10 Questions with M*A*S*H star and famed actor Jamie Farr
Jamie Farr hails from Toledo, Ohio, and remains grounded in his hometown roots. His work in Hollywood spans over half a century, which includes him as Klinger in M*A*S*H, where his career started back in 1955 in The Blackboard Jungle which starred Glenn Ford and Sidney Poitier. He was drafted into the Army soon thereafter and served abroad in Japan and Korea where he was requested to work for famous comedian Red Skelton on his tour to entertain US troops in Korea. He is most grateful for his career, military service and the stars he got to work with who include Bob Hope, Burt Reynolds, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Lucile Ball, Andy Griffith, Dick Van Dyke, Danny Kaye, Milton Berle, Charlton Heston, William Holden, Don Ameche and many more.
1. Can you tell us about your family and your life growing up?
My father came from Lebanon in the early 1900s with his brother. They initially settled in Cedar Rapids, IA. My mother was born in Cedar Rapids where her family was from Lebanon as well. My grandfather and grandmother, her father and mother, had come from Lebanon to Iowa. My mother was a very smart woman even though she didn’t finish high school because she had to work to make her family sufficient monetarily. My mother could speak Arabic, sing and was a seamstress. My parent’s marriage was designated by my grandfather (maternal), which was normal, back then. She was married at seventeen and my father was a butcher for the Swift Meats Company in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. They moved to Sioux City where my sister was born and then moved to Toledo because of the great Lebanese colony there. I was born in Toledo as Jameel Joseph Farah.
Our original family name was “Abboud” where his father’s name was “Farah Abboud.” At Ellis Island when they came over, they were going to say “Farah Abboud”, but the personnel at Ellis Island stopped them at “Farah” so they didn’t take the full name, just Farah.
My older sister was the one who got me into show business as she would take me to the movies growing up and read me fairy tale books. She was like a second mother where she was very artistic, could dance and sing although she never got into show business. She would take me out for my birthday and I could get whatever I wanted no questions asked about the price. I do miss her as she passed away a few years ago.
Our whole neighborhood was Jewish, Greek, Lebanese, Italian and so on. You never locked your doors and you never dated them because we all knew each other, so it would be like dating a sister. It was very family oriented and Sunday’s after church there would be big get-togethers for food. We put out card tables, folding chairs and table clothes with good food. If we were lucky enough, we would go to the movies and then come back for leftovers to listen to the radio. I loved listening to Lux Radio Theatre on Mondays and on Tuesdays we had Bob Hope at 9pm and Red Skelton at 930pm. I had a Crystal Set radio and would listen to Hope and Skelton when I was supposed to be asleep in my room.
Growing up I slept on Murphy Bed at the time since I didn’t have my own room. I had to put the bed down every night in our dining room and thankfully I never got caught up in the bed like you would see in comedy movies and cartoons. We had an old-fashioned bathtub back then as well where Saturday night was your bath day.
The Abijay family had 13 kids and the father left where the mother raised them herself. They had a three-story house where each child of the house was of a different age group it seemed. My older sister had friends in their family and so did I. It was a poor neighborhood where we shopped at the bargain basement floor of the department store. I never knew what it was like to buy new clothes on the fancy floors.
We had a lot of famous people from my high school that made it big in show business including Danny Thomas (comedian), Andrew J Fenady (writer, producer), Georg Fenady (director/producer), Clifford David (Broadway actor), and Phillip Baker Hall (actor). We were all from the same neighborhood where it must have been in the water or the Buckeye beer! Although Lake Eerie was so polluted back then you could walk on it to Windsor, Ontario.
My cousin was James Jabara, first American and USAF jet pilot ace, and then my uncle Bob served as a medic in WWII in the North Africa campaign. My Uncle served in the Coast Guard and I served in the US ARMY in 1957 to 1959 in NYC, FT. Knox, Ky, Fort Huachuca, Az, Japan and Korea. I was in Special Services and wound up with Armed Forces Radio at the FAR EAST Network in Japan and Korea. I remember WWII very well with several of the Gold Star’s in the windows of neighbors and friends. It was disheartening and distressing to the entire neighborhood because we all knew them. We were all growing up together and our families were all very close. We had Victory Gardens where we could have a little plot to plant vegetables. Everything was rationed back then. My mother and sister made a lot of homemade pies, pastries and cakes from the Middle East as well.
2. What is the most distinct memory of your mother and your father?
I have so many of them with my parents there is not a distinct one exactly. They were very family oriented and taught us values to live by, which have lasted.
