‘M*A*S*H’ star Jamie Farr talks about playing Klinger, spiritual connection to Pittsburgh

The stories of actors struggling to make ends meet in Hollywood are not uncommon.

But it’s hard to imagine someone who played one of television’s most memorable characters accepting the role on a one-day basis just so he could pay his rent.

And yet, that’s what happened to Jamie Farr, the actor who originated the role of cross-dressing, Section 8 discharge-seeking Cpl. Max Klinger on the hugely successful situation comedy series “M*A*S*H.”

And the rest is television history.

Next year will mark 50 years since “M*A*S*H” debuted on CBS. The show remains in syndication and drew a record 105.9 million viewers for its final episode in 1983. (It is currently shown in the Pittsburgh area six nights a week on the METV network.)

“It doesn’t seem like (50 years) at all,” said Farr. “We’ve never been off of the TV screen and I remember (producer) Larry Gelbart, who created my character and developed the TV series, saying, ‘You know what, we are the next “I Love Lucy”’ — and he was right.”

Farr, who turns 87 next month, spoke to the Tribune-Review via telephone from Los Angeles to promote his upcoming appearance at Steel City Con, scheduled for June 11-13 at the Monroeville Convention Center. Farr and fellow “M*A*S*H” cast members Loretta Swit (Major Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan) and Jeff Maxwell (Igor Straminsky) are scheduled to be at the show.

Desperate for work

Despite having appeared in such iconic movies as “Blackboard Jungle,” “No Time for Sergeants” and “The Greatest Story Ever Told” and having played a variety of characters in dozens of TV shows during the ’50s and ’60s, by the early 1970s Farr was having a hard time getting cast in anything.

“People weren’t hiring me. I was out of work at the time and I got a phone call from my agent and he said ‘there’s a part for you in a series called ‘M*A*S*H,’ ” said Farr, who hadn’t seen the Oscar-winning movie version of “M*A*S*H” that led to the creation of the TV show.

Gene Reynolds, the “M*A*S*H” television director and producer, remembered Farr from an episode of the sitcom “F Troop” he directed in 1966. Reynolds figured Farr would be perfect for a small role in the fourth episode of the series’ first season in 1972, entitled “Chief Surgeon Who?”

“My agent said it’s just one day and I said ‘I don’t care!’ I had to pay my rent, we had our son Jonas. We needed groceries,” said Farr. “He said ‘it’s only $250 for the day’ and I said ‘well, what’s the part?’ and he said ‘they’ll tell you when you get there.’ ”

Farr had no idea what he was walking into.

“I didn’t have to read (for the part) or anything. I hadn’t even seen the script yet because there weren’t that many lines in it,” said Farr.

He was taken to a wardrobe trailer and told to put on a Women’s Auxiliary Corps (WAC) uniform. “I’m saying ‘what the heck kinda part is this?’” Farr dutifully put on the outfit and a large pair of high heels, with his hairy legs exposed, and then walked out onto stage 9 at 20th Century Fox.

“Craft services starts laughing, all the crew starts laughing, the cast starts laughing and I still don’t know what the heck it is that I’m going to be doing,” said Farr.

The episode’s director, E.W. Swackhamer, explained that Farr’s character was a guy trying to get out of the Army by wearing dresses. In his first scene, Klinger comes out of the shadows wearing the WAC uniform and says to a general, “Halt, who goes there?” and a legendary character was born.

“I didn’t think anything of it,” said Farr. “I got my $250 and was very happy.”

But he made an impression as Klinger who, unlike many of the characters in the show, was not part of the movie. He was called back again and ended up appearing as a day player in a half-dozen episodes during the show’s debut season. By the second season, Klinger was featured in roughly half the episodes and, by year three, Farr was signed to an official contract.

“How lucky can you be?” said Farr. “I can’t tell you, all the years I’ve been in the business, what a professional group of actors that we had and the wonderful writers that we had and the producers Gene Reynolds and Larry Gelbart and Burt Metcalfe. It’s the thing you dream about where you have the perfect cast and the perfect people running the show.”

Wearing famous dresses

The show became a hit by combining the perfect mix of drama and comedy and is credited with inspiring the term “dramedy.” There is no better example than the season finale of year three, when beloved character of Commanding Officer Lt. Col. Henry Blake, played by McLean Stevenson, is killed off. As Blake is saying his goodbyes, he encounters Klinger wearing an outrageous fruit headdress that looks like something out of a Carmen Miranda movie.

