Born into a Catholic family in Saint Paul, Minnesota on February 6, 1939, Michael Joseph Farrell was raised (beginning at age 2) in Hollywood, where his father was employed as a studio carpenter. After graduating from high school, Farrell joined the Marines and then spent two years working as a private investigator. Deciding, at that point, to pursue an acting career, he went on to land small roles in such films as The Americanization of Emily (1964) and The Graduate (1967). Farrell subsequently played the part of Scott Banning on the soap opera Days of Our Lives, and then had leading roles in two early-1970s television series, The Interns and The Man and the City. His most memorable acting role—that of the surgeon B.J. Honeycutt on the popular TV series MASH—began in 1975 and ended in 1983, when the program finished its eleven-year run.
In 1985, Farrell and the independent film and television producer Marvin Minoff formed Farrell/Minoff Productions, which created a number of TV movies as well as the 1998 big-screen hit, Patch Adams, starring Robin Williams.
Over the years, Farrell has used his celebrity status as a vehicle for promoting a host of left-wing political causes. Throughout the 1980s, for example, he denounced the Reagan administration’s efforts to roll back Communism in Central America. Traveling to Honduras, Nicaragua, and El Salvador, the actor condemned U.S. sponsorship of anti-Communist guerrillas, though he was silent about the atrocities that were being inflicted on the civilian populations of those countries by their respective Communist regimes. In particular, Farrell opposed President Reagan’s decision to support the Nicaraguan Contras who were battling the Cuban- and Soviet-backed Marxist Sandinistas. Farrell and the Committee of Concern for Central America—an organization headed by Farrell’s longtime friend Ed Asner—went so far as to invite Nicaraguan dictator Daniel Ortega for a nine-day publicity tour of American cities. As The Washington Post reported, the stated purpose of this tour was to counter the Reagan administration’s “disinformation” campaign against the Ortega regime. At a Committee of Concern fundraiser that Ortega attended while in the U.S., the Sandinista leader raised his fist in the air and shouted, to the delight of those in attendance: “If the United States commits the error of invading us, we know we will struggle with you at our side!”
Also in the mid-’80s, Farrell made headlines when he crossed paths with the U.S.-based organization Medical Aid for El Salvador (MAES), which Ed Asner had recently founded. In August 1985, MAES flew the Los Angeles-based surgeon Alejandro Sanchez to El Salvador to perform a delicate operation on the arm of Nidia Diaz, a guerrilla leader of the Marxist Central American Worker’s Party—an organization that had recently (just two months earlier) claimed responsibility for the slayings of four U.S. Marines, two American businessmen, and nine civilians. When Dr. Sanchez arrived in El Salvador, Farrell was in the country as well—having come, at the behest of Amnesty International, to observe Diaz’s operation. By the time Sanchez was on the way to the hospital, no arrangements had yet been made to provide him with an assistant in the operating room. Thus he asked Farrell to fill that role, even though the actor had no medical training, and Farrell agreed. “I know this is going to look like a publicity stunt,” Farrell told the Los Angeles Times after the operation, “but that’s too bad. It isn’t.”
In the early 1990s, Farrell was a leading figure in a highly controversial crusade to expose an alleged spate of satanic ritual abuse aimed at children. As writer Lona Manning later explained in an American Thinker piece, the early ’90s was a time when “a nationwide panic had doctors, social workers and prosecutors convinced that a secret web of satanists were preying on children coast-to-coast—in schools, day care centers, even churches.” And “on the basis of these wild accusations,” she wrote, “scores of innocent people were flung into prison … [and] lost their homes, jobs, families and reputations.” Farrell, for his part, narrated a 1992 video entitled Children at Risk: Ritual Abuse in America, created by the independent film company Cavalcade Productions. In that video, Farrell introduced a number of: (a) parents who believed that their children had been drugged, caged, and forced to slaughter babies in daycare centers; and (b) young people who claimed that they themselves had been compelled to participate in those atrocities when they were children. “We’re dealing with a problem that may in fact go back for generations,” said Farrell in his narration, neglecting to inform viewers that the “victims” in the video typically had no recollection of these horrors until after they had gone into therapy and “recovered” the memories with the help of their psychologists.
Wrote Manning in 2004: “Farrell’s video was produced during a wave of ritual abuse hysteria that swept North America, leading to [dozens of] miscarriages of justice…. Many compared the ritual abuse panic to the Salem witch trials…. The satanic panic subsided after cognitive researchers established that children were being pressured into making false accusations by zealous social workers, gullible parents, and irrational law-enforcement officials. The two psychologists featured in the Cavalcade video … have since been sued for millions of dollars by their former patients for falsely implanting grisly memories of satanic tortures which never happened…. Farrell has yet to make amends to … [the many] wrongfully convicted people….”
