Jamie Farr is one of many veterans who have had a career in the entertainment industry. Morgan Freeman, Tony Bennett, Clint Eastwood, Mel Brooks, and Ice-T (yes, Ice-T) all served in the military before being entertainers. Even Robin Quivers, Howard Stern’s co-host, reached the rank of captain in the Air Force.
Elvis and Jimmy Stewart both stepped away from their careers to serve their country during wartime.
Yet, Jamie Farr, who portrayed Cpl. Maxwell Klinger on M*A*S*H, stands out. His career path is almost as eclectic and unusual as the character he is best known for.
Jamie Farr also wasn’t the only cast member on M*A*S*H* to serve in the military. Alan Alda, who played Cpt. Hawkeye Pierce, spent time stationed in Korea as an Army Reservist. McLean Stevenson, who played Col. Henry Blake, actually served as a Navy corpsman.
Farr, who was drafted into the Army, spent time in Korea and Japan after the ceasefire. It’s rumored he even wore his real dog tags on the set of M*A*S*H*.
But unlike his cast members, Farr was an actor before his draft number ever came up.
Jamie Farr the Child Actor
Farr actually was born in Toledo, Ohio, the hometown Klinger is so eager to get back to on M*A*S*H*. There, he got his first taste of acting at 11 years old, when he won $2 in an acting contest.
Farr also acted in high school, as well as playing piano and writing for the Calvin M. Woodward High School paper.
After high school, he moved to California and joined the Pasadena Playhouse, where he was scouted by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM). That led to his first acting role, playing Santini in the 1955 movie The Blackboard Jungle. The role was credited under his birth name, Jameel Farah.
But Farr’s next big break wasn’t on screen, it was on the radio. He took on the role of Snorkel, the sailor buddy on Red Skelton’s NBC radio show. The relationship he developed with Skelton would come back to serve Farr during his time in the Army.
Jamie Farr Gets Drafted
Drafted into the Army in 1957, Farr served two years on active duty. He started in New York City at the old Paramount Studios – converted to the Army Pictorial Center. There, he worked on training films.
He was shipped to Japan and worked with Armed Forces Radio, taking trips to Korea to open Armed Forces Television, as he recounted to FoundationINTERVIEWS.
After Skelton lost his 12-year-old son to leukemia, he decided to take a trip to Korea to entertain the troops. A former Army man himself, Skelton toured with the Special Services during WWII, performing as many as 12 shows a day.
“He just wanted to go out and entertain, and go to these small encampments throughout Korea,” Farr told FoundationINTERVIEWS.
That was when Farr’s history with Skelton worked in Farr’s favor. Skelton put in a formal request with the U.S. State Department to have Farr accompany him on his tour of Korea.
Then Pvt. Jameel Farah went from regular duty to VIP status and flying around the theater on a UN airplane.
“We entertained all the way up to the 38th parallel,” Farr told FoundationINTERVIEWS.
In one comedic miscommunication, Skelton would ask for a bottle of gin to be available for one of his sketches, Farr said. What he wanted was an empty bottle to fill with water. What they were repeatedly met with was officers setting them up with martinis.
When the two parted ways at the end of Skelton’s tour, Farr returned to his duty station in Japan. But before parting, Skelton warned Farr that getting his career back on track would be tough. He invited Farr to come to see him once he was done with the Army. Farr recalled appreciating the gesture at the time, but not nearly as much as he would later.
Jamie Farr Goes Back to Hollywood
After Farr was done with his two years of active duty, life didn’t pick up quite where it had left off. His father, Samuel, who had moved to Phoenix with Farr’s mother, Yvonne, died shortly after Farr returned.
Far expected that he would have to quit the entertainment business to get work that would help support his mother.
On his way out of town, he stopped in to see Skelton at Television City. In Farr’s mind, he was only stopping in to say farewell to a friend.
When Skelton heard Farr was intending to leave show business, he refused to accept it.
“He took one look at me and said ‘Oh, my God, you’re not leaving! You have a little bag that says Doctor of Comedy on it. You’re employed by me,’” Farr told the Toronto Star.
In his interview with FoundationINTERVIEWS, Farr said that Skelton took a wad of $100 bills out of his pocket. He peeled off several and handed them to Farr.
“He said, ‘Here, send that home to your mom, and from now on, you’re working for me,'” Farr said.
Farr attributes his success to Skelton, and still wears the St. Christopher Medal Skelton gave him when he was drafted. Without his support, Farr said he doesn’t think his career in entertainment would have continued.
Farr said he was honored, years later, to be one of the pallbearers at Skelton’s funeral.
Becoming Cpl. Klinger
Finding himself forgotten by everyone else in Hollywood, Farr was more than grateful for his recurring roles on Skelton’s show. Despite a few other minor roles, including in F-Troop, he wouldn’t get a chance at something big until 1972.
The character of Klinger wasn’t meant to be a recurring role when Farr began, he told FoundationINTERVIEWS. He expected to be in a single episode, for which he would make a total of $250.
Director Gene Reynolds, who had directed Farr on F-Troop, decided to make Klinger a recurring character. Yet, Farr didn’t make the permanent cast until the third season.
According to Farr, inspiration for Klinger came from a Lenny Bruce joke. Bruce claimed that during his time in the Coast Guard, he responded to being told to wear “dress of the day” by wearing an actual dress. From that came the corporal who is constantly trying to get out of the Army and always out of uniform.
When he was brought on set, Farr was simply told to put on a woman’s uniform and high heels. Desperate for cash, he didn’t ask questions, even though he had no idea what the role would be.
The character was originally directed as flamboyant, but after Reynolds decided he didn’t like the result, Farr had a suggestion. He offered to play Klinger “straight,” as a character who doesn’t comment on his attire or act as if anything is out of the ordinary.
“The rest is history, right?” Farr told FoundationINTERVIEWS. “Came on for one day; stayed for 11 years.”
Farr said he’s proud of what he and fellow cast members accomplished.
“It was a show that didn’t talk down to its audience,” he told FoundationINTERVIEWS.
Farr, whose career has been so influenced by personal relationships, said the cast has stayed close over the years.
“It really hasn’t come to an end,” he said. “It’s come to a television end, but it hasn’t come to a friendship end.”