A responsibility to speak out

For Mike Farrell, before "MASH," before fame, before activism, there was the Laguna Playhouse in Southern California. It was the late 1960s, his wife was a teacher, and he'd been bitten by the acting bug.

"I got cast in a play, and this guy showed up," he says. "I thought, 'Who is thispunk?' "

The "punk" was Doug Rowe, the theater's artistic director, and the meeting was the start of a lifelong friendship.

"It was kind of dreamlike," Farrell says of the times. "Fun and joyous and ready to explode."

The acting company did "Mary, Mary," "A Thousand Clowns," "The Fantasticks" and much more as assassinations rocked the country and the war in Vietnam churned on, and Farrell learned more about acting than ever before or since.

Each man would make a life of it, Farrell most famously as Capt. B.J. Hunnicutt on "MASH," Rowe on the stage and in movies before he came to Ashland to play Willy Loman in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's production of "Death of a Salesman" and stayed.

On Saturday, Aug. 13, Farrell will join his pal Rowe in a reading of Lee Blessing's 1988 Tony- and Pulitzer-nominated play "A Walk in the Woods." It's at 7:30 p.m. in Ashland High School's Mountain Theatre. Tickets cost $20 and $25. It's a fundraiser for the Ashland New Plays Festival (disclosure: I am a volunteer reader for the group, one of those who plow through scripts submitted to the festival without pay). The play was a long-running Broadway success at a time when not many serious dramas were reaching Broadway.

Longtime peace-and-justice activist Farrell says he was drawn to the play in part because of its topicality. It's the story of the relationship between two arms negotiators, a Russian and an American, who in the Cold War/Reagan years meet informally near Geneva after long, frustrating hours at the bargaining table and find common ground: They both have a desire to prevent the destruction of every living thing on the planet.

Rowe will play the Russian, Botvinnik, a cynical, Soviet hardliner. Farrell will be the stuffy American, Honeyman, who is fervently idealistic about what must be achieved through bargaining.

"It's smart," Farrell says, "and it describes a situation that's not on everybody's mind today, but on some level should be. It's a lovely play."

It's also a case of art imitating life. Because just a couple of years before the play came out, Farrell in 1985 went to the Soviet Union with a delegation from an outfit called Projects for Planetary Peace. People around Reagan at the time were talking about a nuclear war being winnable. A lively account of the group's trip can be found at mikefarrell.org/Journals/Soviet.html.

Farrell has written journals about such trips for decades. When he isn't acting or riding his motorcycle, he's working with Human Rights Watch and on issues such as children's rights and animal rights, and as an organizer and activist against the death penalty, perhaps his prime passion.

Quick question: What's wrong with the death penalty?

Quick Farrell answer: It's racist, it's only used against the poor, it's full of inefficiency (innocent people have been executed, many have sat on death row for years) ...

"The thing I speak to people about (at a church in L.A. this weekend, for example) is the corrosion of morality it contributes to."

Farrell has done both organizational and field work with groups such as Concern America, the Committee on U.S./Central American Relations, the Interreligious Committee for Peace in the Middle East, The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the Center for International Policy, of which he's a board member.

He says of the Soviet trip, "It was the evil empire. Our purpose was to demystify that notion and speak to the Russian people, people to people. They didn't have horns and tails."

He remembers trying to convince the Russians they were creating a disaster for themselves by choosing to fight a war in Afghanistan — graveyard of empires — when America was arming and training the other side, some of whom are still active in the fight against the army that came when the Russians left. You know the army. Farrell would not have believed it.

"I would have laughed in their face," he says.

Farrell has long been active in the fight for peace and human rights in Central America. He opposed the Contras, who were portrayed by the Reagan administration as "freedom fighters," but who were actually members, many of them, of the Nicaraguan National Guard, which committed atrocities under the dictator Samoza. The Reagan administration aided them illegally in the murderous civil war against the Sandinistas, resulting in Ollie North and the arms-for-hostages scandal.

"We made mistakes, too," Farrell admits. "But we may have headed off another Vietnam. The more citizens get involved in trips and projects that expose them to people in other parts of the world, and come back and talk about it, that has great value."

He's bitterly disappointed in Daniel Ortega, who once led the Sandinistas, was long out of power and is now leading the country again.

"He's a thief and a crook," he says.

So why should anybody listen to an actor?

"Nobody has to listen," Farrell says with a laugh. "But the fact is, people point cameras at me and say, 'What do you think?' The issue is do we care. I have a responsibility to talk about what I think."

Bill Varble is a freelance writer living in Medford. If you have comments or suggested topics for the column, please send them to rogueviewpoint@gmail.com.

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