Alan Alda feels free to pierce his good-guy image

[22 August 2007]

By Joe Neumaier

New York Daily News (MCT)

The recent run of nasty or weasely fellows Alan Alda has played in movies (“The Aviator,” which got him his first Oscar nomination), TV (“The West Wing,” as a Republican senator) and stage (“Glengarry Glen Ross,” as a slip-sliding real estate salesman) has gotten the 71-year-old multiple Emmy winner a new rep: the guy who’s discovered his inner anti-mensch.

Yet Alda says he’s never been shy about showing the uglier aspects of his characters, including “Hawkeye” Pierce on TV’s “M*A*S*H.” In “Resurrecting the Champ,” opening Friday, he’s a hard-case newsman who chides a lazy reporter (Josh Hartnett), then sees him gain fame for profiling a former boxer (Samuel L. Jackson) living on the streets of Denver.

“All I’ve ever tried to do is play real people,” Alda says. “Even Hawkeye was flawed. He was a smart-aleck, a skirt-chaser, he drank too much, he thought he knew everything. ... For half an hour at a time, that might be entertaining, but I think it might be annoying to share a tent with him!”

Alda tackled complex guys before “M*A*S*H’s” 1972 TV debut (he was a rapist and felon in the TV movie “Kill Me if You Can”) and during its run (in his feature screenwriting debut, 1979’s “The Seduction of Joe Tynan,” he starred as a morally compromised politician; in his directorial debut, 1981’s “The Four Seasons,” he played a jerky New Yorker). And six years after the show went off the air in 1983, he was a memorable blowhard in Woody Allen’s “Crimes & Misdemeanors.”

It’s just that now, the affable Alda is getting more out of those roles, as he is life.

As recounted in his memoir last year, “Never Have Your Dog Stuffed,” Alda nearly died in 2004 when, after experiencing pain at the top of a mountain in Chile while hosting a PBS science show, a local physician told him he had blockage in his intestine that needed to be extracted. Told he might not survive a trip to a hospital in Santiago, surgery was done by a very competent team at a rural facility. Alda was essentially hours from death.

“Anyone I know who’s almost died has come out of it, at least for a while, looking at things differently,” he says. “If my life had ended that night in Chile, I’d have missed so much. So I wonder about what I’m going to do with whatever time I have ahead of me. I really want to get the most out of it.”

That’s included barreling into work. Wealthy thanks to “M*A*S*H,” he can pick and choose, but he jokes about being happy offers still come.

“I’m very lucky in that things come to me still. I could be sitting there waiting, you know, like, `Was that the door?’” he laughs. “`Did the phone just ring? Any scripts come addressed to Occupant?’”

He’s also energized about now writing books (his followup, “Things I Overheard While Talking to Myself,” is due in September). “The first was an effort to write well. I just used material I knew about, my life,” Alda says.

“I was worried when it came out that it would be thought of simply as an actor trying his hand at a book, when in fact I’ve been writing all my life. I can’t ignore the fact that I’m known as an actor, but these aren’t recountings of jobs I’ve had, like, `...We opened in the town of Thalmouth, and Lady Haversham had a cold that night, but our reviews were favorable. ...’ That’s the most boring thing you could ever read!”

Alda is also the last of a breed of actors who watched their parents work the vaudeville circuit. (His father, Robert, worked the boards before hitting Hollywood in the mid-1940s.)

“It really was very valuable to me to watch from the wings,” he says. “My earliest memories were horrible little hotel rooms with paint flaking off them, or waking up in a train going from town to town.”

When he was 7, just before his father launched a movie career, Alda was diagnosed with polio. He endured painful therapies, and was saved the use of his arms and legs, but soon another disease hit the family: His mother’s mental illness, which only later he saw for what it was.

Looking back, he thinks a combination of factors kept them all from crumbling. “I think I have a constitution, for some reason, that could tolerate my poor mother’s condition, And her illness, I believe, kept my father from being too involved in the Hollywood social scene,” he says.

Such unpredictable combinations of factors that make things work played a part in the success of “M*A*S*H.” The rarity of that, as well as changing audience taste, wouldn’t allow a similar type of anti-war comedy to work today, he says.

“‘M*A*S*H’ was a collection of people, in front of and behind the cameras, that really clicked,” Alda says. “That first year, the audience went through something, too. Our first season, we were at the bottom of the ratings ... the second season is when things took off. Today, they wouldn’t ever have kept it on the air.

“I don’t know if you could even do a show like that now. Could you do a Civil War story, go back that far, and see parallels (to the Iraq War)? Or do something now, set during the Vietnam era? I don’t know if people want to see that in fiction, especially with laughter involved. It might be too painful.”

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