that’s—how important is it? Or is Obama—his strategy seems to be, “Listen, forget—there’s no point fighting over all the past. Let’s just move into the future.” But can you do that allowing that narrative to remain untouched?
FARRELL: I don’t know. I think, yeah, I have great hope for the Obama presidency. But my hope for it is not only in what I perceive and hope to be than what I perceive is correct about the man and his character. I believe that if he makes the—even move in the direction of the change he’s talking about, it opens the opportunity for those of us who are out here pulling on all the ropes and screaming to have more ability to be heard and have more ability to facilitate significant change. So, you know, I hate it when I see friends of mine in the Senate and the Congress voting in ways that I think are abominable. And I remember Harris Wofford—I don’t know if you ever had reason to know Harris. He was a senator from Pennsylvania for a brief period. And he said, “Every day when I’m in the Senate, there are bills put forward, the sole purpose of which is to get me to vote against them, so they can make a television commercial that points me out as being anti this, that, or the other thing. So I understand they have a treacherous path to walk, these guys. But I still yearn for the person who’s going to stand up and do Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, stand up and say, “Here’s a dose of the truth, folks.” And we have now more opportunity, I think, for those words, if somebody can find the courage to say them, to be heard, to get out to the American public and the public of the people around the world.
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