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A conversation with Mike Farrell

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Anyone who has seen an episode of M*A*S*H will instantly recognize Mike Farrell as Dr. B.J. Hunnicut. But Farrell, a mainstay of Hollywood films and television for decades, is also known as a staunch advocate for civil and human rights. Most prominently, he has been involved in the anti-death penalty movement since the 1970s. He will speak in Pittsburgh on Thu., March 27. [More of Farrell's interview appears online at www.pitsburghcitypaper.com]

 

Most people know you from show business. How did you become involved in the anti-death-penalty movement?

When I was on M*A*S*H ... someone had asked me if they could put my name on a petition, and I said sure. Then, late in the term of the show, I guess in the 1980s, I was contacted by a minister from Nashville, Tenn., who was very involved and concerned with the onrush of the death penalty. He was very deeply involved in trying to stop the death penalty, which at that point was getting geared up. Sometime later, I went to Tennessee and visited ... death row. From there, one thing led to another. Someone I met through him got me involved in a case in Virginia, and that got me involved with a case in Oklahoma. ... [B]efore you know it, you're all over the place.

 

Was there ever a time when being a celebrity involved in causes like this wasn't helpful? Sometimes people don't want to hear a celebrity's viewpoint on such issues.

That's hard for me to answer because there are people who don't want me, or any celebrity, to get involved because they disagree with our position. They, therefore, object to the fact that we can bring attention to it. On the other hand, whenever someone asks me to get involved in something, I try to figure out whether I'm a net plus or a net minus. There are times that I felt that my association with whatever it is might be harmful and not helpful, so it might not be a good idea for me to become involved.

 

On the flipside, has your involvement in certain causes ever cost you a role that you wanted?

That's also difficult to answer. I think the answer is yes, because I know there are people in this business that don't want to work with me because of what my politics are. But I think that probably balances out because I know there are people in this business that do want to work with me for the same reason.

 

How much ground has the anti-death penalty movement gained over the years?

I think it's undeniable that we have gained tremendous momentum over the years. My focus has always been on reaching out to the great middle, if you will. I try to reach out to those people and point out to them ... that this is a process that is used in this country and it's full of problems. And we as a thoughtful, civilized society need to be willing to accept the fact that if we're putting forward a policy that has innate problems, we need to be thoughtful enough to fix the problems. Once people then begin to look at the problems and see [that] maybe they're not fixable, then they're faced with a conundrum: "What do we do?"

 

When you're talking to someone about the death penalty, it's probably easier to talk about a case where someone is exonerated, than to convince someone that Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh shouldn't have been executed.

There are some people whose mind will never be changed. There is no fixing this by killing somebody; your loved one is not going to be brought back. Since you brought up McVeigh, I wrote an article that was in USA Today on why we shouldn't kill McVeigh ... and a lot of people were angry with me. But Timothy McVeigh ... if given the opportunity to sit and rot in a prison cell for the rest of his natural life might finally come to the place where he not only understood how horrible the thing he did was, but find, in some way, a way to apologize for it. It wouldn't necessarily be satisfactory, but it might be a little bit of help to the people whose families were destroyed in that terrible thing. Also if we kill him, there is this military notion that "no greater love hath any man, then to give his life for his comrades." He becomes, in that crazy little circle, a martyr. And the last thing you want to do is make a martyr out of Tim McVeigh.

There was a woman who said, "I don't want Timothy McVeigh given a lethal injection. I want him skinned; I want him ... tortured to death." Well, there is no satisfying that person. We as a society can't allow her to declare to us what we must do . . . to make things OK for her. We as a society have to figure out what works for the society in total, not just the victims.

 

It's interesting that you used the phrase "sit and rot." A lot of times people think that being anti-death penalty also means being soft on crime, but you're not. You just favor life in prison without parole, correct?

Absolutely. But I also believe that life without parole ought to be the ultimate sanction for those people that are so deranged or so brutalized or so maimed by their life experiences that there is no possibility of them coming to a full understanding of their own bad acts. But I do believe there are murderers who are capable of being reformed and rehabilitated. And even if their not paroled, they can lead a productive life institutionalized.

 

You've had a lot of contact with death row inmates and some of those people have been executed. Does getting to know someone that closely only to later have them legally executed ever make you think, "I can't do this anymore?"

Obviously a lot of the people that I meet and interview on death row have been executed and it hurts terribly. I have met people who absolutely did the crime. I've met some who absolutely have great remorse and this punishment, on some level, is their due, which I don't agree with. I've also met people who were literally unaware of having committed the crime and I've met people that I know were clearly innocent. You meet all different kinds of people and what you end up realizing is that they're all human beings, some have done terrible things and I believe some haven't. Every time it happens it sickens me and some times it disillusions me to the point that I want to go and hide in a hole somewhere. But, inevitably, I come out of it and say 'OK, what's next, where do we go, how do we stop this friggin' machine.'

 

It's tough to jump subjects I know, but I do actually have a show business question, but it's not a M*A*S*H question. Some people might not know that you were one of the executive producers of Dominick and Eugene (a 1988 Film starring Ray Liotta and Tom Hulce), which was filmed here in the city. Any memories or stories from that time that you'd like to share?

I have a number of wonderful memories from that time. In fact, I wrote a book that's in stores now and I spent a good deal of that just talking about experiences making that film. We shot mostly on the South Side and up until that time only George Romero had recently shot a major motion picture in the area. And it was as though we were a traveling carnival. People came down to the step and stood around and watched us and thanked us for being there and brought cookies. They were so incredibly gracious that we became part of the community. And of course we had great meals while we were there and met a lot of great people when we had time off.

Now, I'm not sure how to find the place, but we actually ran into a real dilemma posed by the studio's legal department just prior to shooting. We were gearing for the shoot and someone told us "You've got to change the name of the main character." And I said, what do you mean, Dominick Luciano is the characters name? They told me they had checked the files and there was a Domenico Luciano living in Pittsburgh and you can't use the name. I said don't give that crap, we've been living with that name on this film, that's been the character's name for years, and we can't change it. He said you have to change it or we'll be sued, it's just part of the legal process of making a movie. We went back and forth and I thought this (lawyer) is just a total buffoon. He told me there was nothing I can do. Well, I said how about if I find the real Mr. Luciano, explain the situation to him and get him to sign a waiver. He said, "you'll never get him to do that" and I said watch me.

I found out that he owned this little pizza parlor in the northern part of the city and I walked in there and met the young man behind the counter and said, "Hi, my name's Mike Farrell, is there a Domenico Lucciano here?" He looked at me for a moment and said, "Yeah, he's my father. Hey, aren't you the guy from M*A*S*H." His father didn't speak much English, so I explained the situation to him and he called his dad out and explained the situation to him. His father laughed and said, absolutely, and then we sat down and had a great place of spaghetti while this guy signed this letter. The best part was going back to the hotel, calling that lawyer and saying "stuff it in your hat." I tell that story because I love it, but also because it was very typical of the response we got from the people of the city."

 

The Pittsburgh Chapter of the ACLU holds its annual membership meeting, "Dead Wrong: The Death Penalty in America," at 7 p.m. March 27 at the University of Pittsburgh Barco Law Building at 3900 Forbes Ave., Oakland. In addition to Mike Farrell, Pennsylvania death-row exoneree Harold Wilson will also appear.

Mike Farrell
  • Mike Farrell

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