Marine and M*A*S*H Star Mike Farrell reflects on his career in Hollywood and how the Corps influenced his life
Former Marine Mike Farrell has enjoyed a long career in the movie industry much attributed to his work ethic, abilities and the values learned in the Marines. Farrell joined the Corps in 1957 and served initially in the infantry as a rifleman. He then transitioned over to acting post his time in the Marines where he found success across many famous TV shows at the time such as Lassie, The Monkees, Combat!, Bonanza and Bannacek. His career took off with the role of Captain B.J. Hunnicutt on M*A*S*H starting in season four of the show. He continued working in TV and eventually formed a production company with producer Marvin Minoff to make motion pictures. One of Farrell-Minoff’s most known productions is Patch Adams, starring Robin Williams.
Farrell was born in Minnesota, but his family moved to Los Angeles when he was a child. He grew up in West Hollywood in the 40s and 50s. He shared, “It was an interesting place to grow up at the time.” Farrell said he is “a fortunate recipient of things other kids may not have had, including a mother and a father at home.” His father was a big, tough man who worked hard to support the family. Though he has fond memories of childhood, he also recognizes that he was a “frightened child,” due to his father’s rough manner and hard drinking, which weighed on the family.
When asked his values, Farrell said, "You told the truth and you stay out of trouble by minding the rules, whatever they are.” He said, “…if you pay attention and don’t cross any forbidden lines then you were fine. I was very careful about where the lines were.” His parents were strict Catholics and took the family to Mass every Sunday. He attended public school where he and his brother mixed with people of other belief systems, which was good, he said, for them. He recalled, “Being good was defined by others to me, and I was trying to figure how to stay within the lines.” Frustrated, he found difficulty growing emotionally given the strictures at home.
He became a Marine for two reasons. He was “smitten” with the Marines from a very young age. And so was Pat, his best friend from grade school through high school and into married life. So they joined together. Farrell remembers, “I was alive during World War II, but it was a distant reality for me. I remember coming home, getting out of my Dad’s car in 1945 when we heard on the radio the war was over.” He recalled, “…my mother having plastic coupon-coins to go shopping during the war…we were told we couldn’t get bubble gum because rubber needed to be saved for the war effort,” and laughed at the memory.
He mowed lawns to earn money and delivered papers after purchasing a used bike. He sold papers on the corner. He always had to chip in so the family had enough to get by on. His mother took him and his brother to buy clothes at the “old store” which was probably a Good Will or a Salvation Army store. He was ashamed and embarrassed at having to wear used clothes. He remembers selling papers on the corner in Beverly Hills “…when a girl from high school drove by with her mother and saw me. Boy, was I embarrassed.”
Farrell described his father as “John Wayne” and shared he was, “big, handsome, popular, smart and I now know he was frustrated because he didn’t have an education, but he was a really smart man.” He believes his father’s tough manner stemmed from his lack of education. He describes his parents as distant and “tough” people made so by their experience of The Great Depression. He stated, “There was not a lot of touching or embracing in our family.”
He said, “My friend Pat became close to our family because he didn’t have much of a connection to his family. He bonded with us and went to church with us.” Farrell touches on his admiration for the Corps with, “Pat and I thought the Marines were just the best. We thought the Marines were the toughest, the most elite and we looked up to John Wayne in the Sands of Iwo Jima.” He didn’t understand the politics of the 40s and 50s and he shared, "We just loved the Marines.” He and Pat went to see the Jack Webb film The D.I. in the 50s as well. Once graduated from high school, they both knew they were going to be drafted so they decided to join the Corps. He stated, “We both went down and signed up at the (Marine) reserve unit in Chavez Ravine.” This unit is now gone and the reserve unit building is used for training by the LAFD.
Farrell stated, “Unfortunately, we thought we would stay together. We went in together but were put in separate platoons at MCRD. We didn’t see a lot of each other during Bootcamp.” They then came out into different units in Infantry Training Regiment (ITR). Pat had signed up for a six-month program and Farrell signed up for a two-year program. Farrell had three DIs: Technical Sergeant Kelly (E-7 at the time) was the senior DI and SSg Reyes and Cpl Stark were the other two instructors. Farrell believes Kelley identified with him and Reyes favored another recruit named Moreno.
