Angling for a Discharge Has Made Jamie (Klinger) Farr of 'M*A*S*H' a Big Fish in the Hollywood Pond

updated 07/23/1979 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/23/1979 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Seven years ago, when Jamie Farr first put on skirts to become Corporal Klinger, the transparent transvestite desperate for a discharge in CBS' M*A*S*H, even he didn't know he was finally dressing for success. "It was just a one-day job," remarks Farr, then 36 and desperate himself. "At the time I wasn't worth anything in this business and never had been."

For most of his 26-year career, Hollywood somehow had resisted the sinewy, Bedouin-beaked 5'9" Lebanese actor, but now, it seems, everything is coming up noses. "The offers I get are incredible," Farr marvels. "I'm salable, marketable, hot." During hiatus this summer he's returned to the theater in a revival of Oklahoma!, playing the show's itinerant peddler in L.A., San Francisco and, if time permits, China. He is also slated to star on Broadway as legendary trouper Jimmy Durante in a show being expressly written for him. (Of his own schnozzola, Jamie contentedly says, "It rates a five on The Gong Show"—where he's a regular. "I wouldn't change it for the world.") Perhaps most gratifying, Farr's M*A*S*H role next season will be expanded when Klinger takes over the duties of the departing Gary (Radar) Burghoff.

But for all his nouveau success (Farr admits being "a millionaire on paper"), he finds it hard to forget "the long dry years" when he had to support his family as a delivery boy, post office clerk, military surplus store salesman and pooper scooper at a chinchilla ranch. At one career low point he even enlisted in the Army and is the only M*A*S*H cast member who actually served (postwar) in Korea. "Sometimes I wake up in a cold sweat," says Farr. "It's like a recurring dream because I still remember the days when I was hoping to make enough money to buy a can of tuna for dinner. I think what has happened to me is not real, but fake. I'm still frightened it will end."

Meanwhile Farr indulges with loving gifts for wife Joy, 39, a former model, and their children Jonas Samuel, 10, and Yvonne Elizabeth-Rose, 7. The family now lives in a $450,000 hacienda behind the gates and armed guards of exclusive Bell Canyon Estates. The children's rooms look like Christmas was yesterday. And a few TV seasons back he was able to make good on a 13-year-old promise to give Joy the engagement ring—a 1.5-carat emerald surrounded by diamonds—he couldn't afford when they were married. "We were at our favorite restaurant and the manager brought it on a silver tray and asked if Joy would like an appetizer," Jamie remembers of the tearful evening. "Our two kids were sitting there with us and everyone in the place thought I had proposed! I want my children to know that we are very, very lucky."

It's good fortune brought by a lifetime of hard work. Born Jameel Farah ("the only name you can say and clear your throat at the same time"), the son of a Toledo butcher and a seamstress, Farr was a Renaissance kid—class president, varsity tennis star and feature editor of the school paper. He left town after high school to study acting, vowing not to return until he was successful. (When he finally went back in 1977, Toledo proclaimed a day in his honor and, he beams, "I saw my name in lights for the first time"—on the marquee of the Ramada Inn.) Enrolling at the Pasadena Playhouse at 18, Jamie soon landed the pivotal Santini role in 1955's classic movie The Blackboard Jungle. "I thought I was on my way to stardom," recalls Farr, who roomed for a time with Robert (Baretta) Blake. "I didn't get work for a year after that."

He later appeared in such films as 1958's No Time for Sergeants and 1965's The Greatest Story Ever Told and worked TV as a regular on The Red Skelton Show and The Danny Kaye Show (with fellow second banana Harvey Korman). Recognition came slowly. Once he was halted on the Fox lot by a guard who curtly informed him that "this gate is for VIPs and trucks." "Don't you recognize me?" answered an indignant Farr. "I'm a truck." Nowadays he uses that gate when taping M*A*S*H.

A nonsmoker who occasionally drinks beer, wine or champagne, Farr is secure enough now to serve chili dogs flown in from Toledo when such acting colleagues as the Ralph Bellamys and the Harry Morgans drop by. Rather than being embarrassed, Farr clearly relishes his role as the man who enjoys being a girl. "Who would have thought I'd ever be in wardrobe discussing what blouse goes with what skirt? The show has been like a family to me. When it comes time to settle M*A*S*H, it's going to be traumatic," says Farr. "Where could we ever find magic again? I hope it never ends."

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