Wackiness in West Covina, CA, with a M*A*S*H star

Give me an A, Give me an M…

Background: Mid 1980s, it’s a PBS fund-raising special, I’m the writer. The show is all about rah-rah America, patriotism unchained in the Reagan era, and we’re going to shoot in the “small town” of West Covina, California, at the edge of the eastern sprawl of Los Angeles back in those days. The host and on-camera talent would be Mike Farrell, famous for his role as B. J. Hunnicutt of MASH, and I would write his copy. I would fly out there with the creative and directing team to sit and watch and change a line or two if needed.

M*A*S*H ended its 11-year run in 1983, with its final episode drawing in 125 million viewers – the most ever to watch a single TV program. Sources indicate that’s still true – a record that’s never been broken. So the show was hugely popular, B.J. Hunnicutt was a popular character, but now that the show was off the air Mike Farrell was available – and interested – in being the host of our two-hour PBS fund-raising special about celebrating the goodness of America. It was a pretty good coup to get this guy as our star.

 

Mike, ten years before he hosted our show. He was a little grayer when I knew him. (20th Century Fox publicity photo, via Wikimedia Commons))

 

I was alerted by his agent that Farrell wanted to go over the script with me. “Write down this number,” she told me, “call him, and then burn it.” So I did all of the above (except the literal “burning”), we made a few tweaks on the script, but we had a good time over the phone and hit it off pretty well. Great! I thought – a really nice guy to work with.

More than a nice guy – a huge, major league humanitarian. Check out his bio on Wikipedia… He’s nearly full time now helping other people.

The team, and the scene

The team flew out to LAX: Frank, our producer/director, Arvin (Arv), the production manager, an associate producer and a couple of others as I recall. The rest of the crew would join us in West Covina, which our location scout thought was the best example of “hometown America” near L.A. (where Mike lived).

I don’t now why I had to be there. The script was locked, Mike had signed off, why be there?

I sat on a bench in the shade as the crew set up for the first shots – a street leading down to the main drag through town. It was a sunny morning (as always in Southern California) and people had gathered along the sidewalks when word spread that Mike Farrell was in town. Under Frank’s direction, Mike was going to do a “walk and talk” down the street, introducing the town and the theme of the whole show. He was doing a walk-through rehearsal and needed to stop at a certain point – a mark – to continue his narrative.

Frank came to me just then. “We need a mark – we didn’t bring chalk. Have something?” Well, it happened I’d brought a book with me, so I handed it to Frank, who set it in the middle of the street. Or maybe I put it there, I forget.

The book…

The book I was reading happened to be Missing Time, published in 1981. Its author was Budd Hopkins, celebrated contemporary painter and sculptor (his works hang in the Whitney, MOMA, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art – all in New York – and many other cities around the world). But Hopkins had recently turned his attention to the subject of alien abductions, and Missing Time was his first foray into the field. I found the book intriguing, and not a little bit scary.

Budd Hopkins (1931 – 2011) in 1997. Author of several books investigating alien abduction cases. (Photo by his then-wife, Carol Rainey, via Wikipedia)

(I still find this subject fascinating – I wrote about it once in this blog some time ago – but it’s all hugely problematical, an endless rabbit hole…)

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Mike did one more walk-through, stopping at the book. He looked down, saw the title. Now Frank got cameras and audiotape rolling. Mike did one perfect take, and we all took a short break as the crew set up for the next shot. I retrieved my book and went back to the bench.

Mike joined me, sat, pointed to the book.

“Interesting,” he said.

“Very,” I said.

He took a long breath, “Xxxxxxx has had those experiences.” (Mike mentioned one of his M*A*S*H co-stars by name, but for obvious reasons I can’t share it).

“Wow. Really.”

“He won’t talk about it. Except that it’s terrifying to him.”

“Is it still happening?” I asked.

Mike shook his head. “He won’t talk about it. But it’s happened many times.”

We chatted a bit more about this, wondered about alternative explanations for what was going on, couldn’t think of any, and later broke for lunch.

Lunch

It was the four of us – Mike and myself, Frank and Arv – in some restaurant that looks like nearly every other restaurant in town. I sat opposite Mike, who seemed distracted. Frank and Arv, it must be said, could be a bit challenged by common social graces, and commenced to talk shop about the afternoon’s shoot schedule, essentially ignoring their guest. Mike and I traded glances. The waitstaff recognized Farrell and soon returned with a famous M*A*S*H-style martini – ice water and an olive in a martini glass.

(photo via Pixabay, “free to use” via Wikimedia Commons)

We laughed. Mike loved it, thanked them profusely. Took a sip. Now the waitress took our orders. When it was Arv’s turn, she asked,

“For a side, French Fries, mashed, baked, or some rice?”

No hesitation from Arv. “Rice. And plenty of it.”

Rice! And plenty of it! Words that had never been said in my presence before, and I’m sure never will again – a kind of zen-like absurdity of a request, spoken firmly like a military command. Wow. The fact is, Arv and I got along great on this and other projects, but he could do more than his fair share of blurting.

Plenty of rice, below, enough for Arv.

(© Mara Zemgaliete​/Adobe Stock​)

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The temptation here is to offer some novel rice-themed recipe, but that’ll have to wait until rice becomes far more interesting than it fundamentally is. Maybe never.

End of the shoot… start of something else.

When it was all over and we’d wrapped, Mike and I shared good-byes, agreeing what a pleasure the experience was. He was, and is, truly an exceptional human being, applying his fame and resources to humanitarian causes around the world.

The PBS special was broadcast nationwide, and did very well raising cash for hundreds of local stations. It was a hit. Viewers loved it.

The news that Xxxxxxx was having those experiences shook me. It was the first time I would hear of an individual case involving someone I knew (or knew of). And it certainly would not be the last. When I got home, I decided to read more about all this stuff, and risk tumbling down the rabbit hole.

There it is, for now. My books, below.

(I’ve changed the names of my production cohorts. It seemed appropriate).

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Ned White

About Ned White

Ned White is a writer, novelist, crossword puzzle constructor, humorist, traveler through 49 states, and at times a danger in the kitchen. He lives with his wife in South Thomaston.