During Bootcamp, Farrell became ill with the flu and was sent to the infirmary. This was at a critical time in boot camp. He thought he would be set back and not get the chance to graduate with his platoon. He was afraid of leaving Platoon 374 and being placed back in a later platoon of recruits. He said, “I was miserable about the idea of being set back.” Then he was awakened one morning in the infirmary by Corporal Stark, who said, “How are you doing? Kelly wants you back.” Farrell was thrilled “beyond words to hear that.” He described Kelly, “He saw something in me that made him not want to lose me and that made me want to try harder to be the Marine that he (Kelly) thought I could be.” He considers this a great lesson from the Corps.
While at MCRD Farrell went to Camp Matthews for rifle training, which was before the Corps started taking recruits to Camp Pendleton to qualify on the rifle. After that, Farrell said a fellow recruit, who was known to be rough around the edges, threatened his life. Farrell stated, “I had been in fights before and when someone says they are ‘going to kill you, you take it as talk.” But the next morning during a snap inspection live rounds were found in that recruit’s footlocker. He had stolen them from Camp Matthews. The inspection thankfully stopped anything from happening, but the incident stays with Farrell and opened his eyes to the world.
Boot camp continued. Increasingly, Farrell and Moreno, the platoon’s left and right guide, were pitted against each other. The two were being considered to be named the Honor Man of the platoon. Ultimately, Farrell got lucky, he said and was named the Honor Man of the platoon. He stated of graduating as Honor Man, “Marching in my dress blues was quite a thing.”
Farrell confided, “I wanted to be stationed in Camp Pendleton so I said I wanted to just be a rifleman. I thought I could outsmart them.” He thought if he was a grunt at Camp Pendleton, he could go home on weekends and, “strut around in my uniform.” But after the Infantry Training Regiment (ITR) he was surprised to be assigned to the 3D Marine Division in Okinawa.
Aboard the USS Gaffney on the way to Okinawa, he recalls an alert came in to prepare to go to a different station. He shared, “We had to wait for a possible change in orders and a change in destination. We stood guard on ship and periodically swabbed the deck as well.” An all-clear was sent and they continued to Okinawa. He was glad, he said because he later learned they had almost been sent to French Indochina, later known to America as Vietnam.
In Okinawa, he was sent to typing school by the Corps to become the company clerk for an Ontos Battalion at Camp Hansen, then a tent camp. He stated, “I am sure things have changed at the camp by now. But then it was like living in 'the swamp'," where "the swamp" is the nickname for the camp he later served at 20th Century Fox for the show M*A*S*H.
On liberty in Okinawa, he went to the Kadena Air Base because “The Air Force had everything on base. They had a malt shop, a motion picture theater. It was surprising how well the flyboys had it over there.” We laughed at the luxuries of the Air Force when compared to the thriftiness of the Corps.
Farrell said, “I had developed an issue with my foot during ITR and got orders to go from Okinawa to the US Naval Hospital in Yokosuka, Japan.” He fondly recalls his time in Yokosuka where he spent time with a fellow Marine. He and the Marine went out on liberty and traveled around the country. But he talks about his return, “When we got back to the ward there was tension that I could sense. I later understood that the issue had to do with my friend Tyus, a black man. In 1957/58 our friendship was not looked upon happily. This even though President Truman had desegregated the military ten years prior.” It troubled him that there was still a sense of it being inappropriate for a black and a white Marine to spend time together.
The Corps then decided to send him back to the Naval Hospital at Coronado to work guard detail. His final place was being sent back to MCRD for discharge for having “flat feet''.
Farrell states, “There is a sense of pride attached to being a Marine…you can’t avoid having that sense of pride because they just beat the crap out of you in order to make you what you need to be.” He was invited by a Force Recon Marine while on the way to Okinawa to join their unit. He declined the offer after thinking about it for a couple of days. He states, “I wonder about that Marine and you hear about all of the special ops these days where Force Recon is still a part of the Corps.” He does touch on how he became lifelong friends with fellow Marines, one of which was stationed at MCAS El Toro that he met at the US Naval Hospital Balboa. “I have made some lifelong friends through the Corps because of the shared experience.” Farrell helped fellow veterans as well when he took a car to a friend from Los Angeles that was stationed in the Army at Fort Bragg, NC. The soldier’s parents wanted Farrell to take it to NC, so he did. On the trip he drove along a southern route through the US in 1959 where he witnessed, “real nasty segregation….that was a mind-blowing experience.”
