Man for all seasons: 'I've still got a bounce in my step'

The jacket of Mitch Albom's best-selling novel, Tuesdays With Morrie, teases the reader succinctly: "An old man, a young man and life's greatest lesson."

And what might that lesson be?

With the stage version of the story opening in Kamloops Thursday, you have to wonder. Who better to ask than actor Jamie Farr, best recalled as the Cpl. Maxwell Klinger of M*A*S*H fame? He plays the aging Morrie.

"You know what it is, really?," Farr asked over the phone from Vermont, his voice unchanged since he played the comically cross-dressing Klinger 30 years ago. "It's just a memo. It's what Morrie said: You forget the simple little things and that's what Morrie brings back. It's Fiddler on the Roof.

"This is a wonderful gift, living," he added. "Enjoy it. Life can be hectic, really scorching. Each day is a gift."

Farr's seen enough scripts that he ought be able to read between the lines by now. Born in 1934 as Jameel Farah of Lebanese-American descent in Toledo, Ohio, he was acting at age 11 (and won the princely sum of $2 in a contest). After graduating from high school, he was discovered by an MGM scout and offered a screen test for the film Blackboard Jungle in 1955. It was no minor part. He played Santini, a mentally challenged teenager in a bleak inner-city school in what was a groundbreaking film for the era.

As Farr attests, "I've been around forever."

TV became his mainstay in the late '50s, after military service, when he began making regular appearances on the Red Skelton and Danny Kaye shows. The small screen was so big in those days - a handful of networks captivated millions nightly - that the screen roles kept coming. There were sitcom guest spots, game show stints, minor and prominent film and TV roles, though none that drew as much audience as the weekly antics of the 4077 mobile army surgical hospital.

Theatre was always a second home, though.

"I never left it, actually. When I became noticed on M*A*S*H, I would always - if not doing a TV guest spot or a movie of the week or a game show - make sure I did theatre. I wanted to establish myself as box office in the theatre world. As everyone knows, things dry up after a while. I thought, 'OK, I'll make a name for myself in theatre.' "

That included stints in Edmonton, where he used to do dinner shows.

"I'd go up there at every hiatus and perform and sell out.

"Most of the time you do these comedies, and rightfully so. That's my fate. The greatest tragic actors are comedians. Comedy and tragedy are just so slightly apart. Comedians are great tragedians."

Still, it's surprising to have such a well-known actor appear for his first time in small-city-B.C. at age 77.

"I'd better bring some warm clothing with me, right?" he asks.

A cardigan, such as the ones Morrie wears, will do nicely, he's told.

He took on the Morrie role in Ontario last spring to critical acclaim: "Absolutely amazing," raved Toronto Star critic Richard Ouzounian. Farr's portray is "beautifully etched on the imagination," wrote the Hamilton Spectator.

Farr, it seems, has given this show new legs.

Tuesdays With Morrie is a semi-autobiographical slice-of-life tale by Albom, a sports journalist. Upon graduating, he told his professor he'd stay in touch but, as is so often the case, he didn't. Sixteen years later, Albom sees his old professor on TV: He has ALS, better known as Lou Gehrig's disease. The young man renews the friendship and begins making regular visits. Morrie is wheelchair-bound and withering, but still has much to teach, the young man learns.

Yes, he's on the grey side of life, too, but don't confuse Farr with Morrie.

"Listen: I love this role but I'm not Morrie. Morrie's a philosopher. I don't totally agree with his ideas. Morrie's a socialist; I'm a capitalist. He's a Jewish professor and he leads a simplistic life. Material things have never meant anything to him. I like material things."

After all these years, all those roles, why submit to the demands of live theatre, eight shows a week?

"You've been in California - it's the taxes," he shot back without a trace of humour.

"Personally, I like plays better than movies. To me, it's far more dramatic when you have a play with just two actors on stage."

Isn't there an aspect of himself in this play, though, a veteran actor raging against the dying of the light?

"That's why I'm thinking, Sunrise, Sunset," he said, intoning the song of life from Fiddler on the Roof, only with a trace of sarcasm this time. Swiftly fly the years, one season following another.

"People say I'm a young 77. I've still got a bounce in my step. Mitch Albom talked to me. He said, 'Jeez, Jamie, you sound like a really young, spry guy.

"I'm very fortunate. I count my blessings every day."

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