Alan Alda on Appreciating Life and Overcoming the Nightmare of Fame

Screen Shot 2013-09-22 at 1.31.32 PM

Exquisite zingers live forever. Ergo, Hawkeye Pierce lives forever.

Frank Burns: I don’t have to take this kind of abuse!

Hawkeye: Oh yes you do, Frank. You invite abuse. It would be impolite not to accept it.  (“George,” Season 2, Episode 46)

Or at least he’s lived for 41 years now, and counting:

Frank: I’m here to relieve you.

Hawkeye:  You do resemble an enema. (“Dear Dad,” Season 1, Episode 12)

As you can surmise from this tendency toward M*A*S*H minutiae, this writer is a M*A*S*H worshipper, possibly to the point of requiring therapy—which would necessitate a consult with show shrink Dr. Sidney Freedman, who’d advise: “Pull down your pants and slide on the ice.” (“O.R.,” Season 3, Episode 53; and “Goodbye, Farewell and Amen,” Season 11, Series Finale/Episode 256).

Embodied by Alan Alda, Capt. Benjamin Franklin “Hawkeye” Pierce must have flung thousands of verbal daggers with impeccable panache as a gin-drinking, nurse-hopping Noel Coward in blood-smeared surgical scrubs, pea-soup-drab fatigues and rusty dogtags. (Most were aimed at Larry Linville’s hapless, hollow-headed Frank Burns.)

Preceded by Richard Hooker’s 1968 novel and Robert Altman’s 1970 movie, M*A*S*H evolved into one of television’s landmark series over 11 seasons on CBS from 1972-83— its reruns destined to flicker across surviving TV sets amid the ruins of Armageddon. Set during the Korean War, it centered on the memorable medical personnel of the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital. Brilliantly executed,M*A*S*H was a deft mashup of sitcom hilarity and war-time hell as they performed “meatball surgery” on injured soldiers. Rarely has a series so affected so many for so long, leaving two generations—baby boomers and gen Xers—with indelible memories, most of them anchored to Alda’s iconic work as actor, writer and director.

Since then, the post-4077th oeuvre of Alda—who is now, in poetic symmetry, 77 years old—has been a marvel of quality and variety. Actors could use it as a template for turning a cherished but potentially career-strangling role in typecasting hell into a fascinating gallery of characters—not to mention that the Emmy-winning/Tony-and-Oscar-nominated Alda runs on parallel tracks as an author and science advocate.

On September 24, Alda shifts into storyteller mode at The Smith Center as the Audi Speaker Series presents Things I Overheard While Talking to Myself, his ruminations and observations of both his life, and the questions we all ask about life, based on his 2007 best-selling memoir. (Which followed his first memoir, Never Have Your Dog Stuffed: And Other Things I’ve Learned.)

Surprisingly, as the clock ticks toward the Hour of the Alda Interview, this experienced inquisitor’s nerves are rustling and the brain is panicking that the mouth won’t work.

Rrrrr-ing. … Rrrr-ing.

“Hi, this is Alan Alda.”

No assistant says, “Please hold for Mr. Alda”? Places his own calls? Sounds like a soft-spoken pussycat?Exhaaaaale.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Alda.”


In 2003 you had a near-death experience when you suffered an intestinal obstruction on a Chilean mountaintop while hosting Scientific American Frontiers and needed emergency surgery. Ten years later, is the effect of that still profound? 

In the early years, you don’t realize what a miracle it is. If you’ve got a second chance at life, you get a very palpable sense that this really counts, pretty much every minute. Every year I write the doctor who saved my life in Chile. I tell him what I did that year that I wouldn’t have been able to if it weren’t for him. I think I’m boring him. [Laughs.] Every year, my wife makes the same New Year’s resolution to act on her good impulses. I find myself doing more of that since I realized I’m only going to get a limited number of times to get a good impulse to act on, so I might as well not waste it.

You were forthcoming in your book about your mother’s schizophrenia, and it being hard to talk about when you were a child. Are such personal things easier to discuss publicly now? 

You see people talking about things in the press all the time now. Michael—what’s his name, the actor who said he got cancer from oral sex? Michael Douglas. I can’t believe it was motivated by anything other than a desire to help other people. He’s already famous. He certainly didn’t need to be more famous for doing that. I mean, who knew? He did a public service.

I’ve been a fan since your horror movie, The Mephisto Waltz in 1971.

Oh well, that’s not a favorite.

Also The Glass House, the prison movie.

Yes, that was good.

That was 1972, the same year M*A*S*H debuted. You’ve said you are nothing like Hawkeye. How’d you unlock the character to play him in the pilot?

I was standing in the aluminum shed waiting to come out for the first shot. After a week’s rehearsal I still didn’t have a clue how I could be this guy. It got closer and closer and they call for quiet and I thought, “Where’s the clue?” And I hear the clapperboard, scene one, take one—still looking for the clue. They say, “Action.” I open the door, walk out, and there’s a nurse coming toward me. I grabbed her around the waist and hugged her. And I thought, “There—I’m Hawkeye.”

You found instant fame, but you’ve written that it gave you nightmares. Why?

