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Actor Mike Farrell on Politics and Hollywood: M*A*S*H Couldn’t Be On TV Today

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In a special broadcast from the capital of the film world, we speak to actor and activist Mike Farrell.[includes transcript]

We now turn to an actor who knows a lot about Hollywood—not only did he he grow up here but he has been very active with the Screen Actors Guild. We are joined by Mike Farrell. Perhaps he is best known for his role as Captain B.J. Hunnicutt in the popular TV-series MASH. But Farrell is also known for his social justice activism. In the lead-up to the Iraq war, he was one of a number of actors who very publicly called for a peaceful resolution to the crisis. Since 1979, his work with human rights groups and aid organizations has brought him to dozens of countries, many of them ravaged by war. In the 1980s, he began working with the aid organization CONCERN. He traveled to Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua and El Salvador. He has been to the Middle East several times. He was in Bosnia and Croatia during the war in Yugoslavia and he has been to many African nations. Over the years, Farrell has worked with the ACLU, Human Rights Watch, the United Farm Workers, Amnesty International, among others. He is currently the co-chair of Human Rights Watch in California and is active with a number of groups fighting to end the death penalty.

  • Mike Farrell, is most famous for his part as Captain B.J. Hunnicutt in the popular TV-series MASH. Over the years, he has starred in many TV series, including “Providence.” In 2002 he was elected First Vice President of the Screen Actors Guild in Los Angeles. He has been very outspoken on a number of political issues including the war in Iraq, as well as the death penalty.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We thank you for being with us here on Democracy Now!.

MIKE FARRELL: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: A lot of people are looking at Hollywood and politics with the release of Michael Moore’s film. You have a long history dealing with the politics of Hollywood. Your film, the TV series, “M.A.S.H.,” is still seen all over this country and different channels. Young people that didn’t see it at the beginning are now seeing it. It was seen as an anti-war TV series.

MIKE FARRELL: Appropriately so. That’s what we were.

AMY GOODMAN: How do you get away with it?

MIKE FARRELL: A good question. It started with a book with Korea. It then segued into Robert Altman’s wonderful movie, which was very deliberately seen as an anti-war motion picture, the “M.A.S.H.,” the motion picture and 20th Century Fox decided, this is a business now. They might want to make a television series out of it, and fortunately for us they got people like Gene Reynolds and Larry Gelbart, who had a distinctive view of what war is and what we ought not to be doing. Then they hired their people like Alan Alda who had a very specific view himself. It was kind of the magical moment that happened in television, I think.

AMY GOODMAN: How did people respond?

MIKE FARRELL: People loved it. They embraced it. Took it to their hearts and continue to. I hear from people every day about how much they loved the show, how much it meant to them, how much it means to them on an on-going basis. Named children after it. It’s been extraordinary.

AMY GOODMAN: So, would you say that the dissent space allowed for it has actually tightened up, has closed down now?

MIKE FARRELL: Very much so. “M.A.S.H.” could not be on the air today. They would not put ton the air today. Secondly, if they did, it would be some sort of utterly, I think irrelevant piece of garbage that would be all about dropping your pants and doing terribly stupid and inane things, because that’s what television has reduced itself to. And if we were continuing — if we were actually on the air saying the sorts of things that we said at the time, there would be all of these protests. You know, the same people that took the Reagan movie off the air by protesting and the same people that have insisted that you cannot do this, you cannot do that, the same people that are fighting Michael Moore’s movie are trying to suggest that the American public shouldn’t have access to information.

AMY GOODMAN: So, what does that do to you as an artist and as an actor? What is it doing to people in Hollywood?

MIKE FARRELL: Well, I think it’s cheapening the business in general, but it infuriates those of us who have a social conscience who say that you know, we as citizens — forget artists — as citizens have a right to protest and a right to demonstrate. It’s because we have achieved some success in the business and the immediate media pays attention to us, and we want to speak out and it offends some people, so be it.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to actor Mike Farrell. You were in Honduras during the time that John Negroponte was ambassador to Honduras. He was ambassador from 1981 to 1985. Just this week he was sworn in as the new U.N. Ambassador to Iraq. In Honduras he presided over the largest C.I.A. station in the world. Honduras was the raising ground for Nicaragua.

