Wednesday, June 08, 2016

In praise of Alan Alda

Alan Alda, who is very much alive and well is quite simply one of the best actors I’ve ever had the pleasure to work with. Known primarily for his role as Hawkeye on MASH and a name used every week in the New York Times crossword puzzle (all those vowels), Alan has proven over the years that he can play anything.

He had me at “I’ll bet you never realized that the sound of rain hitting the ground makes the same noise as steaks when they barbeque.” That was a line from the speech David Isaacs and I gave him in the MASH episode where Hawkeye was temporarily blind. It was our first MASH script, really launched our career, and I do believe it’s Alan reading of that speech that propelled the episode… and us.

The thing about Alan’s acting is that it is so natural. Effortless almost, but in truth it’s anything but. A lot of internal wheels are turning, but you’d never know it.

Many actors rely on their directors to help shape their performance. Alan is always gracious and works well with directors, but his approach is that if he can believe his character would say or do what’s on the page it’s his job to find a way to make it work. So 95% of the time he’ll show up on the stage and just nail the scene. He’s already worked out just how angry or tired his character needs to be.

Oh, and he’s a great comic actor. That’s a nifty little bonus. While writing MASH we always had to fight the temptation to give Alan every joke.

But wait! There’s more! He’s a terrific stage actor too. I saw him a few years ago in GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS on Broadway and he crushed it.

His enormous success on MASH was a double-edged sword for awhile. He became the poster boy for sensitive caring men. Yes, it is possible to be too likeable (a burden I've had to bare as well).

But he managed to break out of that, playing a wide variety of characters, including villains and shitheels – and all just as convincing although he himself is not like any of these scoundrels.

My personal favorite is his egocentric movie producer in CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS. No one has ever combined such charm and sleaze. Everyone thinks Ricky Gervais is so groundbreaking in how he creates smiling scumbags, but Alan did it twenty years before, and did it better.

In real life Alan is clearly a liberal, and yet in WEST WING he played a conservative Republican with such conviction he probably converted more voters than Hannity and Limbaugh combined.

And now his role in HORACE AND PETE. As I mentioned in my review, I didn’t love the show but did love him. He made Archie Bunker seem like a Quaker. Words were coming out of his mouth that I had never heard him use. Sailors might blush. But as always, he spoke them with conviction and little fanfare. Alan steals scenes before you know they are missing.

It was an honor to work with him, a pleasure to watch him, and I haven’t even gotten to the part where he’s a fine writer and director.

What's a four letter word for "Mensch?"  

45 comments:

Carol said...

Don't DO that. The way this year's been going my first though upon seeing this tribute was 'OMG Alan Alda died.' You scared me.

That said; I've loved Alan Alda ever since I sang along to him with 'William Wants a Doll' on Free to be You and Me when I was a little girl.

The Bumble Bee Pendant said...

For Everyone:
A Must "READ". Alda's Autobiography, "NEVER HAVE YOUR DOG STUFFED".
But get and listen to the Audio version, as read by Mr Alda himself.

It is very enjoyable, enlightening, and certainly will make any drive seem a lot shorter.

Mike Barer said...

I would agree, maybe one of the more popular actors in the business. From an acting family. I remember his father turned in a great performance as an expert surgeon in one episode.

Stephen Marks said...

So in that rain sounding like steaks speech Ken mentions, there is a point where Hawkeye says "...had to be Burns", and just the way he says it sums up all the previous episodes of Burns being a fool. All done in 4 fucking words! If you guys get a chance watch Mr. Alda in that live debate episode of The West Wing, he makes Olivier look like Steve Guttenberg.

Daniel AH said...

Actually, on the West Wing, he played a rather liberal Republican

Roger Owen Green said...

A Final JEOPARDY! this week in the category Historic TV: "An authentic Bell H-13 Sioux air ambulance was used in the opening credits of this television series." Two of the contestants got it. I knew it instantly.

Ellegee said...

Beautiful piece, but you might want to edit the title and add "(NOT AN OBITUARY)".
I really did turn to IMdB to check he was still alive!

dandy_lio said...

Not one word here do I disagree with, but you scared me a bit - had to google to make sure Alda hadn't passed away, as it sounded slightly funereal!

Sung said...

I had the good fortune to see Alan Alda on the stage, too, about twenty years ago. It was the play "Art" by Yasmina Reza, also starring Alfred Molina and Victor Garber. All three of them were fantastic. Alda played the most confrontational of the three, and there's a scene where he had the entire audience gasp -- nothing quite like hearing the audible gasp of a thousand people at the same time!

BA said...

Leaving aside his foul mouthed Horace & Pete geezer, he was a great cold-blooded asshole in MEPHISTO WALTZ as the guy possessed by an evil pianist.

princess apr said...

I met him during a booksigning - with my mom who was obsessed with him and M*A*S*H. It was well worth the crowd and my embarrassing mother. He was just lovely and so funny and willing to stay long after was socially and professionally wise to chat with us.

Roseann said...

