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Alan Alda – On His Many Careers

Updated: Aug 19, 2022

Alan Alda

Alan Alda

Alan Alda

On His Many Careers

by Brad Balfour

Whatever Alan Alda has done as an actor, author, playwright, or director – whether it be on television, in film or on stage – it has been imbued with a fundamental sense of humanity. Certainly, with his cornerstone role as Hawkeye Pierce, the faux-cynical army doctor in the TV version of M*A*S*H, Alda established an unshakable character and an enduring portrayal that was both funny and profound. Maybe that’s why, in 2005, he became the fifth actor to receive an Oscar, Emmy, and Tony nomination in the same calendar year.

Without seeming to do so, Alda has played many a critical role throughout his career because his delivery is both subtle and distinct. When he did his Hawkeye, he made the character his own through an on-the-money balance between sarcasm and empathy. Whether the part he’s playing is pivotal or otherwise, Alda always adds that balance between hard and soft, dark and light – by exploring the grey areas in between. In his upcoming book, “Things I Overheard While Talking to Myself,” due out this Fall, Alda describes how to find happiness and humor by peering into those dark and light realms of life.

Though Alda’s appearance in the new Rod Lurie film Resurrecting the Champ is relatively secondary, his character – newspaper editor Metz – occupies an important place in the life of the lead, sportswriter Erik (played by Josh Harnett), who has his ass metaphorically kicked by his boss. Erik has to find a great story or risk being fired, and Harnett’s character proceeds to come back with the story of Champ (Samuel L. Jackson), a down-and-out boxer who is believed to be a former near-champion that everyone thought dead for years. In his article “Resurrecting the Champ,” Erik gives “Champ” a new lease on life and injects new life into his writing as well. Or so it seems – and without giving away the ending, Erik finds himself in a bind when the truth behind the story proves to be something else.

Josh Hartnett and Alan Alda in "Resurrecting the Champ."

Josh Hartnett and Alan Alda in “Resurrecting the Champ.”

You play a character that is one of those pivotal characters in the movies – the crusty newspaper editor. Look at the many great films like His Girl Friday and The Front Page with such a character. So it’s great that you have added this role to your canon. And you have the added asset of being a writer, so that must have been fun.

Yeah, and I also had to talk with writers sometimes. As a producer, I had to try to get writers to write their best. I find that the hardest job to have, because I know how hard it is. Everybody wants to be at their best, but if you don’t hook into the thing then you can’t write your best, and nobody from the outside could put it in your head. They have to somehow allow it to grow there, hope it will grow there on its own, in your own way. It is the hardest thing to do, because you can’t browbeat somebody into being creative.

It’s a relatively a small part but pivotal part in the film. You’re like a father figure [for] Josh Hartnett’s character Erik. Certain critical elements evolve around what happens with Erik who has to react to your character’s actions. You really drive those scenes.

Yeah, and I bawl him out for not writing better and not writing quality. He gets nervous about that. He thinks his job is at stake and goes and writes something a little too quickly that will capture attention.

But you have to drive him. That is a key motivation of the film, and you can’t overdo it. Do you talk it out or do you have it in your own heads, some history that makes it all come together? How did you guys work that out?

It’s in the writing, to see if it’s any good, and in this case it was. You’re not encouraged by the writing to go over the top, but there is some writing that does that. Sometimes it’s not written with an ear to how people actually interact. It’s more perfunctory, more stereotypical, and so you have a problem when you have that kind of writing. I try to avoid that kind of writing.

This boss in this movie has to be tough; he’s crusty but sympathetic. You don’t seem like the kind of crusty character that you sometimes have an opportunity to portray.

Jimmy Smits and Alan Alda in "The West Wing."

Jimmy Smits and Alan Alda in “The West Wing.”

You must have found that you couldn’t just play the character as a tough [bastard], even with Senator Winnick in The West Wing or Senator Ralph Owen Brewster in Martin Scorcese’s The Aviator.

But that interests me about characters. I don’t think people are like that. If you are going to play a person, then you have to find out where the rough ends of the person are. What the person wants that is not socially acceptable. Where the person is flawed, in other words. Where the person is decent or wants relatively decent things. Everybody wants to be loved. Most people love puppies and children. Some people are otherwise decent and hate children. But you need to see all sides of a person – that’s what’s interesting. Otherwise it is like a sketch, a cartoon.

