In a way, life itself was an improvisation in which I was going to have to deal with what came to me and not think about what should have come.
Alan Alda’s memoir is about lessons. Far from a typical Hollywood tell-all, Never Have Your Dog Stuffed approaches philosophical treatise on regrets, living in the moment, and recognizing the speed of life. Alda spends much of the book considering his adolescence, from his childhood in burlesque theater, to his misguided school years spent dreaming of becoming an actor. The dream consumes him; little else matters. Married with a young family in his early 20s, Alda accepts and rejects job after regular job, until, at 35, he lands the role that would change his life—Hawkeye Pierce in M*A*S*H. He learns, obviously, that perseverance works. It turned him into one of the world’s most recognized people, and set him on a path that would lead him through two decades of awards, achievements, and other such recognition.
The book, with Alda’s full life as its case study, presents new ways of looking at old problems; new approaches to long-standing lessons. The stuff we know, the stuff we’ve had bred into us whether by parents or via academia, and the stuff life has had us figure out on our own—Alda’s point is to reiterate the simplicity of it all. Life only seems difficult. Alda’s view of life suggests mistakes are inevitable—no matter what, though, we get where we need to in the end. Now 70, Alda reveals there’s little he’d do over.
What can be learned from Alda’s tale? Here’s just a sampling:
1. Fear is an expert motivator.
So much of Alda’s decision making as a young actor came from something bordering addiction to performing. How else do you account for his accepting a leading part in a revival of Guys and Dolls, set to open in a matter of days, without knowing a single words of the production? Alda explains:
“I had watched [Guys and Dolls] from the wings [seven years earlier], but I’d never leaned it. And I didn’t know the songs. Even if I did know the songs, I couldn’t sing in tune. What was the matter with me? Was I insane? I was an actor.”
Fear of landing on his ass helps him through. Something clicks and he manages to pull a reasonable performance from somewhere inside his actor-brain. A similar situation occurs 50-odd years later when Alda steps up to play Shelly “The Machine” Levine in the recent Glengarry Glen Ross Broadway revival—this time, he has three weeks to master whip-quick Mamet dialogue in a play renowned for being some otherworldly sort of topsy-turvy linguistic ballet. How does a veteran stage performer get himself into these messes? On purpose. Because the fear is part of the fun. Seeing out the challenge only boosts the accomplishment.
2. It’s okay to fail.
Even if anticipation and anxiety can bring you success, failures can occur no matter how prepared you are. To wit:
I tried to throw myself into everything I did, but my aim wasn’t always that good. There was too much I needed to learn. I was still on that knife edge between talent and skill, between a willingness to take chances and an ability to make the chance pay off. Sometimes the chances I took were bizarre.
Some of those bizarre chances include taking a role in The Extraordinary Seamen (1969) simply to work alongside David Niven and Faye Dunaway (and for the paycheck, of course). The experience will result in Alda being trapped in a shaky rowboat somewhere along the Gulf of Mexico with a bewildered Mickey Rooney doing his best to hail a cab. To Kill a Clown (1972) would be another Alda-failure. The lesson: “You’re an actor,” Alda says. “You’ve got to act”.
Such failures, we learn, don’t have to be considered blights on our public record, but as stepping-stones to better things. He writes about these experiences exactly as simply as moments lived. He very nearly recalls them with pride. (The best of these pre-fame stories has a chapter devoted to it—Alda spends some time in a Utah prison for The Glass House (1972)—this one’s not a bad movie, but the hostage attempt that occurred there, no doubt, ranks up there as one of those “bizarre chances”.)
3. Our parents are important even if they’re somewhat crazy.
From the outset, its clear Alda has a steady relationship with his movie star dad, Robert. Though entirely more civil than his relationship with his mother, who he spends much of his early adulthood trying to avoid, Alda still resists complete closeness with his dad. He realizes a competitive streak with Robert, always trying to one-up his dad in terms of talent and intelligence.
It’s sad to think it took Robert’s death for Alda to realize just how much his father inspired him. We, as readers, learn it early. Alda studies his father on stage; the man is full of advice and caring, he assists his son in the struggles with his mother, he essentially hands his son an affinity for the theater. Only at Robert’s funeral, does Alan finally get it—years of inspiration and encouragement culminate in a eulogy delivered with Alda mimicking his father’s grand stage style. “I could accept,” Alda says, “how much of him was in me.”
Alda is less comfortable at his mother’s funeral:
I was only dimly aware at the time of how strangely theatrical the gesture was, indication emotion without really feeling it ... the words were meant to express feeling and they didn’t. They just expressed ambivalence.
Alda can’t be faulted for feeling this way. His mother, as he notes several times throughout the book, made it hard for anyone to get close to her. She torments his friends and future wife with paranoid statements on their intentions toward her. At one point, she forces Alda to accompany her from Europe to the United States only to accuse him of trying to kill her during the plane ride. Though told with the sort of humor hindsight allows, these stories are bitterly sad. Still, as always, there’s a lesson to be learned. It’s not about regret—Alda, when discovering the contents of his mother’s safety deposit box, simply opens up to the part of his mother that loved and desired love.
4. Compassion is the key to all things.
As quickly as our goals change, so do our motivations. At 35, on the M*A*S*H set, Alda learns the key to acting that serves him the remainder of his career (so far). At first, he struggles to find the smart-alecky Hawkeye within himself. He eventually finds him, but he needs more—how to make a show like M*A*S*H work when the actor’s main goal is to be the best he can be?
How can I be so captured by my own imagination that I can truly connect both to the person I’m playing and to the person I’m playing with? I didn’t know it but what I was really looking for was compassion.
This is Alda’s version of the old acting adage that acting is reacting. Alda breaks away from needing to be center stage, to be, as he calls it, “the center of his own universe”. He opens up, he finds compassion, and he wins about five thousand Emmys. Good lesson.
5. Memory is a funny thing.
There’s a moment in the book when Alda, deep into his stint on Scientific American Frontiers, begins to ponder just how much of his remembered life story is accurate. He undergoes a memory experiment—to remember a scene in his mind and, when presented with images from the scene later on, to pick out which images he did see and which he didn’t. The experiment works with a series of photographs—some of actual events the subject witnessed, others staged. Alda fails the test. He remembers images he didn’t see, though is convinced he saw them. He suddenly questions why he sees himself in his memories, rather than seeing the world as one long POV shot. He recalls waking on a train with wicker criss-crosses on his face—how does he know they were there?
Alda doesn’t dwell on this point, except to note that the science show was forcing him to question key moments in his life—including his relationship with his mother. Perhaps because so many of us see ourselves in our memories; similarly, probably, to how we see ourselves in our dreams. It’s up to the reader then, to conclude, that an actor’s life is a performance, much as our own lives are. We move and shift around the stage, taking direction at times, at other times allowing the compassion of others or the acquiring of knowledge lead us in directions we couldn’t have selected on our own. Our creators, then, give us life as much as our experiences and our imaginations do.
6. Never have your dog stuffed.
This one is simple and yet somehow utterly profound. To never have one’s dog stuffed, is to never assume we can get back that which has passed. Moreover, we shouldn’t want to. Alda writes: “Memory can be a kind of mental taxidermy, trying to hold on to the present after it’s become the past.”
This is the key to Alda’s book—discovering the importance of the past on the present and the future, but to realize that past is indeed just that. Alda’s recollections come from a place of peace—the dog has been buried, but, man, was he ever a pal.