Peter Goes Shopping and Meets BJ Hunnicutt
Peter Tatara - April 3, 2007
I'm writing to inform you that I went shopping yesterday -- and not for Japanese toy robots like I usually do. No, I went clothes shopping and picked up several pairs of slacks, dress shirts, and ties. As you know, I'll be starting a new job soon, and as you've communicated to me, you're afraid they won't let me in the door for fear I'm a meth-addled hobo. You can rest soundly tonight, though, as I'll no longer resemble a transient to the man on the street -- or, more apropos, at the security desk. Further, I bought new socks, undershirts, and underpants, too, so you should displace any dread that I'll smell like a vagrant. I'm quite pleased with my purchases, but to be honest, I'm a bit concerned that my black trousers are actually purple and my khaki pants are, in fact, orange.
As you're aware, I live a life crippled with the disease of color deficiency, unable to differentiate between and identify anything beyond red, yellow, and blue. (Actually, that's a lie. These colors pose problems for me, too.) I asked several workers to assist me in my shopping to guide me away from the fuchsia and lime, but I honestly am not sure of their honesty and half-expect to walk into the office on my first day dressed like a pimp. (The clothes I can explain away, but I imagine I'll have to own up to the boa and feathered hat.)
You may wonder why my girlfriend didn't aid me in my shopping, and I did ask her, but she assumed the whole thing was a pretense to make out. Admittedly, I had planned the day to end this way, but I earnestly needed her eyes.
I had intended to do more shopping today, to pick up a few (dozen) more blazers and, perhaps, belts and shoes, but I learned midday that Mike Farrell (M*A*S*H's BJ Hunnicutt) was going to be speaking and signing copies of his new book, Just Call Me Mike, tonight in Union Square, and I felt showing up with several Macy's bags under my arms would be inappropriate. I attempted to coerce my ex-roommate to come to the event (to hold my bags), but he declined, citing that he had to study his Hindi. He likes Indian girls, you see, and this fetish has actually spurred him to become close to fluent in the language. I, too, am amazed.
So, now, here I am, waiting for Mike Farrell to arrive. Looking around, I'm realizing I'm the youngest in the audience. There are two way-too-excited girls who also appear to be in their 20s, but a survey of the room's average age would probably produce an answer pushing 70. If I had known about the Farrell event prior to noon today, I would have worn the 4077 shirt that's in my closet. I may have even picked up the M*A*S*H boxset, too. As is, though, my signed copy of Just Call Me Mike will look handsome beside my signed The Castle in the Forest and The Zombie Survival Guide.
I bought my copy of Just Call Me Mike a few minutes ago. Normally, if I have prior knowledge of a signing, I'll buy the book at the Strand. It's cheaper, and I'd prefer my money go there than to an omnibus chain. I've always been amazed, too, by the lack of security at these events. One could easily pull a book off a shelf, get it signed, and then walk out without ever visiting the cashier. In fact, during college, an acquaintance did just that when Ralph Nader came to speak. I believe this episode entirely explains why the Greens will never hold significant office.
There's a slummy autograph dealer a few rows from me. I've seen him at other signings trying to get 50+ copies of the same book autographed. It got almost violent when he approached Norman Mailer. This guy just gives off a thick air of grease. He's talked to me in the past. He starts off friendly, but all of two minutes later he asks if you can take a stack of books up to get signed for him.
Mike Farrell's not here yet. I petitioned to get Alan Alda to speak at my graduation my final year in college. Instead, I got Ben Stein. My girlfriend tried to get Stephen Colbert. Instead, Dr. William F. Schulz, Former Executive Director of Amnesty International, is speaking. (Former Executive Director? What a let down.) I informed my girlfriend if she wants to see Stephen Colbert or Jon Stewart, she should just move to New York CIty. She thinks I have ulterior motives. Which I do.
Returning briefly back to blazers, I believe I need a different one for every day of the month. Should I get a white suit coat? I own a few black, grey, and corduroy varieties, but I'm thinking of buying a white jacket as well. Impractical? Completely. After wearing it for 15 minutes, I know something -- the subway, my sofa, a chair -- will leave some stain on the fabric, preventing me from wearing the suit coat to the office or any fancy dress party in the future.
Oh! Mike Farrell's just arrived. He's dressed in black slacks and a black turtleneck under a black suit jacket. He looks good. He's being introduced by Kenny Bruno, a member of Greenpeace's Board of Directors. He's thanking Mike for all his hard work as an activist, for his efforts in Somalia, Rwanda, Death Row, and Louisiana. Bruno's calling Mike a "world citizen" and "human rights warrior." Bruno just told Mike that he hopes he remains an activist "until he dies." Maybe it's just me, but I wouldn't remind a 68-year-old of the Grim Reaper.
