The search was on in Hollywood for a real family to star in Footsteps, the PBS series on parenting. It was not a job for central casting. “You can find so many people in Hollywood who have children and don’t care,” says Footsteps project director Martin Bloom. “This couple was getting a divorce, that husband and wife hated working together, these folks didn’t have the time for a low-budget project like ours. It took us six months just to find celebrity hosts who would represent the values of our show.”
In the end the choice seemed clear: Mike (B.J. on M*A*S*H) and Judy Farrell, possibly the most dedicated parents in Hollywood (of Michael Joshua, 8, and Erin, 5). The Farrells, Bloom says, “communicated to our audience that they really care about children.” They alternate on the 30-part series with Rob Reiner and Penny Marshall.
The Farrells have no illusions about the difficulty of being parents—and try to convey that feeling on Footsteps (to the point that they have suggested changes in scripts besides acting as hosts.) “Raising human beings has got to be the hardest job there is,” says Judy. Perhaps she and her husband are so ardent on the subject because they were childless—unhappily so—for the first seven years of their marriage.
Mike, 40, was born in South St. Paul but grew up in L.A., where he attended Hollywood High. His father was a movie studio carpenter. Mike joined the Marines at age 17 and after a two-year hitch worked at “a hundred jobs.” These included cook, truck driver, bouncer and bartender, while he was accumulating a patchwork of acting credits at various L.A. schools.
Judy, 40, a native of Quapaw, Okla., studied speech therapy at Oklahoma State. But, won over by college dramatic roles, she moved to UCLA for graduate work in theater arts. There, at a 1961 workshop, she met Mike. “He was very tall, very polite, had a nice name and did terrific things,” recalls Judy. (One “terrific thing” was painting “I love Judy” across an old billboard during their courtship.)
They were married in 1963 and settled in Laguna Beach, where Judy taught in the high school while Mike worked as a process server. The two moonlighted at the prestigious Laguna Playhouse. Eventually, Mike felt he had to try acting full time, and they lived on Judy’s income while he hounded producers and casting directors.
It was then—three years into their marriage—that the Farrells separated for a year. “We just weren’t communicating,” says Mike now. It was a time for soul-searching, reading, attending rap sessions and having quiet talks with friends. “When we got together again,” Mike recalls, “we were more able to accept each other. Now when any problem arises, we are usually able to recognize the danger signs and do something about it beforehand.” (The Farrells hold weekly sessions to let the kids air gripes, too.)
In 1968 Mike landed a regular role on the soap Days of Our Lives, followed in 1970 by a lead in The Interns, his first prime time series, and a spot on the-short-lived The Man and the City with Anthony Quinn. There also was a steady income from TV commercials (like Maytag), enabling the Farrells to move into the three-story terraced home in the San Fernando Valley that they now occupy. Michael Josh was born nine months later—after they had all but given up on having children. “Maybe it was the nesting instinct—the fact that we were finally in our own place,” his dad speculates. The super-expectant parents did Lamaze exercises and Mike was present for Michael Josh’s birth, as well as Erin’s three years later.
Judy nursed both children for nine months and the Farrells took them everywhere. “We got a lot of flak about Mike when we wouldn’t farm him out to a babysitter,” his father admits. “But we wanted him to have continuity in the people around him.” (The Farrells have had full-time help all along; their current au pair, Kim Frame, 23, is a photograper.)
Friends also questioned the Farrells’ reluctance to discipline their children. “People warned us that if we went to them whenever they cried and refused to spank them, we would harm them irrevocably,” says Mike. “But we decided there’s simply no way to spoil a child. After all, they aren’t apples.”
Mom and Dad’s longtime involvement in political causes has inevitably rubbed off on the kids. The Farrells, who campaigned for Cesar Chavez’ farm workers and Fred Harris’ 1976 presidential bid, were so involved in opposing California’s recently defeated Briggs initiative (banning homosexual teachers) that one afternoon Erin blurted, “I love everybody in the whole world—except Senator Briggs and the Hillside Strangler.”
As parents, the Farrells never duck difficult questions from the children. When his son asked him about death, Mike tried to answer, touching on reincarnation. Later he heard the boy explaining it to a friend: “I think that after you die, you get to come back as a cat or dog or tree or marching band.” Mike observes: “I am often stunned and charmed by the simple brilliance of what children say. But you have to be willing to listen.”
A recent Footsteps episode dealt with “Teaching Children That They Are Competent,” and as usual the Farrells were well prepared for it. The kids get 50¢ a week for chores: Erin waters the dogs, Michael Josh polices the lawn. Recently, they earned $5 each serving hors d’oeuvres at their father’s birthday party. Says M*A*S*H star Alan Alda, a close friend, “Mike and Judy are terrific parents. The clearest image I have of them both is kissing and hugging their kids.”
Mike will go back to Korea-in-Malibu when the series resumes filming in July. Meantime he and Judy have guested on The $20,000 Pyramid and Mike has co-starred as Art Carney’s son in the upcoming TV film Letters from Frank. While Judy has appeared on M*A*S*H as Nurse Able, her own career has been mostly on hold because of the children. Now she “really wants to do some acting.” She has done a perfume commercial and is starring in Absurd Person Singular at a local theater. Work, however, will never be allowed to disrupt the Farrells’ family life. Says Alda, “They’re one of the few couples I know who make career decisions based on the needs of their children.”
The reason is simple. “We really enjoy our kids,” Judy says. “Sure I screw up. Every parent does. You’ve got to realize it’s okay—and go on from there.” Adds Mike, “My father was a gruff Irishman who was unable to express feelings and always insisted we be tough. Being a parent, for me, means creating what I didn’t have. I want my children to feel love and be able to express it.”