Alda, Alan (1936—)

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Alda, Alan (1936—)

Although his prolific and extremely successful career evolved from acting on stage to writing, directing, and acting in his own films, Alan Alda will forever be best remembered for his inimitable portrayal of Captain Benjamin Franklin "Hawkeye" Pierce in the award-winning TV comedy series M*A*S*H, which ran from 1972 to 1983. The most popular pre-Seinfeld series in television history, M*A*S*H concerned a Korean War medical unit struggling to maintain their humanity—indeed, their very sanity—throughout the duration of the war, by relying on humor in the form of constant wisecracking and elaborate practical jokes. Featuring humor that was often more black than conventional, the show proved an intriguingly anachronistic hit during the optimistic 1980s. Alda's Pierce was its jaded Everyman; a compassionate surgeon known for his skills with a knife and the razor sharp wit of his tongue, Hawkeye Pierce—frequently given to intellectual musings on the dehumanizing nature of war—had only disdain for the simplistic and often empty-headed military rules.

Born Alphonso Joseph D'Abruzzo—the son of popular film actor Robert Alda (Rhapsody in Blue)—Alan Alda made his stage debut in summer stock at 16. He attended New York's Fordham University, performed in community theater, appeared both off and on Broadway, and did improvisational work with the Second City troupe in New York. This eventually led to his involvement in television's That Was the Week that Was. His performance in the play Purlie Victorious led to his film acting debut in the screen adaptation Gone are the Days in 1963. Then followed a succession of notable film roles such as Paper Lion (1968) and Mike Nichols' Catch-22 (1970).

Though his fledgling film career was sidelined by M*A*S*H, during the course of the show's increasingly successful eleven-year run Alda's popularity resulted in a succession of acting awards, including three Emmy awards, six Golden Globes, and five People's Choice Awards as "Favorite Male Television Performer." Simultaneously, his increasing involvement behind the scenes in the creation of the show led to Alda writing and directing episodes, and, in turn, to receiving awards for these efforts as well. Ultimately, Alan Alda became the only person to be honored with Emmys as an actor, writer and director, totaling 28 nominations in all. He has also won two Writer's Guild of America Awards, three Director's Guild Awards, and six Golden Globes from the Hollywood Foreign Press Association.

While on hiatus from the show, Alda also began leveraging his TV popularity into rejuvenating his film career, appearing in the comedies Same Time Next Year (1978, for which he received a Golden Globe nomination) and Neil Simon's California Suite (1979). Alda also wrote and starred in the well-received Seduction of Joe Tynan (1979) about a senator's corruption by the lure of increasing power, and by the wiles of luminous lawyer Meryl Streep. In 1981, Alda expanded his talents—writing, directing, and starring in Four Seasons, which proved a critical and financial hit for the middle-aged set, and spawned a short-lived television series. His three subsequent and post-M*A*S*H films as writer/director/star—Sweet Liberty (1986), A New Life (1988), and Betsy's Wedding (1990)—have met with mediocre success, leading Alda to continue accepting acting roles. He has frequently worked for Woody Allen—appearing in Crimes and Misdemeanors for which he won the New York Film Critic's Award for best supporting actor, Manhattan Murder Mystery, and Everyone Says I Love You. Alda even good-naturedly accepted the Razzie Award for "Worst Supporting Actor" for his work in the bomb Whispers in the Dark (1992). Alda has also continued to make television and stage appearances; his role in Neil Simon's Jake's Women led to a Tony Nomination (and the starring role in the subsequent television adaptation), and the recent Art, in which Alda starred on Broadway, won the Tony for Best New Play in 1998.

However, in the late 1990s, Alda also made a transition into unexpected territory as host of the PBS series, Scientific American Frontiers, which afforded him the opportunity both to travel the world and to indulge his obsession with the sciences, as he interviews world-renowned scientists from various fields.

An ardent and long-married (to photographer Arlene Weiss) family man, Alda has also been a staunch supporter of feminist causes, campaigning extensively for the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment, which led to his 1976 appointment by Gerald Ford to the National Commission for the Observance of International Women's Year. It was critic Janet Maslin, in her 1988 New York Times review of Alda's A New Life, who seemed to best summarize Alda's appeal to society: "Alan Alda is an actor, a film maker, and a person, of course, but he's also a state of mind. He's the urge, when one is riding in a gondola, to get up and start singing with the gondolier. He's the impulse to talk over an important personal problem with an entire roomful of concerned friends. He's the determination to keep looking up, no matter how many pigeons may be flying overhead."

—Rick Moody

Further Reading:

Kalter, Suzy. The Complete Book of M*A*S*H. New York, H.N.Abrams, 1984.

Reiss, David S. M*A*S*H: The Exclusive, Inside Story of TV's Most Popular Show. Indianapolis, Bobbs-Merrill, 1980.

Strait, Raymond. Alan Alda: A Biography. New York, St. Martin's Press, 1983.