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Nobody but nobody would ever have predicted that a hirsute, hook-nosed, son of a grocer from Toledo, OH, would some day become internationally famous for parading around in dresses and flowered hats. But that was the story of actor Jamie Farr (neé Jameel Farah), known the world over for his portrayal of cross-dressing Corporal Klinger on the hit TV series M*A*S*H (CBS, 1972-1983) for 11 years. There was a timeless comedic appeal to this cigar-chomping, bowlegged guy in heels, but Farr himself brought the character a human depth that served to both heighten and offer relief from the surrounding horrors of the Korean War. The actor was gregarious with a large personality both onscreen and off, and whether he was in the 4077th O.R., trading wits, on a game show, or hosting a golf tournament, he always seemed like he was having the greatest time of his life. It turns out he was, and he always encouraged others to follow suit.Jamie Farr was born on July 1, 1934, to parents Jamelia and Samuel Farah. His father was a grocer and his mother a seamstress, both of Lebanese descent. Farr rose above what might have been a rocky childhood for a short kid with a big nose and an unusual name by using his natural...
Nobody but nobody would ever have predicted that a hirsute, hook-nosed, son of a grocer from Toledo, OH, would some day become internationally famous for parading around in dresses and flowered hats. But that was the story of actor Jamie Farr (neé Jameel Farah), known the world over for his portrayal of cross-dressing Corporal Klinger on the hit TV series M*A*S*H (CBS, 1972-1983) for 11 years. There was a timeless comedic appeal to this cigar-chomping, bowlegged guy in heels, but Farr himself brought the character a human depth that served to both heighten and offer relief from the surrounding horrors of the Korean War. The actor was gregarious with a large personality both onscreen and off, and whether he was in the 4077th O.R., trading wits, on a game show, or hosting a golf tournament, he always seemed like he was having the greatest time of his life. It turns out he was, and he always encouraged others to follow suit.
Jamie Farr was born on July 1, 1934, to parents Jamelia and Samuel Farah. His father was a grocer and his mother a seamstress, both of Lebanese descent. Farr rose above what might have been a rocky childhood for a short kid with a big nose and an unusual name by using his natural ability to make people laugh. He was an outgoing and popular student, holding down a dizzying schedule of writing and performing variety shows, editing the school newspaper, acting as class president, and managing both the football and basketball teams. All the while, he loved movies and dreamed of someday becoming an actor. He graduated at the top of his class and the Farah family moved to Southern California, where he enrolled at the famous Pasadena Playhouse. In 1954 he landed his first professional acting gig in a stage production of "Mr. Roberts." Not long after, he was at an acting class when an MGM talent scout invited him to screen test for a film called "The Blackboard Jungle" (1955) about a group of troubled teens at an inner-city high school. Farr landed a role and the beginner was suddenly working in the company of actors like Glenn Ford and Sidney Poitier. The film remained historically significant for the fact that it featured one of the first rock 'n' roll songs, "Rock Around the Clock," and ushered in the age of the "teen rebel" film. Farr was credited as Jameel Farah in the film, but subsequently changed his name to something that Hollywood audiences would be more able to pronounce and remember.
The new Jamie Farr was inspired by his auspicious beginning and followed up his film debut with a role in the Andy Griffith/Don Knotts feature "No Time for Sergeants" (1958). Whether or not his involvement in the film influenced the draft board was unknown, but Farr was called up for military service in the Korean War soon after, serving from 1957 to 1959 in Japan. He returned to Hollywood with a set of dog tags that would prove to be a useful wardrobe accessory in the future, and began finding bit parts in film and television. He was a regular on "The Red Skelton Show" (CBS/NBC, 1951-1971) and "The Dick Van Dyke Show" (CBS, 1961-66), and appeared in all the big sixties' sitcoms like "Get Smart" (NBC/CBS, 1965-1970), "Family Affair"(CBS, 1966-1971), "I Dream of Jeannie"(NBC, 1965-1970) and "My Favorite Martian" (CBS, 1963-66). On the big screen, he showed up in equally wacky 1960s romps like "Who's Minding the Mint?" (1967) and "With Six You Get Eggroll" (1968).
In 1971, Farr landed a major role as a 1920s gangster in the TV comedy "The Chicago Teddy Bears," (CBS, 1971-72), but the show was cancelled mid- season. The cancellation was followed by a slow stretch, and Farr claims he was down to one can of tuna in the house when he got a call from a new sitcom called "M*A*S*H," based on Robert Altman's award-winning 1970 film which had been based on the 1968 Korean War novel by Richard Hooker. The film and subsequent television series followed a team of doctors and staff stationed at the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital in Korea during the Korean War, and both were groundbreaking for how they addressed the horrors of war using sophisticated, dark humor. "M*A*S*H" producer Larry Gelbart had worked with Farr on a variety show before and knew he would be perfect for this quick, one episode walk on. Farr showed up on set without having been given any information about the role he would be playing, he ended up finding a woman's military uniform in his dressing room. He was told that the costume was his, and that he would be playing a soldier who dressed in drag in an attempt to be declared mentally unfit in order to get a medical discharge from the U.S. Army. The idea for the character was inspired by comedian Lenny Bruce's real-life attempt to dodge the draft in the same manner.
