When Corporal Klinger Finally Gets There, It's Jamie Farr Who Is the Toast of Toledo
05/16/1983 at 01:00 AM EDT
For 11 wildly successful seasons, M*A*S*H Cpl. Maxwell Q. Klinger tried every trick—and every dress—his scriptwriters could imagine to get the Army to ship him home to Toledo. What few viewers probably knew was that Cpl.—later Sgt.—Klinger, in the person of actor Jamie Farr, really was a proud native son of the depressed Midwestern city. And what Klinger never managed to do on the show Farr does with happy regularity, visiting Toledo at least twice a year. On his first trip back as a star, Farr (né Jameel Farah, the son of a Lebanese grocer-butcher and a sometime seamstress) was greeted with a "Jamie Farr Day and a Half." The town turned out for a parade, a Klinger look-alike contest and a party in his honor. His name went up in lights on the Ramada Inn. "Everyone gets a day," Jamie gloated, "but I got a day and a half." And the honors continue to roll in. The city fathers are mulling plans to build a Jamie Farr Park, and the University of Toledo has invited him to convocation ceremonies this week to receive an honorary doctor's degree in performing arts. Jamie, who never went to college, has accepted with pleasure.
Farr, 48, has reached out for other roles—including a sequel series for next fall called AfterMASH—since M*A*S*H struck its tents last February. But he knows that he will always be identified with the unforgettable Gl transvestite and with Toledo. There is something about the name of the city that strikes people as funny, says Farr. "Once, on the series, I told Harry Morgan, who played Col. Sherman T. Potter, that I had to get home because my two brothers had been killed in a boiler explosion at the Toledo Harmonica Factory. I had to play that seriously, of course, but we had to keep reshooting because Morgan would fall off his chair each time I said 'Toledo Harmonica Factory.' "
Every time Farr mentioned the local ball club, the Toledo Mud Hens, on the show, CBS would be deluged with letters asking if there really was a team with a crazy name like that (there is—it is an AAA farm team of the Minnesota Twins). But there is nothing really funny about the Toledo Farr returned to last month. The largely working-class city (pop. 354, 635) has been hard hit by the recession. Unemployment stands at 15 percent, and major industries, such as glassmaking and auto parts, are severely depressed. Some neighborhoods, including the North End ethnic melting pot where Farr grew up, are sad studies in decline. "So many places that used to be aren't anymore," laments Jamie. "I've been robbed of my childhood."
Farr's father is dead and his mother and sister have lived in Arizona for years. But Jamie is still drawn to the town by family ties—he has aunts, an uncle and cousins there—and by a scruffy gang of boyhood friends known as the Toledo Seven. Four of the seven still live in Toledo, and they have changed very little since the days when they caroused in the alleys, beer joints and bookie parlors of their Jewish-Polish-Arab neighborhood. Jamie, the runt of the gang, was always the funnyman. "As a kid I had to be funny," he remembers. "That was the way to keep my nose from being broken." Today, in a tribute to his old "rat pack," Farr has license plates on his Mercedes that read TOLEDO7.
On his recent homecoming, a two-day stopover en route from New York to Los Angeles, Farr was picked up at Detroit Metro Airport by Mike Prephan, one of the Seven and now a Toledo lawyer. Later Jamie recalled his father, who worked 14 hours a day, yet never was able to provide his family with more than hand-to-mouth subsistence. "It took me years to get out of the bargain basement," says Jamie. "I always wanted to walk into a men's store and buy a cashmere sweater." Corporal Klinger has made him rich, "a millionaire on paper," and he, wife Joy, 43, and their children, Jonas, 14, and Yvonne, 11, live sumptuously in a $500,000 home in Bell Canyon just north of L.A. Nowadays Jamie wears $200 cashmeres and $150 Ballys. Because it took him so long to achieve that kind of affluence—he was 38 before Klinger crossed his path and 42 before he made a large salary—he is a driven man. "Recognition is important," he says, "because it allows me to command big dollars."
From earliest childhood, Jamie was an entertainer. He sang and danced for his family, studied radio comedians, and went with his friends to as many as three movies a day (when tickets cost 12 cents). "To get money for the movies," says Prephan, "we'd steal junk from the back of a local junkyard and sell it in the front."
At Calvin M. Woodward High School, Jamie was a winner in all departments—an honors student, feature editor of the newspaper and president of his sophomore, junior and senior classes. Says Ted Szelagowski, Farr's phys ed teacher, who later became principal, "When he left for Hollywood, people said he'd never make it. But he did, and when kids came to me in later years with questions, I'd point to Jameel and tell them to go for it."
On the first morning in Toledo, Jamie stopped by the Lucas County Stadium for a brief visit with Gene Cook, general manager of the Mud Hens, a club that has sent the likes of Casey Stengel and Bobby Murcer to the majors.
Later Prephan drove Jamie to their old neighborhood, and his mood changed to gloom as they passed block after block of derelict houses. "The old neighborhood is there only in my memory," Jamie says sadly. "It's like going to the MGM studios in 1979 when the place was abandoned. It was like a ghost town. That's what the North End of Toledo is like to me now. All the actors have left, but the sets are still there." His father's grocery, where Jamie used to kibitz, sometimes dancing a few steps with lady customers, is boarded up. "It's like the rubble after a war, but in my mind I see the Sealtest ice cream counter up front, all the crackers stacked on the shelves, the old cash register."
On a visit to the modest middle-class South Side home of Bob and Betty Abodeely, his uncle and aunt, Jamie proudly showed off what amounts to a Jamie Farr museum of newspaper clips and M*A*S*H artifacts, which they have collected. "God help anyone who phones when M*A*S*H is on the air," says Betty. "It's like High Mass time around here." (Despite all the devotion, Farr always stays at a hotel when he's in Toledo. "Never stay with friends or relatives," he cautions; "you end up living on their schedules.")
The next day Farr and his pals gathered at Tony Packo's tavern to act out one of Klinger's most recurrent M*A*S*H fantasies—eating Hungarian hot dogs and drinking Stroh's beer. Thanks to the plugs it got on the series, the tavern is now a tourist attraction. Still later that day, as Prephan was driving Jamie to the airport for the night flight to Los Angeles, they were stopped by a police prowl car. "Sorry," said a young cop, after recognizing Jamie, "but we're gonna have to take you over to Packo's." Toledo's favorite son sat back and flashed a dazzling, ear-to-ear, Corporal Klinger smile.