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Just call actor/activist Mike

It's been more than 40 years since Mike Farrell found The House. "M*A*S*H" was in the future, and he was a struggling young actor whose marriage was coming apart.

He'd been working at the Laguna Playhouse, where pal Doug Rowe, now of Ashland, was artistic director. The guys became roommates in Burbank, trying to break into the movies.

The House was a self-directed therapy community of recovering dope addicts, street hustlers, mental patients, straights, lost kids and others trying to put messed-up lives back together. Farrell learned there that everyone wants the same things: to be loved, to be respected and to have attention paid.

"It's still a powerful message today," he says of The House in a phone interview from San Francisco.

The tour for his new book, "Just Call Me Mike: a Journey to Actor and Activist," (Akashic Books, $21.95) will bring him to an ACLU-sponsored talk at 7:30 tonight at the Unitarian Fellowship in Ashland, and he'll hang out with Rowe and his wife while he's here.

"He's one of the most remarkable human beings I've ever met," Rowe says. "As an activist and humanitarian, he's truly a citizen of the world."

At The House, Farrell learned to ask for what you want. One thing he wants now is for the death penalty to go away.

A veteran of the human rights and anti-war fights, he's active with a group called Death Penalty Focus, hanging out with murderers on death row and standing in execution vigils. He hates the crimes most of these people (some are innocent, as DNA evidence continues to show) have committed, but he believes the death penalty is unjust and flawed and arbitrary and coarsens society.

"People don't get that these things (the death penalty, torture and other forms of treating people as garbage) are so closely linked," he says.

He thinks one day history will look on the death penalty as an anachronism, much like slavery.

"It's going to be one of the huge embarrassments," he says.

He knows what it is to show up and have people ask: Who cares what celebrities think?

"It comes when they disagree," he says. "It so galls the right wing. ... If it's toward me you're pointing the microphones, I'm not required to turn in my citizenship papers."

He has a theory as to why the Hollywood community is generally on the liberal side of the spectrum, despite some highly visible exceptions.

"Clarence Darrow said sympathy is the child of imagination," he says. "Actors have a tendency to have an imagination that allows them to put themselves in others' shoes."

How would life have been different if he'd never gone to The House?

"It's a question I don't know how to answer," he says. "I was deeply fortunate to have those friends. I can't imagine something else as positive."

He said House psychologist/guru Bill Cozens told him his work at The House would make him a better actor. He didn't get it at first.

"It put me more in touch with myself, the world, humanity," he says.

His acting career changed in the scheme of things, seemed less important.

"It became a job," he says.

And he came to understand that the things he was looking for — what he needed — weren't available in an acting career, or any job.

"The sense of being a productive part of society," he says. "Recognizing the requirement to extend oneself. The necessity to be loving in order to be loved."

He ticks it off as if it's the most obvious thing.

"The need to get beyond gaming and cheating and pretending and living a false life, there's no secret about it, it's so fundamentally true."

Reach reporter Bill Varble at 776-4478 or e-mail bvarble@mailtribune.com.