In his first memoir Never Have Your Dog Stuffed: And Other Things I’ve Learned, Alan Alda recalls that as a young child, his mother would often caution him to keep silent in public. “Don’t notice anything,” she’d admonish him. It’s no small irony that years later, he would play a universally beloved television character named Hawkeye.
Alda played that part for 11 years in the classic hit M*A*S*H and, more recently, tweaked liberal sensibilities as the Goldwater-like Arnold Vinick in The West Wing. He is a prolific writer and director with 33 Emmy nominations (six wins) plus three Tony nominations for his work on Broadway. And then there are the many memorable film roles, from Crimes and Misdemeanors to California Suite to, most recently, Tower Heist.
It’s no surprise that Alda’s perpetually in demand for films and TV, but what is surprising is where his heart is these days. His deep-rooted passion for science has evolved into a remarkable endeavor: He’s currently visiting professor at Stony Brook University’s Center for Communicating Science—a department he helped found in 2009 to train scientists to communicate more effectively with the public. As if that weren’t a sufficient departure from show biz, in 2012 Alda and the center also created the Flame Challenge, an annual international contest in which scientists are challenged to explain complex concepts to 11-year-old children. More so than any of his television, stage, or screen credits, Alda is palpably animated when conversing about these unique ventures.
Question: How did you become a visiting professor at Stony Brook University?
Alan Alda: I realized when I was doing Scientific American Frontiers for 11 years on PBS how important it was for the scientists to have really good communication skills. Science really surrounds us in our lives, and it’s at the heart of our economy. We all have to understand it better. So, in my travels, whenever I was at a university where they taught science, I would ask, did they think it would be possible to train scientists as communicators while they are training them as scientists? The only place in the country that really picked up on the idea was Stony Brook. And Howie Schneider, who runs the school of journalism, got very enthused about it and began the Center for Communicating Science. And I’ve been helping with that.
Q: This is a rather unusual move for a movie star.
AA: My relationship with science is as someone who’s curious and hungry to know, hungry to understand. So all I have to offer is my ignorance and my curiosity, which is a good combination, as long as they come together. Ignorance without curiosity is not so hot. But I actually do have something to offer, which is that I’ve spent my life communicating and thinking about how communication works.
Q: There should probably also be a center for communicating economics, public policy, law—all kinds of other disciplines, don’t you think?
AA: I can’t change the entire world [laughing]. Yeah, better communication would be terrific. I’ve often wondered what the “fiscal cliff” was [chuckling], or even what “Obamacare“ actually entails—it’s always been a little murky and could have been communicated better.
Q: And yet we’re voting on these things.
AA: I know that some members of Congress have not understood these subjects as well as they might want to. So, yeah, our lives depend on good communication. Good communication helps personal relationships, it helps bosses and employees get along better. We rely on it.
Q: Speaking of science, what’s the status of your play, Radiance: The Passion of Marie Curie?
AA: We did a wonderful production of it at the Geffen Playhouse in California. Anna Gunn played Marie, and she was fantastic and that was wonderful for me to see. I’m constantly revising it. In the car on the way over here I was making notes on a couple of scenes. It sounds stupid if I tell you how many drafts I have.
Q: I’m a writer. Please, share!
AA: How about 100. I probably will be continuing to work on it until well after I’m dead. I love the character; she is a hero of mine and I want to tell that story as well as I can.
Q: You write, act, direct. Do you sing, too?
AA: I have sung twice on Broadway—in The Apple Tree and in a musical that lasted until the end of the first act. [Laughs.] It was called Café Crown. I have to work hard at singing. I was thrown out of the glee club in high school because I had trouble staying in the same key. I have this unique ability to sing in three keys at once. Seriously, I’ve gotten a lot better over the years. I sing when I have to.
Q: Would you star in a television series again?
AA: If they asked me to do a show that I’m interested in or that I’d get to work with someone that I’d like to work with. I like to work with Laura Linney, so I did her show [The Big C] a few times. I did ER and The West Wing. They were really interesting places to act. And 30 Rock. That was fun. Tina Fey is so brilliant. I’m in this wonderful position where I can do what interests me. And whatever comes along that interests me, I do. The rest of the time I bother scientists about communicating.