M*A*S*H actor reflects on career, activism

Contributed PhotoM*A*S*H actor and social activist Mike Farrell (left) detailed his life in Hollywood and his humanitarian efforts at Thursday night's Chautauqua program at Greensburg Community High School. Farrell is pictured with Greensburg Community High School teacher John Pratt, who has organized Chautauqua efforts for nearly a decade. Thursday's event was the 10th Chautauqua at GCHS following several at North Decatur High School.

GREENSBURG – Mike Farrell made his mark on television history by portraying the affably-pragmatic and often hilarious Capt. B.J. Hunnicutt on M*A*S*H, and he credits some of that success for the opportunity to forge a second career as a humanitarian.

Above all, the actor and social activist’s work has shown him the “fundamental dignity” in every person, and led him to the conclusion that, universally, people seek – and should receive – love, attention and respect.

Farrell headlined Greensburg Community High School’s Spring Chautauqua by reminiscing on his role in a treasured television series, the path he took to become an actor and his globe-trotting efforts to provide humanitarian relief.

GCHS teacher and primary Chautauqua organizer John Pratt said it took more than two years and 40 emails before the stars that brought Farrell to the Tree City properly aligned, but the result appeared to be more than worth the wait for a sizable crowd in the school’s auditorium Thursday night.

That group heard of behind-the-scenes hijinks on the beloved comedy-drama that ran for 11 seasons on CBS, how the cast became “a family” and has kept in contact after the series’ end in 1983, and how M*A*S*H challenged television conventions and was embraced by audiences around the world.

“What it became was a social phenomenon, not only in the United States but around the world,” Farrell said of the Emmy-winning series.

Farrell recalled a trip to Southeast Asia during his time on the show where he was greeted and thanked because the series was “about peace and finding ways to stop war.”

M*A*S*H was a comedy-drama that centered on the exploits of doctors and army officials at a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital in South Korea, during the Korean War. It was unique among series at the time as it deftly balanced laughs with realistic war scenarios culled from authentic experiences from the Korean Conflict and the Vietnam War.

The stars of the series watched as the show became a cultural touchstone throughout the world, though Farrell initially feared that his casting might be the downfall of the series.

“I was afraid it would tank,” he said. “I would be known as the man who killed M*A*S*H.”

When he arrived on set he was warmly welcomed by Gary Burghoff (Radar O’Reilly) and other cast members, all of whom would carry a lifelong affection for one another long after the final episode aired. In moments he knew he was far from “the interloper” he feared he might be.

"It was just one after another; they just made me feel so welcome," he said.

Farrell took the role of Hunnicutt after the departure of series mainstay Wayne Rogers who had portrayed Capt. “Trapper” John McIntyre for the show’s first three seasons. Rogers’ character was popular with audiences and worked so well with Alan Alda’s lascivious Capt. “Hawkeye” Pierce that Farrell was initially wary that he would be playing the same character, or at least, one that was written similarly.

When it was announced he would be playing a character with strong personal convictions who also represented marriage fidelity, Farrell was relieved and instantly at home.

Numerous cast changes did little to slow the show’s momentum, and as the series continued as a ratings and awards success, Farrell and other personnel found joy in the ability to write and direct episodes while shaping their characters as they saw fit.

But the experience also shaped Mike Farrell’s own life, and his fame from the high-profile series helped him give weight to important social causes throughout the world.

“I’m a better person for having been part of the show because of the things we talked about, the way in which we were able to deal with issues…” Farrell remarked.

Prior to the series, Farrell was already active as a humanitarian, but via his notoriety with the show and his work with Concern America, he was able to help with relief efforts in Rwanda, Somalia and Central America, among others.

“I was allowed to have experiences in the world that broadened the sense of what is possible for a person,” the guest said.

Through that “extraordinary experience” Farrell saw the resilience of the human spirit and learned that people from all walks of life “deserve to be honored regardless of how they have comported themselves.”

Pratt said at the outset that Chautauqua is founded on the “celebration of diversity and the greatness within each and every one of us,” and Farrell lauded the program for its work in allowing a small Hoosier community to hear viewpoints from people far outside the American Midwest.

“It’s really been a very moving experience,” he said.

In particular, he pointed to a panel of religious leaders who spoke earlier in the day. Farrell called the program “quite wonderful.”

“It’s really about believing there is something better we can do,” Farrell said.

The actor and activist also fielded several questions from the audience and detailed a variety of humorous anecdotes.

In one instance, he convinced stage members to suspend Alda’s bicycle far above the set, unbeknownst to the bewildered star. In another, he and other members were on the receiving end of a practical joke in a restaurant that left them a bit embarrassed in the presence of legendary director Sir Richard Attenborough.

Farrell also once had David Ogden Stiers’ dressing room repainted in orange and purple – or “salmon and puce” in the words of the pranked actor, who portrayed Maj. Charles Emerson Winchester III from 1977 to 1983.

Farrell expressed his affection for his costars, in particular the late Harry Morgan and William Christopher.

He called the former “just a dear, dear man.”

“We all thought of him as a friend and a surrogate father,” he said.

Farrell is also not an avid watcher of M*A*S*H reruns as the show "remains in memory" for him and is a reminder of special people.

"It's tough [to watch] because these people meant so much," he said. "It rests in my mind and my heart."

Having spent several years portraying a fictional character in a very real setting, Farrell was also asked to comment on the present diplomatic strain between the United States and North Korea.

The actor called for diplomacy and care in peacefully resolving the situation, which has escalated in recent weeks.

He indicated that care is at the heart of all good deeds and that some of the best moments of his life have come from helping others.

“The joy in my life comes from all of these experiences and having the opportunity to come out and share some of them with people like you,” he told the crowd.

Contact: Brent Brown 812-663-3111 x7056; brent.brown@greensburgdailynews.com