Real Life Heroes: Mike Farrell

Jen Johnston


Talking Pictures alias talkingpix.co.uk

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Part One: The quiet doctor
Part Two

There is nothing quite like the cold sweat of intimidation. I have experienced it more than once in my daily grind. When I got my favourite Canadian actor (Peter Keleghan) to agree to an interview, I panicked for days. I asked advice from EVERYONE I knew, I researched the man meticulously and yet was still scared to death when I got him on the phone. “What if he sees straight through the hip facade and realizes just how much of a goober you are?” said my inner voice. Luckily, it turned out brilliantly. I called Peter on the phone, he was lovely, and I had a fantastic time speaking with him. (Once my heart started beating regularly that is.) 

I have since gone on to attempt to get interviews with many performers in the industry. Some have chatted with me, some have been sadly unavailable. But always lurking in the back of my mind was the thought of speaking with my very first crush....

There is absolutely no one working in film today that I think higher of.

I first discovered Mike Farrell at the age of 12. (Parents out there will recognize that as the “in order to assert my independence I’m going to be as unpleasant as possible to everyone around me” phase. I’m really starting to hope that karma doesn’t actually exist, because if it does, when my daughter turns 12 I’m leaving home.) I was off to visit my grandpa. This was usually an experience that I dreaded like most adults dread a tax audit. Grandpa played *YECCCHHH* cards all day long. Grandpa usually subjected me to his culinary experiments which took the form of cheese balls. For the record, please allow me to state that I am not at all opposed to my grandpa’s peanut butter and garlic cheese balls except for use as food. They could serve a myriad of alternate household purposes such as doorstops, smothering small household fires, etc..... That day though, Grandpa asked me if I’d like to watch TV. I went over and sat down with him to watch this show I’d never seen before called M*A*S*H. Going against all pre-teen protocol to find everything vaguely adult oriented to be hideously embarrassing, I found myself....laughing. More then once.  I still remember attempting to describe it to a friend later that day.

“There was, like, this doctor? And his name was BJ? And he was totally hot? And he was, like, off in Korea? And his family’s back in the States? And they send him a movie? Of like, what they’re doing back in the states? It was, like, totally moving.”

Words cannot describe how with it I thought I was. 

I am of course much cooler now. Years of entertainment writing experience helped me to keep my dignified air of nonchalance (literally ‘jumping up and down on office furniture’) when Mike Farrell agreed to an interview. Then the panic set in. If you had been anywhere around me in the days leading up to my talk with him you would have heard something along these lines:

“OhmyGodI’mgoingtotalktoMikeFarrell.WhatamIgoingtoaskhim?ShouldIaskhimaboutM*
A*S*H?EveryoneaskshimaboutM*A*S*H.MaybeIshouldaskhimsomethingelse.WhatselseshouldIaskhim?”

When my mentor (writer Sandy MacDonald) learned not only of the pending interview, but also of my ever increasing consternation levels, he phoned me at home to offer his support and advice. “Just remember,” he said “Mike Farrell knows EVERYBODY in Hollywood, so the worst thing that can possibly happen is that you make a total goober out of yourself, and no one will ever agree to be interviewed by you ever again. Hahahhahahahahaha.”

If we’re going to be entirely honest with ourselves here, I was so nervous when I called Mike that I have absolutely no idea whether or not I was suave and/or dignified in any way. I had an energy level similar to what would have resulted from throwing a live squirrel into a room filled with 40,000 Labrador retrievers. Through my petrified fog I can tell you that he is EXTREMELY eloquent, and very friendly. 

M*A*S*H. All Rights Reserved.I started out by asking Mike if he had been a fan of M*A*S*H before he joined the cast. “Very much so, very much so,” Mike replied. “I have always thought that it was one of the best shows on television.” I then asked if he was intimidated about joining the cast in the middle of such an enormously successful run. “Absolutely,” he said. “I had two main concerns. One was that the cast was renowned for having a familial bond. I was worried that they would view me as a replacement for Wayne (Rogers, “Trapper John”) and resent me. And, like you said, the show was such a big hit before I joined the cast. I was afraid that if the show failed I would wear it for the rest of my career.” 

When I asked if the M*A*S*H set was as collaborative as it seemed to be Mike said that “People were always open to different thoughts and ideas. We generally just went with what the writers had done though. They were terrific, always putting a lot of work and research into their scripts.”

I then asked Mike to describe his first day on the set. “Well, I have two very distinct memories from that day. I walked in, and the first person I saw was Gary Burghoff. (Radar) I was nervous, but he came right over to me, shook my hand and made me feel so welcome. And then, one by one, each cast member came up and did the same. The other is my first run through of the script. We read through it, and when we got to the end Gene (Reynolds, director) said, ‘now let’s all turn back to page one.’ This was standard procedure at rehearsals so that everyone could have a chance to express their comments, questions or suggestions. We went through the whole script together. It was an incredibly respectful environment. There was no sense of separation between anyone.”

When I polled the local girls as to who their favourite M*A*S*H character was, the response was overwhelmingly BJ. (Sorry Alan.) They were all curious to know where the name BJ came from, and whether or not the handsome doctor was based on anyone in particular. “To answer the first question, BJ’s name came from Billy Jurgensen, our director of photography. As to the second one, BJ is a combination of me and the writers.”

The favourite M*A*S*H episode among the men in my small town is, the finale (“Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen”). Anyone that even takes a short drive through my little village forms the opinion that it’s filled with tough guys. (Just because a guy spends his time working with horses and cattle, and using an ATV as the chief form of transportation people rush to judgment.) The tough guy impression goes flying out the window when the local boys gather to watch this particular slice of TV history. You know the instant someone is getting choked up because they develop a sudden urgent need to leave the room for snacks, drinks, construct something, etc.

