Mike Farrell - raw, tenacious, principled
I thought I had a sense of M*A*S*H co-star Mike Farrell, actor, director, activist, but reading Chapter 4. The House, in his autobiography "Just Call Me Mike," was like clawing my way out of the belly of a crocodile.
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Book Review: Just Call Me Mike: a journey to actor and activist by Mike Farrell, Akashic Books/RDV Books; 2007; 368 pages
The range of accolades for "Just Call Me Mike": from Governor Mario Cuomo; Rabbi Leonard I Beerman; Ambassador Robert E White; Bill O'Reilly; Sister Helen Prejean; and numerous others piques one's curiosity beyond resistance. Comments are explicit and precise, yet it's hard to imagine so many good qualities in one person. At the end of Alan Alda's glowing list, he adds, "He's really kind of irritating."
So is it as Julian Bond says, "sometimes funny but always serious development of a committed artist's life? Or, as Donald Spoto says, "an exciting page-turner, a modern spiritual odyssey ... an account of one man's courageous battle against injustice in all its nefarious forms?" Of course, it is all that and surprisingly more.
The story, also rich in American social history, flows from beginning to end with emotion, spirit, intellect, and wisdom. Ambassador Joseph Wilson calls it "a riveting tale of personal, professional, and civic growth from sallow California kid to mature citizen committed to a more just social order."
The first thing we learn about Mike is that he does not want to be categorized. "Pigeonholing does the public's thinking for them, and insults them in the process.... I'd rather not start off with a label that sets someone's teeth on edge."
"Say I'm a 'liberal' and some think they know my views on everything. They start dialing the phone or writing an angry letter without even knowing what I'll say. Or others think we agree, when we might not."
"I've been around the block a few times now, and I think I've learned some things. A lot of these things have surprised me, and many have been painful, but mostly I've learned how lucky I am. This is some world we live in. I've been privileged to see a fair amount of it, and the more I experience, the more I realize the special place we inhabit in it."
Mike sees the big picture as, "what we aspire to and yearn for and what we owe to each other. It's about making the invisible visible, about salvaging those thought disposable, about recognizing and reassuring those who think they don't count, or perhaps fear the don't actually exist."
That said and elaborated upon in The Preface, Mike leads us by word into West Hollywood, according to the address of his childhood. Mike lived in a "nice" home, but in what his mother called the "shanty Irish" as opposed to the "lace-curtain Irish." Clothes for Mike, his brother and two sisters were bought at "The Old Store," aka Goodwill.
Mike was a shy child who pined for his dad's acceptance. "I was afraid I didn't exist without his approval. He simply terrified me. I hated living in fear all the time, but the awareness that pain awaited any misstep--not necessarily physical pain, but certainly humiliation and rejection--hung like a shroud over everything, and it took years to recognize the rage it produced. It has much to do, I know, with the degree to which I simply cannot tolerate injustice."
With traditional Irish Catholic rigidity, flared temper and unspoken expectations, beer was his father's chosen therapy. "I understand now that working himself sick to put food on the table and a roof over our heads was his way of showing he loved us. ... I get that now, after years of struggling and thinking and working and therapizing and fuming and weeping over it."
The void was not filled by Mike's mother. She "showed up," often humming, and she cried "notoriously" easily, but she offered her children no loving words or pats or hugs or touches. "God it was lonely."
Mike's ambition to be an actor came out of a desire to fill the hole. "Sneaking peeks at [his sister] Sally's movie magazines in hopes of seeing an ad for bras or girdle exposed me, pun intended, to another fantasy world. People became famous for being actors, some of them young people. And with fame, it was clear from those slick pages, came attention--lots of it--and what must certainly be love."
"Well, hell, went my secret thoughts, I can probably do that."
Mike skims fast through his childhood but provides us with some juicy details. He had a crush on Nataha Gurdin, better known as Natalie Wood, and reveals how painfully shy he was in their one encounter. When he finally asks out another girl, somehow I read in permission (forgive me, Mike) to set aside compassion, and laugh through tears at his first date--as much of it as has not "receded into the mists of memory."
In the early chapters, Mike's story breaks and simultaneously heals my heart as he emerges triumphantly into himself. I have never read an account so emotionally revealing, honest, insightful and beautiful.
But cast out your assumptions that Mike is just soft, he was also Series Honor Man in the Marine Corp - the one man in boot camp promoted to Private First Class. Those who have served in the military will empathize with the misery and team spirit. Those who have not served will rejoice in their escape.
Chapter 4. The House, is central to the rest of Mike's life. Officially called the Manhattan Project, the basic premise of the therapy-oriented self-help program is that we each need the same things: love, attention and respect. Mike was now married but he and Judy had separated, leaving Mike devastated. He was frantic to fix the relationship but didn't know what was wrong. A friend and his wife convinced Mike to check out a program they were involved in called The House.
