For M*A*S*H star Jamie Farr, maybe life really did imitate art. Just as he was starting his acting career, the U.S. Army drafted him into service for the Korean War.
And beloved comedian Red Skelton, who Farr described as a “second father,” then requested Farr to be his assistant when he did a tour through Korea to entertain the troops.
Farr talked about those memories of Skelton and the Korean War last November in an interview with the site We Are the Mighty.
“After Red’s son passed away, he wanted to do a tour to entertain troops,” said Farr, the M*A*S*H star. “And he wanted to do his shows with me. We flew on a United Nations airplane just me and him. I had VIP status which surprised me. We went to every encampment all the way up to the DMZ in Korea.”
Farr met Skelton before the war and said he often did the Red Skelton Hour. So the two already were close. Skelton even gave Farr a St. Christopher’s medal to wear while he was in the Army. After Farr served his stint in the military, he returned home, intending to give up acting. His father died and he wanted to help his mother. But Skelton convinced the future star of M*A*S*H to stick with acting.
“I went by CBS Studios to say goodbye to Red Skelton and he wouldn’t let me go,” Farr recalled. Skelton “put me under personal contract and said, “I was one of us. A doctor of comedy.”
Farr said Skelton gave him several $100 bills and instructed him to mail the money to his mother. Skelton helped him hone his nightclub act, which eventually led to a role on The Dick Van Dyke Show.
Farr’s Character on M*A*S*H Was Only Supposed to Be For One Episode
By 1972, Farr secured a role on M*A*S*H. But his role as Corporal Max Klinger, who was trying to get out of the Army on a Section Eight discharge, was only intended to be for one episode. Director Gene Reynolds, who’d worked with Farr on another project, brought him to M*A*S*H for Chief Surgeon Who and paid him $250 a day.
M*A*S*H creator Larry Gelbart based the quirky Klinger on comedian Lenny Bruce, who wore a woman’s uniform in an attempt to get out of World War II. He decided to keep Farr on M*A*S*H as a recurring character, a move that helped steady Farr’s career. By season three, Farr made it to the permanent cast.
“I was really down on my luck,” Farr said in 2017. “I hadn’t been working, so when they called me, they didn’t even tell me what the part was, they just said you got a part, and it pays $250 for the day. So, I said to my agent, boy I’ll be there.”
Farr and Alan Alda, who played Dr. Hawkeye Pierce, were the only two actors on M*A*S*H who served in the Korean War. And while Farr’s character donned wild women’s costumes, one part of his uniform was authentic. He wore his own dog tags from the Korean War. And, his life truly did imitate his art. He spent his military career trying to keep a smile on every soldier’s face. He did the same in the biggest role of his career.