Mike Farrell of M*A*S*H on His Journey to Actor and Activist

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Actor Mike Farrell is perhaps best known for his role as Captain B.J. Hunnicutt in the popular TV series M*A*S*H. But aside from that, he is also known for his decades of social justice activism. Farrell has just come out with a new book called “Just Call Me Mike: A Journey to Actor and Activist.” [includes rush transcript]

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AMY GOODMAN: My next guest is perhaps best known for his role as Captain B.J. Hunnicutt in the popular TV series M*A*S*H. I’m talking about actor Mike Farrell. But aside from M*A*S*H, he’s also known for his social justice activism.

In the lead-up to the Iraq War, Farrell 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 dozen of countries, many of them ravaged by war. In the 1980s, he traveled to Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua, El Salvador. He’s been to the Middle East several times. He was in Bosnia, Croatia, during the war in Yugoslavia, and he’s been to a number of 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 co-chair of Human Rights Watch in California and president of the anti-capital punishment group Death Penalty Focus. Mike Farrell has just come out with a new book. It’s called Just Call Me Mike: A Journey to Actor and Activist.

Welcome to Democracy Now!

MIKE FARRELL: Thank you, Amy. Nice to be with you.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s great to have you here. So you grew up right here in West Hollywood?

MIKE FARRELL: Right here, West Hollywood. Yes, indeed.

AMY GOODMAN: What were you doing as you were growing up in Hollywood?

MIKE FARRELL: I was playing, riding my bike, you know, and dreaming about being an actor. I went to school with Natalie Wood and Rick Nelson and people that were in the business, and my dad worked as a carpenter behind the walls in the studios, and it all was very fascinating. I thought success as an actor might provide all those things I wasn’t getting at home, like attention and love and, you know, stroking. Didn’t work out.

AMY GOODMAN: Who were the actors you met growing up with your dad working as a carpenter, with you being here?

MIKE FARRELL: Well, when I was in second grade I had a big crush on Natalie Wood. But, you know, Rick Nelson and his brother Dave and John Law, and any number of actors, Stephanie Powers, who was then known as Taffy Paul. She’ll hate me for saying that.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, you became an activist before you went into acting.

MIKE FARRELL: Yes, I did. When I was in the military, I ran into racial prejudice in the form of a relationship with a black marine that seemed to create some disturbance in the unit. It was news to me. After the military, I drove through the South and saw what I had thought were things of the past, you know?

AMY GOODMAN: What year was this?

MIKE FARRELL: Oh, '59. White-only drinking fountains and white-only restrooms really were a shock to me, because I was raised in a relatively liberal, I guess, community, where there was certainly racism, but it wasn't sort of the in-your-face racism that I saw down there.

And then, John Kennedy was the first president I was old enough to vote for, and he was an inspiring figure to me who was stolen from us, and by a situation that I found to be incomprehensible. When I saw Jack Ruby kill Lee Harvey Oswald on national television, and I thought, wait a minute, there’s no connection between these guys? What are they telling us? And I remember thinking that Lyndon Johnson, who the press had been deriding as a jug-eared hick for the three years of his vice presidency, was suddenly a statesman from the point of view of the media, who was telling us suddenly that this was the man of the hour and somebody who had — it was nothing to worry about. We should just be, you know, calm and relaxed, and everything was going to be fine. None of it kind of made sense to me.

I became more interested in looking at the whys and the wherefores, more interested in raising questions. And that had been fed by my upset at the racial issue in the country. And the escalating war in Vietnam did the same thing, and I began to be one of those people in the streets saying no, the government is not telling us the truth and we need to end this war and start doing things right in this country.

AMY GOODMAN: How did you end up on M*A*S*H, Mike Farrell?

MIKE FARRELL: Well, I was lucky as an actor. I got a number of jobs that moved me sort of up to the level of awareness of some people in the industry, and when Wayne Rogers decided to leave the show, they asked me if I would consider coming over and talking to them. And through a series of processes, I was finally selected to be B.J. Hunnicutt, happiest thing that ever happened to me in my career.

AMY GOODMAN: How did it change your life?

MIKE FARRELL: Well, in every way possible. You know, it made me, from the perspective of people in the industry, a star, which carries with it all kinds of opportunities and responsibilities, in my view, but it also pointed microphones and cameras at me, and people were asking me about things that I had been speaking about, you know, publicly, but as a member of a group who was demonstrating against a war or whatever. And suddenly, I could speak to cameras and say to people, by the millions, you know, some things, and that provided the opportunity to get more and more deeply involved, and it also provided a lot of opportunities to go to the some of the places you’ve described and see some things that helped me understand the impact of the United States around the world and how it is we have a huge, I think, responsibility for behaving in a manner that is consistent with our principles, rather than the way in which we have become known for doing it.

AMY GOODMAN: You went to Nicaragua and El Salvador in the ’80s, Rwanda, Somalia in ’93 and ’94?

MIKE FARRELL: Yes. Yeah, I was in Rwanda shortly after the terrible slaughter there with the United Nations. I was in Bosnia in '92 with the United Nations again, seeing the — I came back and tried to reach the then-President-elect Clinton and Vice President-elect Gore to say we've got to — one of you needs to go to Sarajevo and demonstrate the U.S.'s concern about what's going on there, because there was clearly a, if not genocidal relationship going on between the Bosnians and the Bosnian Serbs, there was certainly ethnic cleansing of the worst kind, and the United States was ignoring it, pretending it didn’t happen. And I thought, this is outrageous that we are not in there with the United Nations, with the blue helmets, people — you know, the peacekeepers, but with a mandate to do something to stand up against the violence. And, you know, it just has always seemed to me that as the leading nation in the history of the world, we have a responsibility to be involved in the international community.

AMY GOODMAN: Mike Farrell, you’re also very active on death penalty issues here at home.

MIKE FARRELL: I am, indeed.

AMY GOODMAN: And last night you were together with, well, former Senator George McGovern, giving him an award for what?

MIKE FARRELL: Our annual human rights award. George McGovern is a great hero of mine. I supported him in the '72 campaign. I've had the pleasure of being a friend of his for many years, and I think he’s an extraordinary figure who could have led this country in the direction that I think we all wanted to go. And in spite of the defeat at the hands of the Nixon gang, he continued to demonstrate through his life his commitment to the issues that concern us all: hunger and concern for human rights and concern for the rights of the individuals both in this country and outside of it. And he’s always been opposed to the death penalty. So I took the opportunity to, as chair of the organization, to say we would love to have him come and be recognized for the human rights work he’s done.

AMY GOODMAN: We have 30 seconds. The issue of war right now, what do you think needs to be done?

MIKE FARRELL: Well, we need to pull out immediately. We need to begin the withdrawal immediately, but we need to set up some sort of continued security apparatus that would protect the people in that country who want to re-establish a nation. But what we have done is hideous. We’ve destroyed an historic nation without any concern for the welfare of the people there, and we’ve destroyed our own military in the process.

AMY GOODMAN: Mike Farrell is the author of Just Call Me Mike: A Journey to Actor and Activist.

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