At the initial interview with a social worker and the program manager, Mike would discover that he would participate as a non-resident. He was a part of the "straight society" - not an addict, just out of jail or a mental institution. And, he learned that addiction was only one of many choices people make to dull the pain of loneliness, misery, doubt and self-hatred.
As I read, I wept for everyone I've ever known who needed these people and this place to exorcise their demons. I wept for everyone who found the safety elsewhere, for those who are still searching, and for those who gave in and gave up. By the last page I felt like I'd clawed my way out of the belly of a crocodile.
Mike would later say, "The lessons taught me at The House so many years ago by whores, thieves, addicts, drunks, and other social outcasts have stood the test of time. They have since been underscored and validated for me by impoverished, illiterate peasants, caring angels of mercy, guerillas, prisoners, care-givers, the abused, survivors, victims, criminals, the shamed, the hopeful, and the hopeless. Love, respect, and attention are necessary food for the human soul."
During months at The House, Mike found meaning in his life. His career and relationship were impacted for the better. Mike and Judy reunited. Mike implemented and expanded what he'd learned into a new way of life. "Just as stripping away the masks of deceit in group sessions could free the human trapped inside, it seemed logical that insisting that we practice what we preach in society--fairness, honesty, decency, and justice--could have the same result on a larger scale."
By now Mike's acting career was taking hold, and we arrive at the momentous opportunity.
As the original owner of a now-slightly-flood-damaged-copy of "M*A*S*H: The Exclusive, Inside Story of T.V.'s Most Popular Show," I felt a swell of delight to open the chapter on M*A*S*H. Mike does not disappoint. He infuses the story of landing the role with modesty and humor. At the screen test, Mike says, Alan Alda came over to him. Alan talked; Mike mumbled. Alan talked some more; Mike grunted, his stomach growled; sweat seeped through his shirt. Mike remains as tickled and grateful as any of us would be to have been an integral part of the historical series.
Judy and Mike had reunited during his time at The House and became pregnant. No surprise that with the birth of his son, Michael, Mike vowed that he would never lack for love and touching and hugging. "I was a whacked-out father, madly in love with this little guy, happily, babbling and showing pictures of him all over the set."
Three years later his daughter, Erin was born. Mike and Judy would eventually divorce. He married Shelley Fabares in 1984. Shelley was later diagnosed with hypothyroidism which eventually led to liver failure and a transplant. Mike remains a devoted father and deeply in love with Shelley.
After M*A*S*H, Mike traveled much of the United States, El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, the Soviet Union, Africa, Bosnia and other countries engaging in causes that spoke to him: poverty, oppressive politics, religious or racial bigotry. At times, he ventured into unsafe and unsavory territory. On one occasion, art imitated life when he was called upon to aid in a surgery.
Mike is currently co-chair of Human Rights Watch in California and president of the anti-capital punishment group Death Penalty Focus.
Rabbi Steven B Jacobs, chair of the Progressive Faith Foundation, says of Mike's accounts, "Each paragraph inspires ... each page a sermon... the book, a history lesson not generally taught. Mike Farrell is both poet and fighter, his pen a sword that cuts through pretense and hypocrisy and enables each of us to be courageous in pursuit of justice.
In reaction to hostile media who try to trip him up, Mike found the definition that rings most true for him came from a speech given by Jimmy Carter. "He tied America's foreign policy to a commitment to 'human rights.' Human rights, I thought, was it exactly: the inalienable right of every human being to live, to strive for the full realization of her potential, to be free of oppression, free of fear, and supported in claiming his inherent dignity and value. ... the basic concept that I'd learned years earlier at The House: Everyone deserves what everyone wants--love, attention, and respect."
In "Conclusion: The Spirit of America," Mike says, "I've come to believe there is a divine spark in all of us, and it is this element of common humanity that we must honor and preserve, no matter the faith proclaimed. Decency and honor and compassion and hope can be the primary sacraments in our lives, respecting ourselves and the gifts we've been given in a way that empowers - rather than demeans - those around us. Honest pursuit of a meaningful, constructive, and productive life in ownership of such qualities is a purposeful way to honor and acknowledge whatever God may be out there--or in here."
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Diana deRegnier writes SpiritLinks from the San Francisco Bay Area for United Press International ReligionandSpirituality.com emphasizing humor, pathos and encouragement for a vibrant spirit. She is also editor and webmaster for the nonprofit program Spirit Links Newsletter (SLN) for spiritual explorers of any or no religious affiliation. Write to Diana at email © copyright 2007 by Diana deRegnier -- UPI