Mike Farrell on taking a stand

Story Transcript

PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Mike Farrell is an actor, a political activist, active citizen. Just recently wrote a book called Just Call Me Mike, which is the story of a journey from an actor to an activist, and that’s what our interview’s about. Thanks for joining us, Mike.

MIKE FARRELL, ACTOR AND POLITICAL ACTIVIST: Sure. Happy to be with you.

JAY: So you’ve had one of the more successful careers in television and movies, and you have a history of sticking your neck out. So go back to what forms you as someone who sticks their neck out, when a lot of people here don’t.

FARRELL: I think—during the book, I kind of did a lot of introspection and kind of came up with an understanding of something that I hadn’t really put together before. I was raised in an Irish, Catholic working class family. And, unfortunately, typically my father was a two-fisted, hard-drinking, tough guy who didn’t know how to express himself emotionally, and so he was good at expressing himself physically. Not an abusive man in the sense we think of it today, but, nonetheless, there was a lot of fear around being out of his way. That experience as a child brought me to a place where I became very aware, subconsciously, of what I call the disequilibrium of power: people who have power who abuse their ability to control other people.

JAY: Now, that often, when people come to that realization, leads them to want power.

FARRELL: I guess. Yeah.

JAY: Not to fight it.

FARRELL: Yeah.

JAY: Especially if you’re doing aright.

FARRELL: That’s interesting. In my case, you know, I came up just trying to please, trying to figure out who I was, trying to figure out if I was, on some levels trying to get my dad’s approval so that he wouldn’t stop treating me as though I was the stupidist, most clumsy, most worthless person around. And he died when I was a teenager. I was 17. So it creates a problem: you continue to try to find approval from the person who’s not there anymore. It’s very difficult. So one of the things I did was join the Marines, ’cause, you know, I figure if the Marine Corps builds men, maybe they’d build me one.

JAY: What year?

FARRELL: Nineteen fifty-seven, right after I got out of high school.

JAY: So 1957 is still pretty much in the midst of Cold War psychology. You and I are more or less contemporaries, so you’re a little older than I am. But the idea that we were perhaps heading into a nuclear war, that we were living in times where none of us thought we would really grow up. But you joined the Marines.

FARRELL: Yeah. Well, I was enchanted—John Wayne and my father had, in my mind, a lot of connections. So I was enchanted by the movies where the Duke, you know, led us up Mount Suribachi. And, first of all, I was going to be drafted. Working class family that [if] college wasn’t on the agenda, the next thing was going to happen was the Army was going to grab me. And the Marines seemed somehow more glamorous, more meaningful, more macho to me. So I joined. And I had an experience in the Marines that I think of as one of the formative ones. Having grown up on the West Coast here, I was aware of prejudice. My father talked about niggers and spics and heebs and all that stuff. You know. But he also had friends who were Jewish. And I don’t know of any friends who were black. So there was a kind of a confusion.

JAY: What city you in?

FARRELL: Here, Los Angeles.

JAY: Oh, you grew up in LA.

FARRELL: Yeah. I grew up in West Hollywood, actually, before it was a city. I was stationed in Japan for awhile, and I met a guy, and we went out on liberty together, and we had a good time. We came back to the barracks, and when we came in, there was this tension. And at first I was stupid. I couldn’t figure out what what it was about. And then I realized it was ’cause he was black and I was white, and never the twain should meet. You know.

JAY: Well, back up a step here. Now, your father’s using all this language and has all kinds of racial prejudices. But you didn’t. And if not, why not?

FARRELL: I was too busy, I think, trying to figure out who I was, trying to figure out if I was worth anything to be putting down other people. I had friends in school—. Where I grew up in West Hollywood, at that time there was a huge—well, not huge, but relatively large Mexican-American community. And they were friends of mine and good guys, you know, and nice girls. And it was confusing to me. My group formed a club, and it became a club; their group formed a club, and it became a gang, you know, in the parlance. So I just was sort of coming up in a time where I was very confused about a lot of things. But my focus was very personal, very much on myself, very much on figuring out who the hell I was and how I was going to get away with it, ’cause—.

JAY: So in terms of where you’re at in your political understanding, you’re living in a day where I believe on television there’s a television show called I Was a Commie for the FBI. I know me, and I suppose you, when you went to school, were probably learning how to hide under your desk,—

FARRELL: That’s right. Drop.

JAY: —getting ready for the drop.

FARRELL: Yup.

JAY: Joining the Marines, are you joining something at that time you believe is fighting for truth, justice, and the American way [inaudible] Superman?

FARRELL: Absolutely. I was going to be a big, tough, American-defending Marine. And I went through, you know, all the training and survived, and strutted around in my uniform, and felt like I was tougher than anybody, except inside was a cowering fool, you know, trying to figure it out. [inaudible]

JAY: That might have qualified you to be president. But we don’t need to go there right now.

FARRELL: Oh, God, yes. So, anyway, when I met Tyus, this buddy of mine, I mean, I had met other guys in the service from all walks of life, but he and I really connected. And then he shipped out, and I connected with another guy, incidentally, a white guy from Louisiana. And when I got out of the service, looking for what to do, I got a job involving driving a car across the country, delivering a car. And I went down through Arkansas and Louisiana and Mississippi and Alabama and Georgia. And I saw things that were shocking to me, because I was still in the head place of a guy who thought America was, you know, truth, justice, and the American way. And I saw black-only drinking fountains and black-only restrooms, and I saw the extraordinary poverty. And it just really kind of came home to me that this pal of mine and I wouldn’t only create tension in the barracks: he couldn’t be with me; he couldn’t drive in a car with me; he couldn’t stop and eat in a restaurant with me; he couldn’t stay in a motel, wherever I stayed. And it was one of those lights that starts to go off, you know. I came back. I hitchhiked, actually, back once I delivered the car and stopped to see this buddy of mine in New Orleans. And he was a good guy. He was a pal of mine. And we were talking about stuff. And I was only kind of beginning to be aware of what was going on in the world. And I raised some questions. And he said, you know, he and his buddies would go out during Mardi Gras on a truck, and they would wrap up bricks in gift wrapping and drive through the black communities and throw the bricks out for people who were—. And I thought, I can’t believe what I’m hearing. You know? And this is my friend. I was stunned. And it helped open my mind a little bit more to what was actually going on in the world and how people justified what they did and what their relationships were and where they were in society and how they maintained where they were in society. So, you know, this was the beginning and end of it. I got out of the Marines in ’58 or ’59. So in ’60, ’61, ’62, Kennedy’s assassinated in ’63, the Vietnam War, then all the revolution started to happen, and I was in the middle of it trying to figure out how to make sense out of things.

JAY: Please join us for the next segment of our interview with Mike Farrell.

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