Farrell was a longtime opponent of the American trade embargo against Fidel Castro‘s Cuba. During a 1994 trip to that country, he wrote that in recent decades the U.S. had “invaded, inveighed, inveigled, threatened, boycotted, manipulated, attempted to assassinate, and nearly triggered a nuclear war in [its] need to rid the world of the threat of Fidel Castro and his Revolucion.” Nevertheless, continued Farrell, “the Cuban Government has gone its sometimes-not-so-merry way, and, in spite of the best efforts of the world’s greatest power to squelch it, persevered in its effort to do what it deems best for its people.”
Measurably less tolerant was Farrell’s characterization of “violently anti-Castro Cuban exiles,” mostly in Miami, whom he derided as “dangerous proto-Fascists.” Farrell also condemned the Clinton administration’s refusal to establish diplomatic relations with Cuba, a choice that the actor derided as “clearly an outdated, Cold War-related, right-wing policy” that was, at its core, “colonialist, imperialist, and racist.”
Reflecting, years later, on his 1994 visit to Cuba, Farrell heaped praise on the island nation: “We saw some extraordinary things, learned a lot about the country, the people and the government. We saw that education is free and they encourage—and pay for—people to become doctors. As a result, Cubans have free medical care and the government provides doctors to other countries.” In 2011 Farrell ridiculed America’s continuing “anti-Castro obsession.”
In 1999 Farrell supported, if with an uneasy conscience, the Clinton administration’s military intervention in Kosovo. “I find myself in the peculiar position of being in favor of an intervention and yet unclear that what we are doing is the appropriate thing to do,” he told LA Weekly that May. “On some level you have to say that at least somebody is doing something.”
When asked, in 2000, whether he had any particular “mentors who have inspired you,” Farrell replied: “I am inspired by the invincibility and irrepressibility of the human spirit that I see everywhere I look. I find it in Cesar Chavez, Rabbi Leonard Beerman, Joan Baez, Joe Giarratano, Marie Deans, and Margery Tabankin….”
No issue has been more important to Farrell over the years than his unwavering repudiation of capital punishment. While noting, in a 2000 interview, that “I no longer practice Catholicism,” the actor said: “I’ve opposed the death penalty as long as I can remember”—in part because “the fundamental teachings of Jesus made a deep impression and have stayed with me,” and also because “I’ve always identified with and been sensitive to the needs of the underdog.” By Farrell’s telling, the death penalty is: “one of the ugly legacies of slavery and classism in America”; “racist in [its] application,” as evidenced by the fact that it “is primarily if not exclusively used against the poor and ill-represented”; “entraps the mentally ill and mentally damaged [and] the innocent”; reflects society’s “inverted priorities that suggest that humane concerns are secondary to the need for killing power”; and rooted in “jingoistic, hyper-macho attitudes.” Moreover, Farrell laments that the United States “unfortunately insists on remaining one of the noxious few” countries that does not exempt, from execution, “those who were children [i.e., younger than 18] when they committed their crimes.”
In Farrell’s calculus, “the preponderance of minorities on death row” serves as proof that the American criminal-justice system is infested with “institutional racism and corruption on the part of ambitious prosecutors.” “Not unlike the drug war,” he explains, “the death penalty is a political tool that has nothing to do with justice and is not good social policy. Both are the result of ambitious politicians looking to push emotional buttons that can ensure their political power. They’re certainly more interested in that than in solving social problems and ensuring the public safety.”
Farrell is the longtime president of Death Penalty Focus, an organization “committed to the abolition” of capital punishment, which it says: “is an ineffective, cruel, and simplistic response to the serious and complex problem of violent crime”; “institutionalizes discrimination against the poor and people of color”; “diverts attention and financial resources away from preventative measures that would actually increase public safety”; “risks the execution of innocent people”; and “does not deter crime.”
Farrell strongly objected to America’s military response to al Qaeda‘s September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Just a few days after 9/11, he lent his name to a statement titled “Justice Not Vengeance,” which declared: “We foresee that a military response would not end the terror. Rather, it would spark a cycle of escalating violence, the loss of innocent lives, and new acts of terrorism. As citizens of this great nation, we support the efforts being made to find those behind the acts of terror. Bringing them to justice under the rule of law—not military action—is the way to end the violence.” Other notable signatories included Harry Belafonte, Medea Benjamin, John Cavanagh, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Barbara Ehrenreich, Margaret Gage, Danny Glover, Randy Hayes, Michael Klare, Michael Lerner, Bonnie Raitt, Michael Ratner, Edward Said, Martin Sheen, Gloria Steinem, and Cora Weiss.
Farrell further expressed his anti-war sentiments in the 2002 book My America: What My Country Means to Me, by 150 Americans from All Walks of Life. In his contribution to this publication, Farrell criticized the national unity that Americans had displayed after 9/11, writing: “[S]implistic nationalism trumped thoughtful leadership and declared crusade. Six-gun justice—’wanted dead or alive’—’with us or with the terrorists.’ Thus the din of bombs and wounded shrieks of defenseless people become white noise muted by flapping flags and blaring horns as thousands die because thousands died.… Muted protests rise, are stifled, rise again. Collateral damage, tiger cages, lip service to values, addiction to violence, allegiance to oil, death to the innocent. Is this what we fight to preserve? Who are you, America?”