Producers initially wanted Farr to play the role campy and effeminate, but he took it in a different direction and played it completely straight, which turned out to be just the twist the character needed. The Corporal looked absurd in his dress and earrings, but acted like any other wise-cracking soldier at the camp. Producers immediately knew the character had legs, both literally and figuratively. Klinger figured into half a dozen episodes that first season; a dozen the next, and was promoted to cast member for season three. By then the character and back story of the odd orderly had been further developed. Corporal Maxwell Q. Klinger hailed from Toledo, OH, which was referenced with memories of actual Toledo landmarks from Farr's youth. Klinger disapproved of killing and was not a huge fan of dying, either, so he continually came up with schemes that might release him from his military duties. Besides cross-dressing, he had faked amnesia, dressed like Moses, attempted to eat a Jeep piece by piece, sat on a pole for an extended period of time during the dead of winter, and appeared stark naked before a visiting general. None of his antics interfered with his ability to do his job well, however, and when Radar O'Reilly was discharged in season seven, Klinger was assigned the company clerk position and eventually promoted to sergeant.
For the series finale, which held the honor of being the highest-rated TV program in history, Klinger had married a Korean woman and decided to stay on in Korea to help her find her missing family. Farr revisited his role as Klinger for two more seasons in the spin-off series "AfterM*A*S*H" (CBS, 1982-84), in which he and his interracial family moved back to the United States and were met with disapproval. Klinger got into legal trouble and was bailed out by Colonel Potter after agreeing to work at a Veteran's hospital being run by Potter.
The irrepressible comedic actor was rarely out of the public eye in the years since "M*A*S*H" and its offspring. Always lively and quick with witty comebacks, he became a favorite on the game show circuit, appearing as a panelist on "The Gong Show" (NBC, 1976-1980), "Match Game"(NBC, 1962-69; CBS, 1973-79), "Hollywood Squares" (CBS, 1966-1981; syndicated 1983-84, 1986-89, 1998-2004), and "$100,000 Dollar Pyramid" (syndicated, 1985-88). Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, it was always a fun surprise when he showed up on TV shows like "Just Shoot Me" (NBC, 1997-2003), "Mad About You" (NBC, 1992-99), "Port Charles"(ABC, 1997-2003), "That 70s Show" (Fox, 1998-2006) and "Mad TV" (Fox, 1995- ). It went without saying that he also punched the clock at "The Love Boat" (ABC, 1977-1986) and "Murder She Wrote"(CBS, 1984-1996) as was seemingly required of every actor of the era. He returned to the big screen with an unforgettable role as The Sheik in "Cannonball Run" (1982) and Cannonball Run II (1984). In 1985, he was honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, located at 1547 Vine Street.
After so many years in film and television, Farr decided to rediscover his theatrical roots, and at the age of 60, he finally made his Broadway debut in the revival of "Guys and Dolls." He garnered rave reviews for his portrayal of Nathan Detroit, taking over the role after the departure of Nathan Lane. In 1997, he reunited with fellow "M*A*S*H" alum William Christopher and toured in a national production of "The Odd Couple," playing Oscar. He has also toured with "The Will Rogers' Follies," "Oklahoma" and "Oliver," as well as performed in regional and dinner theaters.
The irrepressible entertainer was also the author of two books. In 1994 he released the memoir Just Farr Fun, a rambling book of lively, old-school, showbiz tales that he published in reaction to the glut of celebrity tell-all sob stories. In 2003, he and his wife Joy co-authored the illustrated children's book Hababy's Christmas Eve, which was based on a story Max Klinger had once told the 4077th about a family of camels who carried the Wise Men to Baby Jesus. An avid golfer, Farr and his women's PGA golf tournament "The Owens Corning Jamie Farr Golf Classic" raised over $4 million dollars for children's charities since it was formed in 1984 in his hometown. In 1998, the city of Toledo honored their local hero by renaming a park where he used to hang out "Jamie Farr Park." Farr claimed that being embraced by the city in that way was one of the greatest honors of his entire career, surpassing even his Emmy nomination for "M*A*S*H." In 2005, Jamie Farr was recognized as a Comedy Achievement Honoree at the New York Arab-American Comedy Festival.
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He received an honorary doctorate from the University of Ohio in 1983
In 1998, a park in his hometown of Toledo was named in his honor.
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