3. What values were stressed at home?
You respected your family and never disgraced them. You didn’t have to be Rockefeller or Vanderbilt, but you never wanted your last name disgraced. Whenever people say your name there is honor and honesty that comes with it. You want a good reputation. You never lied, cheated or stole. You always made it yourself and did things yourself. You didn’t go around asking people for things. Nobody locked their doors. If people were ill, we would cook for them and take them food. It was very communal where they would help one another.
The people from Toledo that made it in Hollywood stayed very much the same. They were all from that same neighborhood. We all talked about what was going on back home in Toledo and talking about things we did there or were going back to do. It is ironic having watched stars like Bob Hope and Red Skelton on the big screen and then coming to Hollywood to work with these people. I even got to work with Lucille Ball.
4. What influenced you to join the US Army, what was your experience and what lessons did you take away from your service?
I was drafted into the Army and it was an inopportune time for me as my career was taking off. The last movie I could take part in before heading off to the Army was No Time for Sergeants where I played Lt. Gardelli. My hope was that the movie took awhile to come out because I was a private in the Army, but a lieutenant in the movie so people would think I was demoted. I reported the next day after filming wrapped to the Army recruiting station.
Working on No Time for Sergeants was a lot of fun, especially with Andy Griffith and Mervyn LeRoy. Andy’s first movie wasn’t out yet which was a Face in the Crowd. Elia Kazan directed Face in the Crowd where he came on set of No Time for Sergeants to ask Mervyn if he could shoot a close up of Andy that he needed for his film. LeRoy granted the request where we all got to watch Kazan direct Griffith in a short close up scene, which was amazing. Kazan said a few things and words to Andy and then “action." Kazan stepped back and let Andy do his work, one look here and one look there. It was amazing what Kazan could do with a few words to direct Andy. You could see Andy’s talent and that he was going to blossom.
Red Skelton was like a second father to me and was very instrumental in helping my life. I did his show and carried half the show with him live on CBS. They kept calling me back before I got into the Army. I took Basic Training at Fort Ord and my MOS was as a Broadcast Specialist. I was sent to NYC to the Army Pictorial Center, which used to be the old Paramount Studios and did training films for the US Signal Corps. Some of my fellow soldiers at the center had famous Hollywood parents to include the son of Charles Vidor (director) stationed there. I went on TDY to Fort Knox to do tank training films where I was a script supervisor and went to Fort Huachuca in Arizona for similar duty.
I got shipped over on the pipeline and thought I would go to France. I worked on my French and practiced my introduction, “je m'appelle Jamie Farr” and then when ordered to Tokyo, Japan I practiced, “Watashi Wa Jamie Farr." I was trained at the Pasadena Playhouse to break into the business and met Bob Furiga who was a fellow actor. We were both drafted at the same time and did our indoc training together and were even in the same squad at Fort Ord together. We were at the Army Pictorial Center as well and then went to the Orient together. My buddies mostly ended up in Korea. I served with the Far East network in Japan.
I served with Red Skelton as he had requested me to be his assistant through the Department of the Army. After Red’s son passed away, he wanted to do a tour to entertain troops and he wanted to do his shows with me. We flew on a United Nations airplane just me and him. I had VIP status which surprised me. We went to every encampment all the way up to the DMZ in Korea.
We opened up Armed Forces TV in Korea in a DC-3 airplane where we had all service branches and civilians on the plane. There was an extreme cold front that came in where everything was frozen, so we had to sleep in a luggage area with a pot-bellied stove there in Korea after we arrived. We slept with our clothes, boots and coats on because it was so cold. We were told in the morning that it was safe enough for us to fly back to Japan where we flew out over the Sea of Japan. It got to be below zero inside the plane during the flight and the two engines froze so they started handing out parachutes. We wouldn’t survive in the water because of hypothermia so it seemed kind of pointless. We started dropping and while we did, they pumped alcohol into the wings to get the ice to melt. As we dropped the ice began to break off the wings and propeller blades where we heard the pilots trying to start the engines.
I remember looking out of the window thinking, “I watched all those John Wayne movies of him in the military where how in the heck did I end up here?." I was praying and finally we heard the ping of the engines starting. I don’t know how far above the water we were, but that was a scary moment for us in that plane.
