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Robert Scheer and "M.A.S.H." Actor Mike Farrell Discuss Ending the Death Penalty in America

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Reprinted from Truthdig

Actor and activist Mike Farrell.
Actor and activist Mike Farrell.
(Image by (David Shankbone / CC-BY-2.0))
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In this week's episode of KCRW's "Scheer Intelligence," Truthdig Editor in Chief Robert Scheer talks with former "M.A.S.H." actor Mike Farrell about his efforts to save the lives of people awaiting execution in the United States, and the pitfalls awaiting celebrities who get involved in social causes.

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Farrell played Capt. B.J. Hunnicut on the television series "M.A.S.H." between 1975 and 1983. He has been active in several causes and is president and a board member of the nonprofit organization Death Penalty Focus.

Robert Scheer:Welcome to "Scheer Intelligence." This is Robert Scheer, and my guest today -- and it's the guest that supplies the intelligence -- is Mike Farrell. For those who are too young to remember, when he was the star on "M.A.S.H." for -- what was it -- about six years?

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Mike Farrell: Eight.

RS: Eight years. Everyone in the country knew who Mike Farrell was. He's had a long, distinguished career as an actor, and he actually has been a leader in the Screen Actors Guild, much like Ronald Reagan was, only as opposed to Reagan, Mike Farrell has chosen to use his celebrity as an actor to support progressive causes, and, actually, not just progressive causes that are basic to the whole human condition. He was for 10 years a leader and is still very active in [the] human rights organization Human Rights Watch.

MF: Correct.

RS: Which is probably along right up there with Amnesty International. Those were the two major organizations that one looks to for a consistent and honest view of human rights around the world. And then he took on another cause, which is really quite difficult in terms of political acceptance, and that has to do with the death penalty in particular and the administration of justice in the prison system in general, and it's [called] Death Penalty Focus. And this is an issue where a lot of people think, "Okay, yes, let's be forward, but they did terrible crimes," and blah blah blah, and it's not one of those obvious do-gooder issues.

And the reason I wanted to get Mike Farrell in here now -- I've known him for a long time -- I was planning to do him as one of our American originals, with the basic theme of this podcast is, out of the crazy quilt of American culture, we produce interesting people, and they stand up, they stand for something, they have integrity. Careerism doesn't trump everything. They care about their fellow humans. I always had in mind to feature you in this series, but the other night, a number of people -- I couldn't afford a ticket, actually, I had to teach that night -- a Death Penalty Focus -- but people came away from that dinner particularly impressed, and I think you had something like 19 people who had been on death row, and yet were innocent.

Maybe this would be a good place to start. Why Death Penalty Focus? Why this issue that has absorbed so much of your time?

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MF: There's a history to anything, but when I was in my 20s, I was involved with a halfway house organization. It had junkies and alcoholics and people with what were then called sexually perverted fixations, and I learned a lot from them. And one of the things we did once we got through the rudiments of it was to go into prisons and take the program in there, because this was not an unusual program, I guess, but it was run by reforming addicts, alcoholics, etc. -- people who'd been in and out of prisons, mental institutions. They were the people that ran it, they were the people that set it up. They were quite extraordinary. There was a wonderful psychologist and a couple social workers associated with it as well, and they taught a fundamental lesson that all any human being wants are three things: love, attention and respect. That really rang true to me, because I was hurting when I got there initially, but when we worked through that and I saw the -- what do they say in the Bible? The scales fall from the eyes. When I saw people lose the masks, when I saw people being reborn, essentially -- really coming to an understanding of their own value, and we took that into prisons, and we talked about it, and I saw the horror of prisons, the soul-deadening aspects of prisons.

None of that made any sense to me. Then, when I got lucky enough to be successful as an actor and I got involved in the anti-war stuff and gay rights movement, there was always this thing eating at me about the death penalty, because that was to me the bottom line. That was the anti-life -- by definition -- position, and I didn't understand why we did it. We didn't use it much in '40s and '50s or the '60s. In '72 it was held unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. In '76, when I was doing "M.A.S.H.," it was reinstated, and a minister contacted me -- a guy from Nashville contacted me and said, "I understand you're against the death penalty." I had written that or signed a petition or something, and I said, "Yes, I am," and he said, "We're heading for a blood bath in this country and I need help from somebody who can get media attention. Would you help me?" And I said, "Yes," and that started it. He took me to my first death row in Tennessee, and it's a little like quicksand: Once you step into it, you can't get out. It keeps sucking you in.

RS: It's a moral quicksand. It's interesting. Let me just start with your own beginning. You said you were at a halfway house, and this is when you were 20?

MF: In my 20's, yes.

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Robert Scheer is editor in chief of the progressive Internet site Truthdig. He has built a reputation for strong social and political writing over his 30 years as a journalist. He conducted the famous Playboy magazine interview in which Jimmy (more...)
 

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