The film tells one of those quintessential stories, or at least draws on one of those classic tales, of the boxer coming back. Is that what attracted you to it?

It’s not a boxing story at all. I can’t track the story and find a parallel story, because it has some twists in it. When people see the movie, they think it’s a boxing movie, but then it turns out not to be one.

But boxing draws on the theme of redemption.

To me, it’s about the truth. It’s called Resurrecting the Champ, I think, partly because that’s what the article was called that he finally wrote.

I assume that attitude, that you can’t really modify or adjust the words when you’re working from a really strong script, comes from being in the theater.

Well, I’m from the stage, so that’s the way I look at it. In fact, I’m overly careful about that. There was a time on M*A*S*H when we were out in the mountains, where the outdoor set was, and we had no telephone. We were just on the air for a couple of months, and they didn’t want to put the money in for a telephone. So Wayne Rogers and I were doing this scene, and we get to this line and [Wayne] says, “What do you suppose this means?” and I said, “I don’t know.”

We couldn’t call Larry Gelbart and ask him. We said, “This really doesn’t make sense, does it? We thought; what should we do? And we said, “We’ve got to say it, he wrote it” – because we were both stage-trained actors. So the next day I was watching the rushes, and I was next to Larry Gelbart. He said, “Why did you say that?” [I] said, “That’s what you wrote.” And he said, “That was a typo.” So I do take what they write seriously, and I don’t change words in movies. It shocks me how many actors say what they want to say. I sometimes ask for changes, but I don’t just change it.

Alan Alda in "M*A*S*H."

Alan Alda in “M*A*S*H.”

What was the success that you didn’t generally expect?

Well, I didn’t expect M*A*S*H to be the success it was. I don’t think anyone did. I know the studio didn’t. In the same season, they started us, and Yul Brynner in [Anna and the King], which they knew would be a big success. [They] put it in their biggest soundstage and put us on their smallest sound stage. We needed a lot of room. We had an indoor, outdoor set. We should have been on a stage three times the size of the one we were on.

And M*A*S*H ran, what, ten years?

Actually, eleven years. It ran longer than Anna and The King – poor Yul Brynner’s show is off by the end of the first season.

Did you guys have much interaction with M*A*S*H film director – the late Robert Altman – at all?

No, never.

Did you ever ask what he thought of the show?

I’ve read that he didn’t like it.

He never got consulted at all?

He was nice. He said I was okay, but he didn’t like the show. I don’t know what he had against it.

As an actor, do you ever lose yourself in your characters, or do you find yourself better through characters? I’ve spoken to actors about themselves and wonder how they are able to learn who they are when they play all these different characters.

Whether acting or writing – I bet even with music or dance – I don’t see how you can leave yourself out, or can drown in the thing that you’re doing. This idea of being transported by the ecstasy into something outside yourself, where you are not there, is a 19th-century romantic idea. I think it leads to excess, because you are the palette that you have to work with. You have your body, voice and your range of emotions, which is vast, by the way.  Everybody has many more people in them than they have yet contacted. I’m playing this crusty guy, but I have that guy in me. I have to find out where he is and what parts of me can be put together to make that guy.

I’ve also watched you on Scientific American Frontiers, something you don’t think a person of your stature and experience would choose to do. Was it an interest in science that drew you to that?

Yeah, I was fascinated with it. I think we invented, just by chance, a way of doing a science show that I don’t think anyone’s done before, which was to reveal the science through an actual spontaneous conversation, where they really have to struggle to make me understand what they are doing. I wouldn’t pretend I understood, and as time went on. I got better at it. But I stopped coming in thinking that I knew, and I really owned up to my ignorance and made them explain it to me.

Alan Alda in "The Aviator."

Alan Alda in “The Aviator.”

Did you play the late physicist Richard Feynman in QED (he worked on the atomic bomb project and won a Nobel Prize for his work in quantum electrodynamics) before that?

I think we were still doing the show when I did Feynman. I know I’ve been interested in Feynman for long before that, and I got that piece started. I went to the theater in LA and asked to do a play about Feynman, and I gave them a book about Feynman. They suggested writer Peter Parnell, and we all worked together for six years.