At a December 2002 press conference, Farrell joined fellow actor Martin Sheen and about a dozen others in announcing the formation of the group Artists United to Win Without War, whose petition stated: “We reject the doctrine—a reversal of long-held American tradition—that our country, alone, has the right to launch first-strike attacks.”
In February 2003, as a U.S. invasion of Iraq grew increasingly likely, Farrell condemned the George W. Bush administration’s “rush to war” as a scheme founded on “the desire to establish an American empire with a foothold in the Middle East.”
In 2006 Farrell collaborated with musician Jello Biafra and film director Keith Gordon in producing the anti-Iraq War documentary, Whose War? — a critical examination of America’s role in the Iraq War.
In March 2007 Farrell published his autobiography, titled Just Call Me Mike: A Journey to Actor and Activist.
For a number of years, Farrell was a member of Actors and Artists United for the Freedom of the Cuban Five (AAUFCF)—a reference to five constituents of a brutal Castro spy ring who, in 2001, were sentenced (by a U.S. court) to long prison terms for their convictions on a number of serious crimes. Other members of AAUFCF included Ed Asner, Danny Glover, Bonnie Raitt, Susan Sarandon, Pete Seeger, Martin Sheen, and Oliver Stone. In a July 2012 letter to Barack Obama, Farrell urged the president to “release [the Cuban Five] because they came here [to America] only to monitor the activities of violent Cuban exiles who, operating from bases in Miami of which our government is well aware, were planning violent actions against innocent people in Cuba.” (For details about the Cuban Five, click here.)
On June 19, 2013—the 60th anniversary of the executions of atomic spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg—Farrell and fellow actor/anti-death penalty activist Ed Asner marked the occasion by co-sponsoring a screening of the film Daniel at the Communist Party’s Los Angeles Workers’ Center. A fictionalized account of the Rosenberg case, this 1983 Sidney Lumet movie focuses on the hardships allegedly endured by the children of persecuted Communist activists. Addressing those who attended the film screening, Asner drew parallels to Stalin‘s infamous show trials and suggested that the Rosenberg prosecution was tainted by anti-Semitism. Further, Asner made reference to his own vocal opposition, as president of the Screen Actors’ Guild, to the Reagan administration’s anti-Communist policies in Central America during the 1980s. Farrell, for his part, described capital punishment as a “political tool” of “a government controlled by corporate interests,” and as a practice that was “destroying our nation’s moral standing.”
Farrell has long accepted the notion that the carbon dioxide emissions associated with human industrial activity are responsible for a dangerous warming trend in the earth’s atmosphere. “Global warming has the potential to be quite disastrous and I think it has already been damaging to the lives of significant numbers of people,” he says, urging Americans to: (a) “make the changes necessary in our lifestyles to alter the rise in CO2 level and therefore save ourselves”; (b) “reduce your carbon footprint”; and (c) “reduce your activities that contribute to the growth of this carbon dioxide-saturated atmosphere.” “Each of us can find ways to change the way in which we live,” Farrell expands, “some of which might be a little discomforting [but for example] if you turn the thermostat up a little bit, if you don’t use your air conditioning as often, or if you hang your clothes out in the line instead of putting them in the dryer. There are any number of ways in which we can live in a manner that’s consistent with the safe and clean operation of our planet, rather than exploiting everything for our own benefit in the short term and creating shortages and problems in the long term.”
In 2019 Farrell starred in the one-man play, Dr. Keeling’s Curve, at the Dunham Hall Theater in Illinois. He played the role of atmospheric scientist Charles David Keeling, who in the 1950s was the first scientist to measure and record atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide — the substance that Farrell believes plays a major role in anthropogenic global warming. “What had not been clear to me until I got more involved with this play and with the research involved is how profoundly the climate is being affected, how quickly, and how disastrous it will be if serious steps aren’t taken,” said the actor.
Since 1979, Farrell has been a spokesman for Concern America, which describes itself as an organization that “work[s] with communities in economically impoverished regions so that community members themselves become empowered to improve their own lives — focusing on health, sanitation, education, and income-generation projects.”
At various times, Farrell has also been:
For his numerous activist endeavors, Farrell has received such honors as: the “Civil Liberties Champion Award” from the ACLU of San Diego; the “Humanitarian Award” from the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers; the “Voices of Courage & Conscience Award” from the Muslim Public Affairs Council; the “Humanitarian Award” from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals; the “Partner’s Award” from Oxfam America; and the “Upton Sinclair Award” from the Liberty Hill Foundation.
Over the years, Farrell has given money to the campaigns of a number of Democratic political candidates, including Joe Biden, Barbara Boxer, Howard Dean, Russell Feingold, Tom Harkin, John Kerry, Ralph Nader, and Barack Obama.
Farrell today has a net worth of approximately $10 million.
For additional information on Mike Farrell, click here.