I did two years of active duty, two years of reserve, and two years of inactive reserve. I came back to Hollywood and my father passed away. I went by CBS Studios to say goodbye to Red Skelton and he wouldn’t let me go and put me under personal contract and said, “I was one of us. A doctor of comedy.." He pulled out several hundred-dollar bills and told me to send those home to my mom. He said, “From here on in you are working for me and I will see you up at the house in the morning.” I went with Red for a whole year and helped him in his nightclub act at the Sands (Las Vegas), Fontainebleau (Miami Beach), Moulin Rouge (Los Angeles), and the Chez Paree (Chicago). I then branched out to get my career started again where Carl Reiner working on the “Dick Van Dyke Show” took a chance on me and put me as the Snappy Service delivery man. The part helped to resurrect my career again.
Red Skelton gave me a St. Christopher medal to protect me when I went into the Army. I cherish it and wear it every day. Red was a very kind, conscientious and loving person. I also have a painting of Red’s as well and was one of his pallbearers at his funeral. Red’s third wife, Lothian Toland, asked me to be a pallbearer for his funeral. The four pallbearers were me, Bob Hope, Milton Berle and a stage manager that Red liked a lot. A few notes on Red are when his son Richard passed away from leukemia, he used to keep his room just the way it was when he passed away. It had a little train set and a few other things in it where Red would just stand there, look at the room and soak it in. On another note, Lothian’s father was Gregg Toland known for being the cinematographer of Citizen Kane.
Red came from a different era where they could work on stage to be bad and then become good over time. Now you have to be really great right away and don’t have time to develop. George Buns used to say, “there isn’t a place you can be bad anymore.”
5. What values have you carried over from the Army into acting and comedy?
My values instilled in me by my family have stayed with me throughout my life. I try to be straightforward and honest in all my dealings. Zenith used to have an ad that said, “It has to be good because it has our name on it.” That is how I feel about my name and how it needs to be respected. I was an adequate soldier and whatever I did, whether producing shows for the Army or whatever, it was the best I could do.
As an aside, a lot of my friends from the service have now passed on such as Paul Rausch, Bob Furiga, who later became an exec at ABC, and Bernie Papin. My friend Mort Goldstein became an exec at CBS and is still living. The older you get the phone doesn’t ring as much for your friends or the business.
6. What is the most fulfilling project you have done and why?
For TV it would be “M*A*S*H*” for TV and The Blackboard Jungle for film. The film had Glenn Ford and Sidney Poitier with music featuring Bill Haley and His Comets which was filmed at MGM. I was watching MGM movies at the Lowe’s Valentine Theater in my hometown theater and 18 months later am working on an MGM film. In high school I used to see shows at the Paramount Theater in Toledo, which has since been torn down and turned into a parking lot. It was one of the most beautiful theaters you could have ever seen. The touring version of “Guys and Dolls” came into town with Allan Jones playing the part Sky Masterson and saw the show as an usher. I couldn’t believe the music or characters in it where I wanted to play Nathan Detroit one day, which I did on Broadway.
While on “M*A*S*H*” there was a guest actor, Jerry Zaks, on the show that had done the tour for “Grease." He was having a rough time and I gave him a pep talk. Later on, he goes back to NY and becomes a successful director. A call comes out for “Guys and Dolls” and I ask my agent to get me an audition since Jerry was directing the show. I went downtown in Los Angeles, couldn’t sing a note, but still went to audition. The show was already cast with Nathan Lane as Nathan Detroit. My agent called me and asked if I would like to do “Guys and Dolls” as Nathan Lane is now leaving the show. Everyone remembered me from the audition and I went to NY to play Broadway. I only had two weeks and one rehearsal with the cast. I was never so frightened in my life. My chest came out of my body and across the room it was such an exhilarating and exciting thing to do. I did that show for almost a year and it was even exciting putting that on my resume.
Working with the Skeltons, the Berles, the Hopes and the Kayes was memorable and significant as well.
I played in “King Lear” at the Pasadena Playhouse as the title character, which was challenging. I learned all that Shakespeare for one performance. I did more theater at the Pasadena Playhouse as well and my first big play was “Mister Roberts” at the Los Palmas Theater. Craig Stevens was the lead actor and Harry Bernsen (father of actor Corbin Bernsen) produced the show. I earned my first Actors Equity card in that show thanks to Mr. Bernsen. I played the Navy guard that brings all the guys back when they are drunk in the play. I made the soap suds for Ensign Pulver as well. Did that for a whole year. I also did “Stalag 17” with John Banner, Tom Drake, Harvey Lembeck and Dennis Weaver. This was before Dennis Weaver did Gunsmoke and I was the understudy to Lembeck for the role of “Shapiro." Theater trains you very well and teaches you a lot.