MIKE FARRELL: I mean it’s just a pathetic thing. I laugh about it now, but Honduras was the base for the Contras against Nicaragua. Honduras was also the repository of a great number of refugees from the horror in Guatemala and the terrible brutality in El Salvador. We were there trying to deal with the needs of the people who were refugees and who were being treated abominably by their own governments and by the United States if every way they could be. I remember coming back from Honduras and talking to the Assistant Secretary of State for Latin American Affairs. I told him about the brutality that was being visited on these people.

AMY GOODMAN: Is it Elliot Abrams?

MIKE FARRELL: No. I never had the painful — thankfully, I never had the opportunity to cross with Elliot Abrams. His name is Tom something. I forget now. You have to understand, these people are the families and friends of the guerillas. I testified before the house version of the Foreign Affairs Committee. I said, if women and children are our enemy, then what is it that we have become? What is it that America is to not only to the people in that region, but to us, if we’re going to be down there arming and training and supporting, and in some cases actually physically supporting the behavior of people who are papering and pillaging and murdering, and then what it is that we have become? That was 1982,1983, 1984,1985 when we were involved down there. Now, the same bloody thing is happening in Iraq, and the same people are responsible for our policies. It’s just astonishing to me.

AMY GOODMAN: So, what do you plan to do about it? What are you doing?

MIKE FARRELL: I’m doing everything that I can. I’m speaking out and condemning this nonsense and condemning the people associated with it and urging the American people to not only know their history but know what’s being — what’s being stolen from them by this administration and seeing to it that we change administrations as soon as we can.

AMY GOODMAN: What effect has programs that we see that, the proliferation of the cable news network programs, very fierce, right wing programs like The O’Reilly Factor, Hannity and Colmes. Those shows. You have been on these programs. What effect do they have on the American culture?

MIKE FARRELL: I think there’s a terrible dumbing- down of the American consciousness, the drumbeat of uglyness and stupidity and sensationalism, and thoughtlessness and propaganda that is in these stations. I think it’s across the border. It’s not just in the right wing media. Takings across the board, the dumbing- down that’s going on. I worry about it greatly, because I think we have listened to — loosened connections that people feel toward this country and the values of this country. It’s as though as took freedom and liberty and the kinds of concepts that built America and put them on a shelf somewhere and said we won them now. As long as they’re back there, we can do anything that we want. Forgetting that those have to be living — living values that we practice on a daily basis rather than just having them on a shelf that we polish periodically.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think that Hollywood can be a force for good?

MIKE FARRELL: Absolutely. I think the media could be a very good force for good and I think Hollywood can as well. Today, Hollywood is the con strained by box office and ratings and all of those things that effectively bottom line, the corporate mentality has taken over in Hollywood and creativity is gone and asunder as a result to a significant degree.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think the resistance is growing within Hollywood?

MIKE FARRELL: Sure. You see what Michael Moore’s film has done. I don’t know if you know about “Uncovered” Robert Greenwald’s film. Robert and I were the co-founders of Artists United to Win Without War. We were the ones that created the thunderclap of opposition that was the hope of beginning some dialogue in this country. Robert is also doing a film that’s going to be released soon about Fox News, about the kind of media manipulation that’s going on about the garbage that’s being shoved down people’s throats with a particular political perspective at its root. He also did “Unprecedented” the film about the feeling of the election in Florida in 2000. So, we’re seeing guerrilla filmmaking and good filmmaking. We’re still seeing people caring enough to make motion pictures and television shows and matter. “West Wing” continues. It’s harder and harder in the business that is more business than show today.

AMY GOODMAN: Mike Farrell, I want to thank you very much for being with us.

MIKE FARRELL: My pleasure.

AMY GOODMAN: That does it for today’s program, broadcasting from Hollywood, as we continue our “Exception To The Rulers” tour. We’ll be at the Long Beach Convention Center today at 11:00 and at1:00, talking to the Universalist Unitarians at their annual gathering. Then at 6:00 at 2,000+ Books in Long Beach, at 4:30. A fund-raiser for KPFK, right across the street from 2,000+ Books. We head to the American Library Association in Orlando on Sunday morning at 8:00. Then to celebrate Kansas City’s KKFI Sunday night at 6:00 , a benefit for Friends of Community Radio and KKFI . We’ll be broadcasting live from Kansas City Monday morning.

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