Mike Farrell's on stage now. He looks really good. He's saying he's not going to read from his book tonight and instead wants to go back and forth with us and speak about any topic -- from acting to activism -- we want to hear about. He's saying he's never been too fond of the title "activist," though. It's a label. Mike doesn't like labels. Is he an actor? An activist? What are you supposed to call him? "Just call me Mike," he says. (It's the title of his book. Brilliant!) Mike says Robert Greenwald convinced him to write the book. He says M*A*S*H is "the greatest television show that ever graced the airwaves." True. Mike's wife is in the audience. I think she's sitting near me, but I don't know what she looks like.
Mike says the United States is "the greatest country in the history of the world" but that we're "adrift from its principles." We need more "informed and involved" citizens. Everyone has "a talent, ability, and unique quality," and we all need to use ours. The Universe, according to Mike, is a mosaic, and we're all a tile in it. There's a lot of blank space, though, now, and we've got to do our best to fill it all in.
Someone in the audience is eating. Something crunchy.
Mike's asking us what we'd like to talk about. Should I ask him to leave a voicemail message for my friend? Probably not. He's talking about Death Row. The death penalty was declared unconstitutional in 1972 and constitutional again in 1976. 38 states currently have the death penalty, and since 1976, 123 men and women sentenced to death have been exonerated through new evidence before their sentences were carried out. Mike says we don't know how many more could have been. We're the only Western nation to have a death sentence. Mike calls it "racist" and say it isn't "justice" -- instead "politics."
Mike's speaking about his career now. He's informing us all that, yes, he still has one. He says he picks his projects. He says he has no interest in getting into politics, that the current system is "disgusting" and fat with those looking only for "public advancement." "Candidates are packaged like breakfast cereals," Mike says.
I need to get new glasses. Once my vision plan kicks in, I want to get something stylish and metrosexual.
Mike's favorite episode of M*A*S*H is The Interview, a black and white episode based on Edward R. Murrow's You Are There serials. The episode had a Murrow-eqsue character interview all the main M*A*S*H surgeons for a film strip to be shown back home. In writing the episode, the writers allowed all the cast members to compose their own in-character answers to the interviewer's questions, and once the episode was being shot, the actors were surprised that, in addition to the pre-scripted questions, they were asked more, and they had to answer on the spot. Mike says the episode was a "demonstration of their belief in us." Mike says M*A*S*H wasn't antimilitary, but that "mindless authoritarians" should get no respect. He says he loved his time on M*A*S*H. "I can't believe I'm being paid to say these words," he says he often said on set.
He's asked if he's still close to the other cast members. He says he met a few for dinner last Saturday night. He's says they're all still tightly-knit, but that while most are in LA, Alan Alda is in NYC and that distance separates them a bit. Alan Alda lives in New York City? I've got to find him.
A question about if there was a pivotal moment in Mike's life. Yes. Mike says he came from a working-class Irish family. There was no nurturing at home. He's segueing this into a talk about power and the problem with the disjunction between the haves and the have-nots. He says his pivotal moment came when he was in the Marines. He had a friend, and there was always tension from other soldiers when Mike was with him. Mike realized it was because his friend was black. Mike says it was this and his time in the South in the 1950s that changed his life. This caused him to become vocal in the Civil Rights movement, wanting to right a "historical mistake."
Mike says that nurses and teachers should be celebrities.
A question about if Mike was at all involved in the Conference of Studio Unions in the 1940s. No. Mike was a kid then. He knew his uncle slashed tires for the Teamsters but nothing more than that.
Mike's being asked if he watches 24. Not regularly. This question was asked by the President of Human Rights Watch. Mike says that US soldiers have said they've used interrogation techniques they've learned from the show. Mike says this is "horrific." He says that, as an actor, you need to be thoughtful with the choices you make. He says he was approached to star in a film about the building of the atom bomb but ultimately rejected it because it didn't show any of the aftermath of the bombings.
Mike's asked if he sees anything positive on TV today. He says he doesn't watch television much. He says he hates Reality TV, that it's the audience's "unwillingness to invest in positive stories," that "fame should not be a goal," and that "fame should be the byproduct of success."
Are any other M*A*S*H cast members active in any causes? Loretta Swit and Gary Burghoff are very vocal about animal abuse. Jamie Farr, too, plays a role in several charities. Alan does a lot, too, but Mike says he's shy. Really?