A quick side note is, initially I was only on “M*A*S*H*” for one episode where my character was written by Larry Gelbart, creator of the show, for the episode. Larry’s father Harry Gelbart was the barber to the big comedians back then like Danny Thomas, Jack Benny, George Burns and a lot more. Harry would always tell his customers about his son and his comedy writing. Once when Harry was cutting Danny Thomas’s hair, Danny agreed to reading his son’s joke. Danny read them and found jokes funny and paid Larry for his material where Larry was just a high school student at the time. Larry ended writing for Sid Caesar and movies, most notably writing Tootsie which starred Dustin Hoffman. Larry’s pay back to Danny wrote my character as Lebanese and from Toledo where my character’s name came from his (Larry’s) childhood friend “Klinger” from Chicago, which is where Larry was from.
I am not some handsome guy like Rock Hudson or a star carrying movies, so I am proud to have just been a working actor.
7. What was your experience like in working with such talents as Red Skelton, Harvey Korman, Alan Alda, Mike Farrell, Loretta Swift, Gary Burghoff, Burt Reynolds, Bill Murray, David Alan Grier on such shows as MASH, After MASH, the Cannonball Run films, Scrooged, and The Cool Kids?
Harvey was great and we got to work with Danny Kaye, who also was great. I used to watch all of Danny Kaye’s movies where he could sing, dance, act and do mimicry. I was a big fan of Sid Caesar growing up and he was one of our writers on “The Danny Kaye Show." Carl Reiner was very helpful to me in my career as well. Harvey was brilliant and trained in Yiddish comedy by Menasha Skulnick in NYC.
Alan Alda, Gary Burgoff, Mike Farrell, Loretta Swift, Harry Morgan, William Christopher, and David Ogden Stiers were all great to work with. You could not have asked for a better cast than the one on “M*A*S*H*” and we had such excellent material as well. We are still in touch even this long after the show. We lost Gene Reynolds (producer of the show), Harry Morgan, McLean Stephenson, Larry Linville, and Bill Christopher were all wonderful people and highly talented. We dearly loved Harry as the patriarch of the show. The egos didn’t get into the way on the show where the story was not about me it was about the particular scene we were doing.
We had some great guest stars on the show as well to include Laurence Fishburne, Ron Howard, Brian Dennehy (Marine) and Burt Young (Marine) during our run. Harry Morgan was a dear friend of famous actor and veteran Jimmy Stewart as well. Harry would tell stories to me about working on films with Jimmy. Harry introduced me to Ralph Bellamy where we became friends. I got to meet Jimmy one time as well, which was great.
The cameos I do now have people coming up to me all the time telling me they watched “M*A*S*H*” with their family and how much it meant to them. I am overwhelmed by young people that have taken to the show. It is amazing I happened to be on a series that was the best show you could do. The writing was so good and so were the production values. Audiences came to know us on the show as family. It was like watching “I Love Lucy” where we got to the audiences.
Burt Reynolds was a lot of fun to work with. He was very loyal to his acting friends. Charles Durning (Army) did projects with Burt and had his friend Ossie Davis (Army). Burt was like the John Wayne players where he had the same people in his movies like Ward Bond or Paul Fix. Doing his movies was like being at a party. It was a party every single day and didn’t know what was going to come next. Hal Needham (Army) was the director of the Cannonball movies which even made it more fun.
We had Roger Moore (Royal Army) in The Cannonball Run where he would come out of his trailer in the early morning in Florida where we were filming with a white suit on, a beautiful Havana cigar, and a flute of champagne with no hair missing and not a bead of perspiration where he looked like he was out of GQ. We used to hate him for how perfect he looked and was disgustingly handsome.
Dom DeLuise was a lot of fun to work with. The best was working with Dean Martin (Army) and Sammy Davis, Jr. (Army). I loved Dean where he had a great sense of humor and cared about the project. We had Charles Nelson Reilly, Telly Savalas(Army) and Frank Sinatra in the Cannonball movies as well. We all got along on the films and there were no egos that got in the way of the production.
I got to work with Don Ameche, Bob Hope, Yvonne De Carlo, Stella Stevens, Jayne Meadows and Frank Gorshin in A Masterpiece of Murder. Don was a great actor to work with.
