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Reminiscing with famed M.A.S.H. star

Kelley Lannigan and M.A.S.H.'s Klinger (Jamie Farr).It’s not everyday my path crosses with a true blue bona-fide movie star, but recently that’s exactly what happened.

To my great delight, I found myself sitting face-to-face with Jamie Farr, the actor who played the unforgettable character of Klinger on the smash hit television show M.A.S.H., which ran from 1972-83.

M.A.S.H. followed the daily routines of a team of doctors and support staff stationed at the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital in South Korea during the Korean War, made Farr a huge star.

The conniving corporal Klinger was determined to escape the army by receiving a section 8 medical discharge for engaging in bizarre behavior while wearing women’s clothing. His goofy exploits and frequent wardrobe changes became a cornerstone of the show.

Since M.A.S.H. ended, he has kept busy with movie roles, guest appearances on game shows, hosting a golf tournament for charity and numerous appearances in regional theatre in the US and Canada. He’s currently starring in Lend Me A Tenor, which opened September 21 at the Alhambra Theatre in Jacksonville. Before the show opened, Mr. Farr took a break one day during rehearsal to meet with me.

When he sauntered into the room where I was waiting, we locked eyes and he threw open his arms and shouted “Kelley!” as if he had just encountered an old friend.

He was warm, gracious and funny, just as I expected he would be.

We talked about his childhood, growing up in the 1940s as the son of Lebanese immigrants in Toledo, Ohio, his early infatuation with the opulent movie theatres of that era, his decision to become an actor and the year he spent at the Pasadena Playhouse in California after graduating high school.

He managed to snag a role in the then controversial movie Blackboard Jungle, went on to projects like No Time For Sergeants and became a regular on Red Skelton’s comedy show.

He and Skelton would become lifelong friends. When he was drafted into the army, Farr had to leave acting. Skelton requested him to tour with his military show and the army granted the request. When the show was over, Skelton told Farr, “It will  be hard to get started in the business again when you get out. That’s when you come see me.”

He did and Skelton put him under contract, which provided him money to send to his family.

He graciously showed me the gold St. Christopher’s medal he still wears which Skelton had made for him and inscribed with a personal message of best wishes.

I asked him for advice for young aspiring actors and he was immediately forthcoming.

“The industry has changed a lot from when I first started,” he said, “but I’d still give this basic advice: work hard, master your craft, be prepared and be the absolute best you can be.”

He also recommends what a very wise person in the industry told him early on: Save your money.

“It’s easy when you are on top to think it will never end, but it can. I have buddies of mine who aren’t working,” he said. “I am fortunate.”

The actor says he never took his good fortune for granted. Even while M.A.S.H. still aired he was opening doors for himself in regional theatre, planning for the future so he’d always have a job.

I asked him about his Broadway debut, which came forty years after he’d been in the industry.

“I saw Guys and Dolls in the theatre when I was young. I never dreamed I’d be starring in it on Broadway one day,” he told me.

I’d viewed clips from his Guys and Dolls performance on Youtube.

“And you can sing!” I said.

“No, I can’t. No, I can’t,” he said,  laughing. “And I did eight shows a week on Broadway to prove it!”

I had a hundred more questions but we were out of time.

“I’m truly blessed,” he said. “For actors, the important thing is to keep working. It keeps your mind and skills sharp and keeps you in the game.”

Lend Me A Tenor runs through October 16 at The Alhambra Dinner Theatre.

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