M*A*S*H. All Rights Reserved.“In about my seventh year of doing the show,” said Mike “I pulled Alan (Alda, ‘Hawkeye Pierce’) aside and we talked about the ending of the show. I had an ulterior motive. I really didn’t want to be at the mercy of the network, if they decided to suddenly pull the plug. We wanted to end it ourselves. We wanted to do an episode where we could express our devotion to each other, and to say good-bye and thank you to the audience. Initially the executives were against us doing a final episode. One compared it to The Fugitive. (Their final episode was entitled “The day the running stopped”) He said that ‘it would be just like ‘The Fugitive.’ We did an final episode for that, and it killed us in syndication. Everyone knew the ending.’ I said ‘This may come as a surprise to you, but most people are aware that the Korean war ended.’”

Unlike most members of a long running television show, Mike has a favourite episode. “‘The Interview’ is definitely my favourite.” I asked which he found the most challenging as a performer. “Ooooo.....I can’t think of the name of the episode.(“Period of Adjustment”) But it’s the one after Radar left. BJ got a letter from Peg telling him that when Erin (his daughter) saw Radar she called him Daddy. She doesn’t know BJ, she just sees any man in uniform and thinks he’s Daddy. It was such an emotionally extravagant episode to film.” 

 Mike seemed modest when discussing the loyal fans of M*A*S*H and BJ. “I’m incredibly grateful for the level and tenacity of their support.”

After speaking with one of my biggest heroes, I got to thinking about my final year of Halloween escapades. I was 14 when my grandpa, my best friend Jeff, (who if he decides to search my house will never find the photos, they’re too well hidden) and I, went out costumed to the hilt as Colonel Potter, Hawkeye Pierce, and BJ Hunnicutt respectively. After Grandpa has escorted us around the neighbourhood, Jeff and I decided to head out to play a game of laser tag. While hiding in the dark, I attempted to plan my strategic move around a corner wall. Should I a) stick my head out to see where Jeff was hiding? Or b) Stick my gun out and fire random shots of laser beams at whatever happened to be nearby? I chose option a). Jeff chose option b). The upshot of this being that my nose collided with Jeff’s laser gun. I fell down to the floor. “You need to go to the hospital” Jeff said. “Gnhnong,” I replied “Blaropgnhwaagh.” This was me attempting to say, “No, I feel fine.” My plan was to assume the posture of a tough girl, and lean on Jeff until we got outside. This was when the traitor called a cab, and took me to the hospital. I can’t imagine what the staff thought seeing two 14 year olds dressed up as Army surgeons staggering into the hospital. 

When I finally got to see someone, I attempted to explain what had happened. This was a bit of a challenge because the doctor examining me had never played laser tag.

“He shot you in the eye with a LASER?” he said.

“Blaropgnhwaggh,” I replied.

“Have you had a tetanus shot recently?” he said.

“YES!!” I replied, demonstrating the scientific fact that the brain will turn to lying in the face of extreme paranoia about needles. 

My grandpa, (still in Colonel Potter regalia) turned up, in his cherry red jeep with flames down the sides, to escort Jeff and I to our respective homes. After dropping Jeff off, we went in to watch M*A*S*H together. (The one where the 4077th, has 20 minutes to save a soldiers’ leg.) Sitting together Grandpa said “You know, I’ve been doing some reading up on that Mike Farrell guy that you like so much. He seems like an OK fellow.” 

Little did I know at the time that there was much more to the actor behind BJ then just his performances.....

Questions from the Fans

What’s the last movie you saw you enjoyed?

“I don’t tend to get out to a lot of movies, my wife and I rent a lot.... probably Focus with William H. Macy. It was brilliant. He’s a fabulous actor.

What are you reading now?

“I’m a big reader, I read a lot of books at the same time. I’m reading Amsterdam by Ian McKewan. The Last Face You’ll Ever See..... The Wrong Man by Michael Mello. I wrote the foreword to that.”

What’s the worst job you’ve ever had?

“I was a bouncer in a bar. That was a terrible, terrible, terrible job. And I used to be a private investigator. I’d have to find people that didn’t want to be found. I was shot at, and chased with knives. Most of the cases were really sad more then anything else.”

What hobby do you have that you think would surprise people?

“I’m a cross country motorcycle rider. I’ve ridden across Alaska, Europe, Australia, and Canada.”

If you could change one thing about yourself what would it be?

“I think I fall victim to vanity too often. I’d change that.”

Whom do you most admire as a performer?

“Jack Albertson, for his extraordinary commitment. He really was so talented in everything from film, to vaudeville. For pure ability, I’d say William H. Macy, Robert De Niro, Robert Redford. Of course I’m a HUGE fan of my kids, (on Providence) Melina, Seth, Paula, they’re terrifically smart, and good, and not swallowed up in fame. I have undying admiration for the M*A*S*H group. As a company there was such dedication...”

Have you ever been mistaken for another celebrity?

“Yes. Marshall Thompson. (Flight of the Lost Balloon) I told this story on the reunion show... how once I received a letter from a lady who was just extolling my virtues, how HANDSOME I was, and what a GREAT actor I was, and could I sign the enclosed photo and send it back to her. Well, when I looked at the photo it was Wayne Rogers.”

Do you have a favourite quotation?

“I do. Clarence Darrow said that 'There is in every man that divine spark that makes him reach upward for something higher and better then anything he has ever known.'”
 

Links

For Part Two of this article click here.

For an episode guide to M*A*S*H plus cast and crew details go to:
www.tvtome.com
 

Also see:

Missing M*A*S*H
 
 
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