In the next scene, Radar O’Reilly (Gary Burghoff) comes into the operating room to inform the doctors and nurses that Blake died when the plane carrying him home was shot down. The ending shocked many viewers and was the first time in American television history that a main character leaving a comedy series was killed off in a tragic way.

Although Farr was never nominated for an Emmy, unlike several “M*A*S*H” cast members, he was an integral part of the show’s success. Along with Swit, Alan Alda, who played Capt. Hawkeye Pierce, and William Christopher, who portrayed Father Mulcahy, Farr was one of only four principal actors to participate in the entire 11-year run of the show.

For most of his time as Klinger, Farr’s wardrobe consisted of dresses, including some very famous ones.

“We used to get all the wardrobe from the Fox wardrobe department. … I had this gold lamé outfit that Ginger Rogers had worn in one of her movies,” said Farr.

Farr modeled the Ginger Rogers number for a famous episode in which he and Kellye Nakahara (Nurse Kealani Kellye) performed a takeoff on Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire dancing “Cheek to Cheek.” Nakahara was Astaire and Farr was Rogers.

“I’m in the commissary at Fox the day after it aired and who’s in there but Ginger Rogers,” said Farr. “She was doing a guest spot on ‘The Love Boat’ and she sees me. She comes over and she says, ‘Jamie, I have to tell you, I watched that show and I laughed.’ She said, ‘Do you want to know something? The outfit you wore that I wore looked a hell of a lot better on you than it did on me.’ ”

The dress that both Rogers and Farr wore is now in the Smithsonian Institution, along with other pieces of “M*A*S*H” memorabilia.

Bringing authenticity

Born Jameel Farah in Toledo, Ohio, to Lebanese-American parents, Farr incorporated much from his days growing up in the home of the Toledo Mud Hens baseball team into the character of Klinger. He can be seen in some episodes wearing a Mud Hens cap and mentions his love of Tony Packo’s Hungarian hot dogs, a Toledo staple, in multiple episodes. Farr was in the Army for two years, serving in Japan and Korea (after the war). Playing Klinger, he can be seen wearing his actual Army-issued dog tags.

“It’s just so endearing. You want to know Klinger,” said Swit. “You want to go to Toledo, meet him at Packo’s and have a hot dog.”

Swit said, in addition to bringing zaniness to the role, Farr also brought a dramatic tension that attracted an audience.

“They felt for Jamie. They felt for Klinger in his desperation,” said Swit. “No matter how funny it was, his wardrobe was hilarious, but his desperation to get out of there, we understood it. His passion and his fortitude, he never gave up and the audience tuned in wondering ‘what’s he going to wear today?’ ”

Asked how the idea of a character who wears dresses in order to prove he’s unfit for the Army would go over today, Farr freely admits he doesn’t have an answer.

“Our mores and our whole society has changed, attitudes and everything else,” said Farr. “I was born in 1934. I can’t answer that question (because) I’m part of another era.”

During the last few years of the show’s run, after the character of Radar returned to the U.S., Klinger took over as the company clerk, ditching the dresses and donning olive drab fatigues. Like many other characters on “M*A*S*H,” Klinger was evolving.

Love for Pirates, Big Ben

Farr is no stranger to Pittsburgh, having performed at the Benedum Center in 1990 as Ali Hakim in “Oklahoma!”

But his spiritual connection to the Steel City goes back to his childhood. Despite growing up in Ohio, his favorite baseball team was neither the Cleveland Indians nor the Cincinnati Reds.

“I loved the Pittsburgh Pirates and Ralph Kiner was my favorite player growing up. I’d go through the stats of every game to see if Kiner hit a home run,” said Farr, who eventually had the chance to meet his boyhood idol. “He was the mayor of Palm Springs. We’d go out to dinner and I told him how excited I was to meet him.”

Farr also forged a friendship with Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, a fellow Ohio native.

“He was gracious enough to appear at my LPGA tournament in Toledo. What a thrill and honor it was to have him there. He was such a grand person and so good with the people in Toledo and the kids just adored him. He was a real gentle soul with all of them.

Farr said he’s excited about coming back to Pittsburgh for Steel City Con and never gets tired of meeting “M*A*S*H” fans.

“You look back on your career and your life and it’s something special that you have, something that really lasts like ‘M*A*S*H’ that’s such a treasure in TV history.”


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