They were worse than nightmares. They were night terrors. I could actually see things that weren’t there. At first someone was standing in the room, glaring at me. Finally he was on the bed choking me. I think it was directly tied to suddenly becoming famous. They don’t have therapy groups for people who are famous. When people pull at your flesh and then they show up in your dreams, I don’t know if that’s something you just take gladly. But I got used to it.

Often people think M*A*S*H was really about Vietnam. Was it?

I never saw it that way. It’s possible Larry [Gelbart, late producer/writer/director from 1972-76] felt that way. There’s a hint of that in the first episode, when he shows a road in Korea and the title on the screen ironically says, “Korea, a hundred years ago.” I think he meant this happened 25 years ago, but it is happening now. But when I wrote for the show, acted in it, directed it, in my head we were doing stories about Korea 25 years ago and that’s it. The only thing in common was war, what’s true for every war.

Sometimes people divide the series between the early “funny” years and the later “serious” years, but that rings false when I think of episodes like “Sometimes You Hear the Bullet” from the first season, when Hawkeye’s friend dies on his operating table.

That got a tremendous complaint from the network. They said, “What is this, a situation tragedy?” That was Larry, who also wrote way more political satire than ever appeared after he left. The other myth is that I imposed my political views after Larry left, which isn’t true. I don’t like propaganda, and I don’t write it. His pieces weren’t propaganda, but they had a very strong political slant and mine didn’t. And there’s the idea people say often that I somehow took over the show and what people don’t like about the show was my doing. I never took over the show. The show was always the product of the producers’ work. If people think it wasn’t what they liked later on, they’re entitled to that, but I didn’t do it.

Is there one specific episode you’d put in a time capsule?

No, because there were a bunch of them. The ones where we told stories in unusual ways.

I vividly remember the nightmare episode, especially with the scene of Hawkeye in a rowboat in a sea of amputated limbs.

I think of that often when people ask me [about memorable episodes]. Gene Reynolds, the producer, said, “Don’t do a dream episode, they do it on all the comedy shows where a person dreams and they have their wishes fulfilled.” And I said, “No, I’m thinking of nightmares.” It gave us a chance to deal with the powerful experiences of the war by seeing the effect in their dreams.

It’s been 30 years since you played Hawkeye. Do you miss him?

No, I never miss anything I ever did. It’s done. Over. The curtain comes down. It’s a moment that happened and you go on to the next one.

I’ve heard it said we’re in a second golden age of television. Do you agree?

In some ways, that’s true. What’s that horrible show with the little girl?

Here Comes Honey Boo Boo.

Honey Boo Boo, right. I wouldn’t call that the mark of a golden age. But there have been some extraordinary series. The Sopranos and Downton Abbey and Breaking Bad and Homeland. A whole bunch of series that are fascinating, with beautiful performances.

You’ve done a wide variety of roles since M*A*S*H, including three movies with Woody Allen [Crimes and Misdemeanors, Manhattan Murder Mystery, Everyone Says I Love You]. Many actors have spoken of his quirky style, some loving it, some not. How did you find him?

I was very happy to be in those. I think Crimes and Misdemeanors is one of the best movies that we’ve made in America. He encourages improvisation. He doesn’t talk that much. You’re put in a position where the only people you can rely on are those you’re acting with. That really brings people together, which is why you sometimes get unusually good performances because they’re connected and that’s what you really need on the screen.

When you did Glengarry Glen Ross on Broadway in 2005, were theatergoers shocked to hear David Mamet’s barrage of expletives come out of your mouth?

I don’t fucking think so. [Laughs]

What are your current projects?

I don’t have an acting job lined up. I’ve been rewriting a play I wrote about Marie Curie. I spend a lot of time on science now. Right after I leave Las Vegas, I get on a plane to do a workshop at the University of Chicago. I told them my idea for science education, which was rigorous training in communication so the university would turn out accomplished scientists who were also accomplished communicators so we could close this gap between the public and their understanding of science. It’s been very successful. I go around the country raising money and running workshops at different universities and getting them to affiliate with us so we can spread this idea.

Are there contemporary actors who remind you of yourself?

No. [Laughs] It’s like that old actor’s joke: “Who is Alan Alda? … Get me Alan Alda. … Get me a young Alan Alda. … Who is Alan Alda?”

Thank you for your time, Mr. Alda. I just want to say that your work has given me a lot of pleasure and laughs over the years, but it has also allowed me to think. Those are substantial gifts to give someone.  

Thank you so much. I really enjoyed talking to you.


Just spent a half-hour chatting up Hawkeye without saying anything Frank Burns-like. We’re buds now. I imagine hangin’ with Hawkeye in the Swamp, just chillin’ and swillin’ gin.

Hawkeye: SWILL? Sir, I have sipped, lapped and taken gin intravenously, but I have never swilled!(“Chief Surgeon Who?,” Season 1, Episode 4.)

Yes, this mega-M*A*S*H maven needs therapy. Paging Sidney Freedman … STAT.

More from A&E…

Suggested Next Read

Body as Canvas


Body as Canvas

By Heidi Kyser

Generation Iron writer and director Vlad Yudin turns an unwavering eye on the world of professional bodybuilding. “They’re an oddity—a circus show with no tent,” narrator Mickey Rourke says during the documentary’s opening.