By the way, I initiated things all my life. I wrote all those movies, [The Seduction of Joe Tynan, Sweet Liberty] because I couldn’t find a movie I wanted to act in, so I wrote my own.

What motivates you to do all the things you want to do?

I have an aggressive personality. I don’t passively sit by and wait, but I aggress – not hostile, but active. I wrote these two books because I love to write and make things happen.

Do you look for themes, political concerns, or philosophical ideas for a source of things that inspire you?

No. I think those things are all around us, you just have to be awake to see big things. The question is, when people send me something, do they see anything that I can hook into or [get] interested in? I want to be interested in something before I do it. I wouldn’t do a good job if I wasn’t really interested, because I’m not just an actor for hire. I give it everything I’ve got. If I’m not interested, I’m not going to give it everything I’ve got. I wont be very good, and you’ll wish I wasn’t in it. So I need to really be interested.

What are the things that you are interested in right now and will help you line up an Oscar, a Tony, Emmy, or being on the New York Times best seller list again – as you did in 2005?

I don’t think that will happen again, but maybe I’ll get a Grammy, for reading my book. I was really pissed I didn’t get nominated for that. It would have been four things I could lose in the same year.

Alan Alda - Things I Overheard While Talking to Myself

Alan Alda – Things I Overheard While Talking to Myself

Now, you’ve been a producer, a director, you’ve written, what is it that you haven’t done? I don’t know any area of the arts that you haven’t done. You haven’t done costumes.

Well, you left out acting in some tiny theater in someplace like the Bay Street Theatre at Sag Harbor, which has some 400 people. I did a play there by Charles M. Lee called “Limonade Tous les Jours,” a two-character play, but we only did it for about 10 days. One of the best times I’ve ever had, because I loved the play and I loved the people I was working with. That’s all I care about, as long as the audience gets it.

You don’t paint, do you?

No, I don’t. I wrote songs when I was a teenager, and that would be nice. I like to write songs, but I can’t play an instrument. But I probably won’t try to write any songs as an adult. I want something that I haven’t done since college: act in Shakespeare – if that came up that might be fun. I just face what comes in front of me and do the best I can with it. I don’t have any plans or anything. I mean, maybe if I [did], I’d accomplish more, but that’s not just the way I work. I think I’ve been trained by life and theater not to make plans.

That’s true, because it can be very serendipitous. Well, you have to swing with it. If you make hard fast plans, you’ll be disappointed most of the time.

What was your biggest disappointment and what was your biggest surprise?

No, I can’t remember any, sorry.

Or you don’t choose to remember…

Probably, yeah, that’s it. Who was it that said happiness is having a short memory?

So, what’s next? Where’s comedy in your life? Is one of your upcoming films a comedy?

Diminished Capacity is a nice human comedy. I had a great time doing it, and I had a great time working with Matthew Broderick. I’m going to have a beard for it. And my next book comes out in September.

What is the subject?

It’s me trying to figure out the meaning of my life.

I thought that was in the first book.

That was the first book. This is a little different. This is the second book, and then I guess I got to go talking about that. Then in October, I do another movie with Rod Lurie called Nothing But the Truth. Then another small part in another movie, then go to England and open a book there. They don’t say “open the book” – it’s really called “launch the book.”

Then a talk show is next?

You know, its funny. The guy at ABC who did Good Morning America always wanted me to do [the show]. But then I would give up acting and writing and living! And you’d never see anybody, unless to book. I would have to book my wife on the show to say hello.

That’s one of the things you put in, your great quality. You’ve always kept the humanity.

Well, I look for that, I really do. I like dumbass comedy too. I had one of the best times – I bet you didn’t see it – the play that I wrote with two Englishmen [“The Play What I Wrote”]. Oh, it was great! Completely stupid and hilarious, none of it meant anything. But [it] was so funny, so expert. They would bring in a guest actor at every performance, and a different person. I did it with them about 20 times. You go onstage for most of the second act, and you have like two hours’ rehearsal to do the line. You have to sing and dance and wear a dress and escape from a French prison, disguised as a woman. It’s hilarious and I just had the best time. So I like a lot of different things. I have varied interests. I have to go eat dinner with my wife.

Copyright ©2007  All rights reserved. Posted: August 24, 2007.

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