Alan Alda

Thanks to M*A*S*H, The West Wing, and a slew of successful movies, the versatile star now has his pick of writing and directing projects. But what he really wants to talk about is science.

Weekly Newsletter

The best of The Saturday Evening Post in your inbox!


Alan Alda
“I’ve learned that I can’t get anything done until I get obsessed with it.” Illustration by VON.

Q: Well, we have to talk about M*A*S*H, or are you tired of people bringing it up?
AA: I’m proud of what we did, but it happened so long ago it’s as if it happened to somebody else. But I think it’s amazing what we managed to accomplish in a commercial medium.

Q: Let’s clear up some online rumors. For example, that you didn’t sign on for M*A*S*H until six hours before it started filming?
AA: Not quite. When they sent me the pilot script I was in prison at the time [chuckling]. Seriously I was in the Utah State Prison making a movie; we were there for three weeks. It was called Glass House. And I wanted to talk to them before I said yes to M*A*S*H, but I couldn’t because I was in prison. So I didn’t get there until the evening before we were starting rehearsal. I met with [series co-producers/creators] Larry Gelbart and Gene Reynolds in a coffee shop, and we talked until one in the morning. We just reassured each other about what we wanted the series to be.

Q: I also read your contract stipulated that in each episode there was to be at least one surgery scene.
AA: I had no such thing in my contract! You can’t fix these things on the Internet [chuckling]. Everybody wanted there to be OR scenes in every show, and we just took it for granted that there would be. The producers had an arrangement with the network that they wouldn’t have the laugh track on when we were in there because it seemed inappropriate. Everybody hated the laugh track so much they set a whole show in the OR, so we’d have at least one show with no laugh track. That wasn’t my doing, it was theirs.

Q: You thought M*A*S*H would run for just a year or two. Is it true that during production you commuted to the West Coast from your home in New Jersey for 11 years?
AA: Not the whole year, but say, four months out of the year for about six years. It was when my kids were still living at home, not in college. Everybody stayed back. They were just entering their teens when we started the show, and we didn’t want to uproot them. I was in a constant state of jet lag. But for several years towards the end I didn’t have to commute. My wife had come out with me, and the kids would visit when they could.

Q: Do you watch much television these days?
AA: I watch Downton Abbey and Homeland. It’s great. We watched season two of Homeland and then season one—it didn’t matter. It’s just as good. But I don’t watch anything regularly. We watch a lot of movies on television.

Q: You’ve worked with just about everyone, including many times with Woody Allen. Do you have a dream team of actors or directors you’d love to work with?
AA: Woody Allen is brilliant. I loved being in the pictures of his that I was in, and I think Crimes and Misdemeanors is one of the best American pictures ever made. But, no, I never had a plan. You have to take what gets pitched at you and make the most of it.

Q: So what criteria do you use when picking projects?
AA: What gets my attention about a part is if I think I have no idea how I could possibly play it. Being mystified is a good beginning, because you won’t do what you’ve done before.

Q: How do you feel about your daughters and now grandchildren following in your footsteps?
AA: I did much the same thing my father did with me: I tried to discourage them and help them at the same time. It’s a very hard business, especially for women. I was looking at a movie last night with an extraordinary actress in it. The picture was made in the 1970s or ’80s, and she was wonderful. What happened to her? I’m sure what happened is she got to be 40 and wasn’t interesting to them anymore. That doesn’t happen to men. To see your daughters get into that, it’s not a happy thing. But people need to do what they’re driven to do.

Q: Two of your daughters were in your film The Four Seasons. Are they still in the business?
AA: One of my daughters, Beatrice, is a writer/director and has lately done documentaries. She did a documentary, Out Late, which won a lot of awards around the world. She and another daughter, Elizabeth, were actresses for a while. But then Elizabeth decided she didn’t really care for acting. She became a teacher of the deaf and a special education teacher in general. They all have advanced degrees and I’m very proud of them.

Q: What’s a typical Sunday for Alan Alda?
AA: I usually forget what day it is, so I can’t tell Sunday from the other day [chuckling]. I play; I work; I make my wife laugh six times; I write all the time. But I’ve learned that I can’t get anything done until I get obsessed with it, so I put the same obsession into everything I do. Except tennis. I play tennis non-obsessively. I seem to beat people I play a lot or half the time, so I guess I gravitate to people who are as bad as I am.

Q: You come across as a regular guy who is happy and content. Is that a fair assessment?
AA: There are two things that I get a lot of pleasure from in my life, and that is, doing what I know how to do well—that really makes me happy. The other one, and probably an equal pleasure, is finding out how I can be helpful and then really being helpful. Not going into the cockpit of a plane and saying to the pilot, “Why don’t you go take a nap. I’ll take over.” But rather, finding out how I can help people do what they need getting done—if I can actually be of use. That’s one of the pleasures I’m getting out of the Center for Communicating Science. One young scientist was so nervous before she took the workshop that she trembled when she had to get up in front of people. She took the workshop, and not long after, I watched a video of her explaining why neuroscience meant so much to her. She talked about what it was like the first time she held a human brain in her hand. That was so personal and so moving that you couldn’t take your eyes off her. It was absolutely the essence of good communication because you had an emotional attachment to her. That video and that woman reaching that point happened because I started the improvisation techniques at Stony Brook and helped start this center; so, yes, I’m really happy.

Also: Read Alda’s first-person take on the filming of his 1968 film Paper Lion as it appeared in The Saturday Evening Post.

Pages: 1 2

Become a Saturday Evening Post member and enjoy unlimited access. Subscribe now