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The Actor Standing in Front of Death's Door

April 01, 2001|ANN O'NEILL

Mike Farrell, the actor, was on death row a couple of weeks ago, but not to research a role. He was there to try to talk a man out of dying. Walking through the metal detectors and iron gates of San Quentin, he knew there was little he could say or do to sway Robert Lee Massie, who was determined to die.

Farrell, in his real-life role as Hollywood's most outspoken opponent of capital punishment, has seen many death rows. He's won a few victories, helped spare a few lives but endured many more defeats. Massie would be another loss, a suicide in Farrell's eyes. The condemned man told the actor during their March 15 talk that he didn't want a new trial. He didn't want life in prison. He wanted out. And Massie, self-styled dean of the nearly 600 prisoners on the nation's most glutted death row, wanted to make a point: Waiting to die while the legal system grinds away is worse than death itself.

"You're kidding yourself, and you're killing yourself," Farrell responded. "I understand your fury at the system, and I share it, but I don't understand why you're making a victim of yourself."

Soon it was time to go. "Knowing that he would soon be dead, I was moved to hold him for a moment," Farrell recalled. Massie returned the embrace, and Farrell walked away, free but feeling "sick and disgusted" that the 59-year-old prisoner finally would satisfy his death wish.

On Tuesday at 12:33 a.m., Massie died by lethal injection--the ninth prisoner executed since California resumed carrying out death sentences in 1992. Farrell helped organized a vigil that drew 800 people to San Quentin's gates. But he couldn't be there. He was in Los Angeles, working on his television series, "Providence."

It was Oscar week, and the rest of Hollywood was patting itself on the back. Farrell was saddened but is determined to keep on fighting--even though polls show that a majority of Americans believe that people who commit heinous crimes deserve to pay for them with their lives.

Farrell sees the abused children behind the men most of us view as monsters. Massie's background is typical of prisoners on death row, he said. Massie was born in Virginia to teenage parents; his mother was 15 and his father married her to avoid a statutory rape charge. The parents were ignorant and abusive. They fed the boy liquor and drugs until he was taken away from them at age 5. He passed through 11 foster homes--including one where his foster parents disciplined him by holding his head under water in a toilet, and another where he was flogged naked. He stole a car and was sent to juvenile hall, where he was gang-raped.

"He grew up with an abiding death wish," Farrell said. "Society was willing to write him off as a child and do him in as an adult."

A lot of Hollywood actors take up social causes. Some we take seriously; others are little more than pampered publicity seekers. Farrell is the real deal, lending more than his name and his money to his causes. He puts himself out there. And he has no intention of giving up.

"I've wept many times," Farrell said. "But I keep finding people who inspire me--some of them on death row, and more of them in the trenches, in the courts, in religious circles, fighting against the death penalty."

For Farrell, the causes came long before the fame; they're part of who he is. During the years he struggled to find acting jobs, Farrell supported himself as a cook, truck driver and bartender--and he got involved in the antiwar and civil-rights movements.

"I was active in this period when there were these social explosions. I was exposed to a huge array of social concerns. I was learning who I was and where my place in this society was," he recalled. Volunteering from 1966 to 1968 at a Los Angeles halfway house was a "seminal experience," he said. His job was to visit inmates soon to be paroled and talk them into entering the program. "It was the first time I was inside a prison," he said. "We were letting them know there was an alternative to going back to life the way it was before." He also realized then that prison "wasn't about rehabilitation since none of these people had been habilitated in the first place."

At 61, the actor many remember as B.J. Hunnicutt, Hawkeye Pierce's "MASH" sidekick, dresses casually in jeans and a gray T-shirt. A brown leather jacket that was a gift from his wife, actress Shelly Fabares ("Coach"), is draped over a chair in his cluttered Sherman Oaks office. Mention Fabares, who was stricken with a rare form of hepatitis and underwent a liver transplant last fall, and Farrell's face lights up--even after nearly 17 years of marriage. "I keep telling her she's my hero," he said. "I'm a very happy man."

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