Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Exclusive: "M*A*S*H" Star’s Journey to Activism Will Make Literary Stop in Iowa City

Actor Mike Farrell, best known as B.J. Hunnicutt on the TV show “M*A*S*H,” has spent most of his life as a political activist. Farrell, however, doesn’t like being called an actor or an activist. “I don’t like being called an activist, because this is used to separate me from those people who are calling me that,” Farrell told the Iowa Independent during a telephone interview. “And this only serves to cut off the communication process.”

Instead, Farrell, 69, would prefer that people call him Mike, which inspired the title of his new memoir, “Just Call Me Mike: A Journey to Actor and Activist,” which he will read from May 30 at the Prairie Lights bookstore in Iowa City.

As part of Farrell’s sojourn, he said he never really wanted to write a book, but a friend convinced him to write about his life’s story, where he came from, and his journey to become an actor and an activist. “I didn’t want to write a how-to book for activists, because I don’t think it can be done,” Farrell said. “Rather, I wrote a story about my life and shared my journey.”

Farrell was born in St. Paul, Minn., but he grew up in Hollywood, where his father worked as a studio carpenter. He began his movie career with small parts in films including "The Graduate" and "The Americanization of Emily." Eventually he landed a regular role in the soap opera "The Days of Our Lives" and then leading roles in two series, "The Interns" and "The Man and The City," followed by a four-year contract with Universal Pictures.

His eight years on "M*A*S*H" included the opportunity to both write and direct several episodes, earning him nominations for Director's Guild and Emmy awards. Farrell credits “M*A*S*H” for helping him shape his world view, saying the show provided him with an opportunity to travel and see a great number of cultures.

During the course of the long-running sitcom, Farrell also began to pursue an interest in politics and human rights that took him to Cambodia, Honduras, Nicaragua and El Salvador, and he is now considered one of Hollywood's prominent activists. He is currently co-chair of Human Rights Watch in California and president of the anti-capital punishment group Death Penalty Focus.

Mike Farrell's Questions and Answers with the Iowa Independent:

Iowa Independent: "M*A*S*H" not only provided audiences an opportunity for laughter, but the show shed light on the humanity and inhumanities of war. When considering it was the most popular television show during its time, why do you think people were so drawn to it?

Farrell: "M*A*S*H" depicted a fundamental humanity and told the truth. A lot of blood has been spilled in war, and "M*A*S*H" reminded people of this and that we have been misled by our leaders.

Iowa Independent: How much of B.J. Hunnicutt’s character was Mike Farrell, or vice versa?

Farrell: We’re the same height.

Iowa Independent: Your experiences in the Marines and as an activist have given you firsthand insights into how the U.S. policies have affected other countries. What have been some of the more eye-opening repercussions you have witnessed?

Farrell: I’ve seen victims of torture in the United States, South America, Africa and Asia. I think in too many instances, these incidents of torture, whether directly or indirectly, have been an effect of U.S. foreign policy. Our country is responsible for helping create the circumstances in which these occurrences of torture took place.

Iowa Independent: Where do the current administration’s policies and foreign policy decisions fit in this paradigm?

Farrell: The current administration has been criminal in the way it has twisted and abused our Constitution. The Bush administration has stripped our Bill of Rights, lied to us and unconscionably diminished the fundamental values we hold as Americans.

Iowa Independent: Do you sense that people in other countries have trouble trusting you and other Americans, or do they tend to separate the people from the policies?

Farrell: I’ve always found that if you come with the right attitude and you are genuine with your offer of support, people in need will trust you. Our latest actions abroad have hurt us in terms that people are a little less willing to trust us, and it does take longer sometimes to demonstrate that we can be trusted.

Iowa Independent: You are a strong opponent of the death penalty. What has drawn you to advocating against this particular issue?

Farrell: The death penalty is one of the hidden diseases in our country and is doing serious harm to us as a nation. We’ve been duped by our government and don’t realize it’s harming us in ways that people aren’t aware of. When a government sanctions killing, this harms other people because it’s seen as acceptable, and this opens the door to the dehumanization process.

Iowa Independent: In his 2008 gubernatorial bid, our current governor, Chet Culver, said he would support a limited death penalty for some of the more extreme cases, specifically those involving children victims. What are your thoughts or notions about the notion of a limited death penalty in these cases?

Farrell: I can see why some people still cling to a limited death penalty, because they have an emotional connection, and they cannot completely let go of the death penalty. It’s a process of letting go, so they hold on to it, claiming it’s only for the worse offenders. Unfortunately, we have always claimed it’s for the worst of the worst. However, it’s used to unfairly prey upon the poor and only serves to perpetuate racism.

Iowa Independent: You mentioned you don’t like being categorized. In the bigger picture, do you think recent categorizations have helped lead to our country’s current divisiveness and polarization, socially and/or politically?

Farrell: Yes, exactly. We need to begin having a meaningful dialogue, so we can address some of the major issues affecting our country and impacting the world.

Iowa Independent: Do you see any hope on the horizon for healing these divisive wounds?

Farrell: Sure, one of the major candidates for president is running a campaign that wants us to end these divisions, not wanting to be divided into red and blue states, with the hope of healing these divisions. The obstacles we face are obvious. Certain people have taken advantage of this divisiveness to help distance people from one another as a means of gaining power and using this power to inflame the prejudices on both sides.

Iowa Independent: Having said that, what are your thoughts on this year’s presidential election?

Farrell: The people of Iowa gave a boost to the Obama campaign, which can make an extremely big impact on the world by providing people around the world with a sense of hope, and I’m grateful for that.

Iowa Independent: Your book’s title suggests that your book and life are part of a journey. What advice would you impart to the younger generation whose journey has just begun?

Farrell: It’s urgently important that they examine who they are and take the time to take a serious look at their own circumstances and how they compare to not only people in our own country, but people’s circumstances in other countries as well.

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