With all this negativity, what brings Mike hope? Mike says that he's been to many, many terrible places throughout the United States and around the world, but that everywhere he's gone, he's always found people working toward change. Thing brings him hope. Mike says we have a huge job to do and that we need to start by changing our country's leadership.
A question about if Mike has any favorites in the 2008 Presidential Race. Mike says that the current trend toward a preprimary primary is atrocious. He says he's personally met Obama, Edwards, Dodd, and Biden. He says all are "dedicated and thoughtful." He says that whoever ends up in the White House in 2008 needs to end the "criminal" invasion of Iraq and "support the troops by bringing them home."
Now, a question about Mike's feelings on the M*A*S*H laugh track. Mike says he fought it and the entire cast and crew fought it. He says that television executives, though, didn't think the American people were smart enough to know when to laugh unless they were being told. He says this is "typical" of the way television executives think. They're "unwilling to accept the intelligence of the viewer." Mike says that there was no laugh track when M*A*S*H was shown in England. And people laughed.
The over-eager girls in the audience are asking a question. They're actresses. They want to know if they can succeed and still have "a social conscience." Mike nods. He says that you need to know who you are and what's important to you. "Cling to your beliefs," he says. Mike's telling us it's not necessary to sell out and anyone who tells you otherwise has given up something important and are trying to justify it. "There is such a thing as self-respect in this country."
Mike's wrapping up with a story about M*A*S*H. He says he had so much more fun making the show than anyone has watching it. He says that it was very popular within the industry when it first came on because it was "a demonstration of what is possible." He says that writers and actors would visit the set almost every week and major studio heads were fans. He says that one day he was having lunch at the commissary on the FOX lot with Swit, Farr, and Bill Christopher. As they were finishing their meals, a "phalanx of waiters" approached with desserts for them. Mike told the waiters they didn't order any dessert. The waiters said it was courtesy of the man in the corner. Mike looked around and spotted Sir Richard Attenborough. He, Swit, Farr, and Christopher were amazed and waved to him. Attenborough didn't respond. They waved and thanked him louder. Attenborough looked away. Mike presumed Attenborough was just shy, but he really wanted to thank him for the desserts. Then, he spotted a man in another corner. It was David Ogden Stiers, and he was laughing "to beat the band." It all made sense now, and when Mike was given the bill, the desserts were included. Mike laughed and told the waiter to pass the bill to Odgen Stiers. David simply looked at the check, signed it, and walked out.
Mike was troubled David took it so easily and chased after him. He told David it was a good joke but that he didn't have to pay for the desserts. David chuckled, saying he signed Gary Burghoff's name to the bill.
The next day, Gary Burghoff stormed onto the set and started screaming at Mike, Swit, Farr, and Christopher about the meal. Mike pulled him aside and said it was all a joke -- a complex joke. Gary snickered. He said that David told him about the joke and asked him to raise Cain about the check. Mike realized what he had to do. He whispered into Burghoff's ear. A few minutes later, Mike was talking with David and Gary broke in, shouting about the bill again. Mike gave him hell back. This went on. Eventually, Mike asked if Burghoff wanted to step outside. They did and proceeded to slam themselves against the studio's wall and scream out in faux pain. When David rushed out, he found them locked together, Gary strung up by his collar. David shouted. David apologized. Gary and Mike broke out in laughter. The blood drained form David's face. "Never again," he said. He lied.
That wraps up Mike's discussion. It's probably not my most polished piece of writing, but it is a blow-by-blow of everything that was said. I'm getting up to get my copy of Just Call Me Mike signed now. What should I say? I'm half-afraid of the actual moment of the signing. When you live in New York, you see celebrities as part of your daily routine, and while it's thrilling at first, you soon come to realize that if you know someone from TV, you don't know them at all. And after coming off as presumptuous, an ass, or creepy a few times, I stopped waving to Kirsten Dunst when crossing the street. So, as eager as I was to meet Mike Farrell, I was scared, too. But the moment I was before him, any trepidation disappeared. Mike stood up, took my hand, and told me it was a pleasure to meet me. I had formulated what I was going to say to Mike while waiting in line.
"I first knew you as BJ Hunnicutt and had no idea how you could top M*A*S*H, but after looking at Just Call Me Mike, I see you've done that with every day of your live."
I said this to Mike along with some other words that spurted from my tongue. "God bless you," Mike said back. After signing my book, Mike smiled, stood, and shook my hand again.
I'm on the subway now. I had wanted to buy some groceries tonight, but it's getting late, and I think I'll go straight home. The subway smells of Oreos and there's a waft of hard liquor.