Farr out, man

By Allan I. Ross

TV icon comes to Lansing for speaker series

For seven decades, he’s worked almost nonstop on stages across North America, on television and appeared in dozens of movies. But for an entire generation, Jamie Farr will always be Maxwell Klinger, the cross-dressing corporal on the groundbreaking TV series “M*A*S*H.” But what can you do — being in show business can be a drag.

“Sometimes it keeps you from doing more (television) work, like when you’re up for a part, and you hear, ‘Oh, that’s the guy who wore the dress,’” says Farr, 78. “It can really take you out of the role. That’s why I’m so happy about (recent stage work) ‘Tuesdays with Morrie’ and ‘Say Goodnight Gracie.’ Theater isn’t as stigmatizing — it’s so much easier to walk out on the stage and create that illusion.”

Next Monday, Farr will speak at the Lansing Town Hall event, “Mondays with Meaning and Merriment.” Lansing Town Hall is a nonprofit organization that has been bringing celebrity lecturers to Lansing for almost 60 years, the proceeds of which benefit the Lansing Symphony Orchestra.

“I’ll spend about an hour talking about my career and sharing some good stories,” Farr says. “It’s nice to talk to people who know what I’m talking about. If I mention Red Skelton, Danny Kaye, William Holden, Lucille Ball — I know that the audience next week will know who they are, where most people don’t. I like these kinds of talks because I love to tell stories, and when I’m done, I think the audience really gets to know who I am.”

When told that 2012 marks the 40th anniversary of the debut of M*A*S*H, Farr seemed taken aback.

“Holy cow, it’s been that long?” he said. “I can’t be that old. I may have to cancel this engagement.”

He says no anniversary festivities are in the works but he keeps track of the rest of the cast: Mike Farrell (“B.J. Hunnicutt”) will soon be in Kansas City in a production of “On Golden Pond;” Loretta Swit (“Hot Lips”) is preparing a one-woman show about Eleanor Roosevelt; Wayne Rogers (“Trapper John”) is a panelist on Fox News’ investment program “Cashin’ In;” David Ogden Stiers (“Charles Winchester”) and Gary Burghoff (“Radar O’Reilly”) are retired; and Alan Alda is still working in New York, most recently appearing in the Eddie Murphy/Ben Stiller crime caper “Tower Heist.” Farr says many of his old writer and actor friends have passed away, including Harry Morgan (“Col. Potter”) who died last year at 96.

“I was a big fan of Harry’s and had a deep respect for him,” Farr said. “I saw him in movies and TV when I was younger, even before I was a professional actor. We got along right away. Some people are just comfortable with other people. I really enjoyed his stories. And he had such a talent — he could go right from doing farces to drama — how can you not be impressed with that?”

Farr will next be traveling to Ontario to launch a stage show that he hopes will keep him touring for a year. As for a return to TV, he says that’s up to the networks.

“If you watch a lot of network TV, you see the direction (casting agents) are going in,” he says. “Betty White aside, they’re not hiring a lot of elderly performers. Cable offers a lot more opportunities for older people. But you never know, this business is strange. Bob Hope used to say, ‘One day you’re eating the chicken and the next day you’re plucking the feathers.’ This is my 59th year in the business, and I know the phone could ring anytime, That’s what you do. You’ve got to survive.”

Lansing Town Hall Lecture Series
Oct. 22
11 a.m. lecture, noon lunch
$30/$20 no lunch
Best Western Plus
6820 S. Cedar St.