Farrell still has high praise of his service. “My proudest achievement of my time in the Corps was graduating as the Honor Man of my platoon. I still have the Dress Blues hanging in my closet. I weigh the same as when I got out of bootcamp so I probably can still fit in them.” He further elaborated, “Completing the Marine Corps boot camp itself is a hell of an accomplishment.”
He is grateful to have had such a great career in Hollywood where he has worked with many storied actors. Farrell hears from people every day from autograph requests to even more deeply meaningful connections. Some people talk about the inspiration they got from the show and its meaning. He said, “It is really thrilling to hear from people and how deeply they are touched by the shows.” He is proud of having worked with the great actor Anthony Quinn for a year on the TV show The Man and the City. Farrell has high praise for having worked with Broderick Crawford on The Interns as well. Crawford was an Oscar-winning actor and known for his talents; however, he had an alcohol problem.
A few years before working together on The Interns, Farrell had been working with a halfway house in LA that dealt with people living with various issues. On the show he confronted Crawford. “I confronted him about his drinking and said ‘you are not doing the show any good or yourself any good. We need to find a way to temper it if not control it so we can get the work done.’” Farrell shared that, “He was phenomenal… he thanked me…we did the show for a year and every New Year’s Day after that until he passed away he called and thanked me.” He was deeply touched by Crawford’s continued contact. .
Farrell has been a part of many Human Rights campaigns. He is deeply grateful for the opportunities his association with M*A*S*H has provided.
Farrell met the famous Dr. Hunter "Patch" Adams on a person-to-person diplomacy trip to the Soviet Union in the mid-1980s. The group initially stopped in Helsinki, Finland, for orientation before going into the USSR. He saw a man wearing a clown suit and a rubber nose at the meeting. He initially thought the man was from “Pluto”. A woman in the group made a show of her belief in the power of crystals. She stood at the front with a bag of them and urged people to take a crystal that resonated with them, suggesting they hold it near their heart and find someone in the Soviet Union to give it to. Farrell said it sounded to him a bit looney. The clown-suited man then got up, said he was a doctor and said, “he believed in clowning and that laughter is the best medicine.” The man then took out a bag and did what the woman had done, saying he believed in the power of rubber noses. He held out a bag of rubber noses and urged everyone to pick a rubber nose they resonated with. The “clown” turned out to be Dr. Patch Adams. Farrell said, “I fell in love with the man and we became great friends.”
On their way to the Soviet Union our train was stopped by Russian troops. The train was searched by armed men from the USSR. Outside of the train he saw Patch Adams giving rubber noses to the Russian troops. Farrell laughed and stated, “I knew that this guy was going to change the world.” Farrell and Adams became very close friends while in the USSR. A few years later Adams contacted Farrell about how he had written a book and movie studio executives were looking to make his book into a film. Adams wanted Farrell to produce the film because he trusted him. Through a Hollywood connection Farrell took on the project and went to a studio with it. Farrell is happy that the film made a lot of people laugh and helped get Patch Adams noticed, however he wishes it would have had more depth and focused on Adams’ heart. Patch was grateful to Farrell and thanked him for his work on the film. Farrell is appreciative of Robin Williams’ work as Patch and considers him a, “wonderfully talented person and…a really deeply sweet, good man.”
Farrell believes deeply in the inherent decency of all people. He learned discipline and a lot about life through his experience in the Corps. He said, “The Marines gave me the sense of capability that comes from surviving the circumstances they put you in.” He believes stories like those shown in An Officer and Gentleman in which Louis Gossett Jr. plays the part of a DI should be top of the list for veterans and Marines. These stories touch on the camaraderie, discipline and merits of service. Farrell shared he, “...is most proud of his children. And he’s happy his career has given him the ability to touch people’s hearts.”