Over my career I have had the opportunity to work Danny Kaye, Bob Hope, Milton Berle, Red Skelton, Lucille Ball, Ed Wynn, Charlton Heston, William Holden, Van Heflin, Glenn Ford, Walter Brennan, Jim Hutton, Dorothy Provine, Rod Steiger, Victor Buono and so many more. My gracious, what a wonderful career I have had.
I worked with Bill Holden on “The Blue Knight”, which was the first TV miniseries. Robert Butler directed it and he used to work with John Frankenheimer. I was having trouble with the studio at the time trying to get a raise.. I asked Bill about what I should do in my situation. If I fought back I could be written out of a show, like a script where my character Klinger steps on a land mine and is done. My agent was at a smaller agency not like a William Morris where he could be blacklisted as well from selling his clients. You used to call the man who set the budget the “hatchet man." Bill said he had this problem with Harry Cohn at Columbia Pictures when he was under contract there. Bill said, “You have to take it out of the agent’s hands and put it into your hands. If you want that raise you need to go ask yourself, but just don’t point a gun at their head.”
Well that gave me the idea of getting a fake pistol from the prop department from “M*A*S*H*”, which I did. It was like a cartoon after I got the prop pistol and finished filming for the day on stage nine on the lot. I hid behind a bush and then went behind a tree and could see the “Hatchet Man’s” office. He faced away from the window in his office toward the door. I went around into the executive building and kicked the door open. I said to him, “This is how it's going to be my raise and that!”, where he said, “You’re crazy! You’re crazy!”, and I said, “That’s right I am and I am going to get my section 8.” Well at any rate he laughed and he saw what I was doing. I did get a raise from that instance.
Bill Holden was a terrific actor and a really nice guy. I miss him a lot. He was working on the film The Towering Inferno which was just across the way from us on set with “M*A*S*H*” where he would come over just to say “hi” to me. If I was at Oblatt’s Deli across from Paramount eating at the counter, I would get a big bear hug from someone behind me which turned out to be Bill. He would be there shooting a movie and would come across to the deli to find me there.
Fred MacMurray was a great actor to work with where we did “My Three Sons” together. We got to know each other very well. Many people make him out to be all fluff and not much there, but his work in Double Indemnity and The Caine Mutiny showcases his talent. He did a lot of comedies on the big and small screen where he was so versatile. There was much more to him than what people may think.
A lot of my actor friends used to make fun of John Wayne where Wayne is one of the best movie actors around. When he says, “Follow me” in a movie whether it is the cavalry or the Marines you are going to follow him. He has that command about him. He may not be able to do Macbeth, but what he does he is 100% believable. He is one of our greatest film actors ever.
I was in acting class with Clint Eastwood back in the 50s with where our teacher was named Jack Kosslyn (who later appeared in Eastwood films during the 1970s). He was cleaning pools during the daytime and I was cleaning chinchilla pens at a farm in Burbank for my side work. He did pretty good for himself.
Being in “The Cool Kids” meant a lot to me and getting to perform for a new generation is great.
8. What leadership lessons in life and from the Army have helped you most in your career?
Remain humble and it is a team effort. It is about the ensemble.
9. As a veteran, how do we get more veteran stories told in Hollywood?
We need to and have the veteran stories around, but some people in charge may not want to produce our stories. They don’t seem to be interested in the heroics of our people. When I see Audi Murphy in a film, I can’t believe what he has done for our country. Gary Cooper as Sgt. York is an excellent film with heroics. Some of the executives today don’t want to popularize the heroism because of cynicism and negativism towards our service people. There are stories to tell, but the executives and producers put too much “seasoning” into them to make the stories something they are not. If you can keep the story simple and show these military characters doing what they did then you can have a good project.
When my country called on me, I went even though it was detrimental for my career at the time. I knew if your country needed you at the time, then you went and did whatever they asked you to do. As President Kennedy said, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country." A similar saying was written years before by the Lebanese American writer Khalil Gibran which I am familiar with. This is what the immigrants in our neighborhood did, we had community and cared for each other and our country.
10. What are you most proud of in life and your career?
This is not an easy business where people should be grateful for whatever they have done. It is not just given to you and you have to earn it. Some people that are absolutely brilliant talents never get anywhere. Some people are average and make it to the top of the industry. All I can say is what a lucky guy I am.
Farr wanted to personally thank all the servicemen and women serving to keep this country safe and are living up to the values of why this country was born.