M*A*S*H, Money, and Murder

As committed to social causes as any Hollywood notable, Mike Farrell has stood against murder since his days growing up in West Hollywood, California—whether it was war or state-sanctioned murder in the form of capital punishment. The son of a carpenter working at Hollywood studios, Farrell grew up a Catholic believing in "Thou shalt not kill." He never stopped believing it, during and after his role on the TV series "M*A*S*H." That the death penalty is also racist, classist, sexist, arbitrary, anachronistic, faulty, financially wasteful, and inhumane drives Farrell, now president of Death Penalty Focus, to stop the killing.

ESTHER: What initially drew you to acting?

FARRELL: Like a lot of people, I was a young, frightened, and lonely kid wanting some attention and I saw movie magazines that showed young movie stars getting all kinds of attention. It seemed to be the answer to my childhood dreams. When I grew up I became a little savvier. I understood that being an actor was a choice that, if given the opportunity, might enable me to have a career and a lot of fun in the meantime.

Do you still enjoy acting?

I do very much.

Your most famous role is B.J. Hunnicutt on "M*A*S*H." Do you think that show still stands up?

The show was an extraordinary success. It has held up powerfully over time. It’s become symbolic of an anti-war ethic. We knew who we were speaking to, but we didn’t quite understand the grip, socially, and it really became a social phenomenon in this country and around the world. I say that with a fair amount of confidence because I still hear from people about how much the show meant to them then and how much it means to them now. We’re talking 20-plus years since the show went off the air. The reruns continue and people continue to respond to it. Generations who weren’t even alive when we did the show are now big fans.

I understand that you were concerned with the womanizing on the show.

We could hold our heads high about a lot of things in terms of the message of the show, but the two areas we were subject to criticism for were the consumption of alcohol and the womanizing and objectification of women, although Alan Alda was and remains a staunch feminist. When they created my character, the specific intention was to have a man who was dedicated to his wife and child at home. When I say it was subject to criticism, I don’t mean to say we were unaware of those things, but the question was how to deal with them fairly and appropriately.

Did you have concerns about your career after becoming active against capital punishment?

That was never a consideration. There are certainly those people who disagree with me and who have said, "A pox on you and your career," but, generally, I don’t ever think it’s been a consideration career-wise.

What do you think about those who criticize celebrities for using their fame to promote particular causes?

It’s silly, but I understand. The people who object to it are the people who disagree. They object to the fact that some of us have more access to media or to the public ear. So they are offended by the fact that, as they see it, we are taking advantage. From my point of view, I didn’t become an actor to promote issues. I became an actor to be an actor. I’m a citizen and as a citizen I have certain responsibilities that I didn’t ignore just because I became successful as an actor.

With all the issues facing our country, where do you think the death penalty abolition movement is right now?

We are making steady, quite dramatic progress. During the past three years, New Jersey and New Mexico both gave up the death penalty. That’s an indication that abolition is coming. Unfortunately, because of the makeup of the Supreme Court, it will be on a state-by-state basis until the Court understands that it’s the will of the people. You see states as varied as Montana, Colorado, Kansas, Maryland, and Washington looking at eliminating the death penalty for various reasons—primarily for cost reasons, although there are better reasons.

With all of this discussion about "fiscal responsibility," why isn’t there a louder voice for eliminating capital punishment in California?

There are lots of voices, but they’re not loud enough. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger apparently believes the death penalty is effective, although he’s leading a state that’s being held at bay by the federal government/federal court. Mostly, politicians are fearful that if they support the abolition of the death penalty, or an amendment to it, they will be portrayed by their opponents as "soft on crime." It’s that fear more than anything else that keeps the issue from taking the political front row it deserves. But your question is a good one. When a state is $20 billion in debt and we can save hundreds of millions of dollars every year—one study showed a billion dollars within five years—by simply eliminating the death system, the question becomes: "When does political cowardice give way to the necessities of the day?"

There have been studies in California and nationwide that when the alternative of life in prison without the possibility of parole is offered instead of the death penalty, people prefer that. Why not just promote that stance rather than talking about getting rid of capital punishment?

Why? Fear. They’re afraid they’re going to be attacked by the hardliners for being soft on crime.

Look at the issue of health care. The majority of Americans want significant health care reform, yet politicians dragged their feet. Is it really because they are afraid of the will of the people or is it a fear of alienating those in power, like those who have a vested interest in maintaining capital punishment?

Sure. Here in California, one of the most powerful political organizations is the California Correctional Peace Officers Association. They give a tremendous amount of money to politicians to maintain a tough line on crime. It’s fear. On some level it’s arrogance. There are some who believe they know better than the public. As you’ve said, polls show people prefer life without parole to the death penalty for all kinds of reasons. But politicians are unwilling to butt heads with powerful interests who want to maintain it. It’s going to take some meaningful, thoughtful, and courageous leadership, such as we had with the California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice led by former Attorney General John Van de Kamp, which was very straightforward in its analysis. It didn’t say do away with the death penalty. They said it’s costing $135 million a year to maintain this system, although we’re not using it because of a court order [issued in December 2006]. If you want to do it more reasonably and more fairly it’s going to cost us another $95 million a year. Nobody’s willing to spend $230 million a year to maintain the death system, so they just look the other way and pretend the Commission’s report didn’t come in and pretend they’re doing the peoples’ business while they’re failing us all.

And the cost is not the appeals, but the actual trial itself.

Hundreds protest at San Quentin in 2004, when an execution was postponed hours before its scheduled time to allow for DNA testing  photo from indybay.org

They usually say, "Let’s cut out the appeals." First of all, you can’t do it because they’re constitutionally required, according to the Supreme Court. But secondly, if you cut out all the appeals, what you do is execute a bunch of innocent people. We have a record in this state where 40 percent of capital convictions are reversed on appeal. That demonstrates the system just isn’t working and it’s overzealously pursued by prosecutors. The California State Supreme Court runs in fear of it as well because they have a record of accepting and condoning 97 percent of capital convictions. When the appeals go on to the federal system, 40 percent of them are knocked out. The simple decision to go for death rather than life without parole triggers a number of elements in the trial. The two trials actually, crime and punishment, are hugely expensive and too many people don’t seem to understand that. Everyone who examines the system understands that it’s dysfunctional in any number of ways.

A significant majority of police chiefs across the country consider capital punishment an ineffective tool for fighting crime.

A national poll of police chiefs put support for the death penalty as a major crime-fighting element down around 2 percent. They understand that’s it’s not a major crime-fighting element. Deterrence is nonsense. It simply doesn’t work.

Do you think President Obama is going to move on capital punishment? He came out in support of it during the election.

He sort of did. When he was in the state legislature in Illinois he was instrumental in helping then-Illinois Governor George Ryan to move forward some of the restrictions he wanted in death penalty law. State Senator Obama was very helpful in those regards. My sense is that he is personally not happy with the death penalty, but I don’t think he’s in a position where he’s going to take a strong anti-death penalty position—at least not during the early days of his presidency. But he did appoint Eric Holder as U.S. Attorney General and Holder is openly opposed to the death penalty.

I don’t imagine President Obama will be taking anyone’s life on Federal Death Row—like the previous president did.

It will be interesting to see what happens.


John Esther writes about culture and politics via cinema. His work has appeared in Z Magazine and numerous other publications in print and online.