I, too, had the opportunity to work with Alan Alda on a feature film in 1995. When he and the other 'grown up' actors arrived on the set EVERYONE upped their game to their level. It was indeed an honor.

blinky said...

AND he hosted Scientific American Frontiers on PBS for a decade. He was doing Neil DeGrasse Tyson in the 90's!

ELS said...

KL: "What's a four letter word for 'Mensch?'"

Alda?

Jim said...

It may seem formulaic now but I enjoyed his performance in "The Glass House".

Hobbes said...

I love that episode. "It had to be Burns" cracks me up every time. And he was excellent as Senator Arnold Vinick in seasons 6 and 7 of "The West Wing." He won an Emmy for that role, too.

Justin Russo said...

Alan's casting as Jack's father on "30 Rock" was inspired! (as was the MASH reference

Dan Reese said...

It's awesome to read this because too often you hear of the star of a hit show becoming an egotistical prick who's impossible to work with. Nice to know there are talented, respected good guys.

Anonymous said...

Same Time Next Year

Paper Lion

"Garrick" on the Blacklist. He had his head magnificently blown-up.

The Four Seasons. Loved the scene with him and Carol Burnett in the boat laughing at the other couple having sex.

The West Wing, Vinnick was a middle of the road Republican, but because of the new GOP he seemed liberal.

It seems to me he loved it when he because more of a character actor instead of the leading man. He could 'play' more with the part and enjoy shocking people, lol.

Good to know he is as nice and honorable as he seems.

Pam, St. Louis

gottacook said...

I think he might have gotten work as a writer even if MASH hadn't paved the way. I always loved the line he gave to Carol Burnett in The Four Seasons: "Is this the fun part? Are we having fun yet?"

Greg Ehrbar said...

My dad, whose name was Harold, was a classmate of Alda in high school and remembered him as the same kind of likable, funny fellow he continues to be. Each time they passed in the school hallway, Alda would call him "Haah!" and Dad would call him "Aaah!"

@Carol- It's not generally mentioned that he not only sang "William's Doll" with Marlo Thomas (a controversial--at the time--children's book that was actually discussed in an episode of "All in the Family), he also directed all the stories, poems and a very funny comedy bit in which Mel Brooks and Thomas voiced puppet babies.

Well ahead of its time was a story called "Atalanta," about a princess who, rather than marry the man her father chooses, makes him agree to a foot race against the suitors with the winner marrying her. Ultimately, she befriends the young man who ties in the race with her and it ends with "maybe they'll marry, maybe they will not." This record album (and the TV special) told an "empowered" princess story decades before most of other mainstream media started to tout it. It's never been out of print.

Michael said...

I always thought one of his greatest performances was in "Oh, How We Danced," the episode in which he surreptitiously records B.J. so that Peg can do a video for their anniversary. As they're watching in Potter's office, when he gleefully asks B.J. if he was surprised, it was just so natural. And so was the scene at the end when Margaret dances with B.J., and they're all welling up, especially Alda ... and especially as I am just writing about it.

Johnny Walker said...

The thing I don't get about Alda's character in C&M is that it's reportedly based on Larry Gelbart. Right up to lifting phrases he would say. Do you know anything about this? If it's true, why would Alda agree to perform such an unflattering portrait?

thomas tucker said...

A liberal? In Hollywood? That is strange indeed.

john not mccain said...

Oh how 13 year old me loved Alan Alda! All of the reasons you list, plus those shower scenes on MASH were, shall we say, revelatory about the future direction of a certain aspect of my life. It's not a coincidence my first boyfriend bore a striking resemblance to him.

VincentS said...

Yes, CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS! After growing up with him as Hawkeye Pierce I never realized how far that character was from Hawkeye and, yes, he made it look effortless.

Jahn Ghalt said...

I recently grabbed a pawnshop copy of a late West Wing season - so I could see how cute Elizabeth Moss was as first daughter.

(pretty doggone cute)

Now, with Alda, I have another reason to check out that set.

Cheryl Marks said...

I first noticed him in Paper Lion and have followed his career as best I can,ever since.

Tom said...

Now you and David just need to come up with a new series starring Alan Alda and Ted Danson. Two great performers who are evidently even finer men than they are actors.

Jeff Maxwell said...

In my humble opinion, along with bringing great intelligence and humor to his work, no one marries the written word with the excitement of organic improvisation better than Mr. Alda. He is simply a genius at it. Early in my stay at MASH, I asked him to recommend an acting teacher. Instead of naming some of the better known folks in L.A., he said, "There's only one I'd suggest, Viola Spolin. She's in New York, but if you can ever work with her, that would be my choice."

Ironically, she showed up in Los Angeles two weeks later and I leaped at her. I spent a year with her and later another two years her protege, Stephen Book. It was the most creative and enlightening experience of my life. And I owe it to Alan.

He recently appeared at Cal Tech in Pasadena, CA. He is very involved in using improv as a way of helping scientists communicate their ideas with each other and us mortals. He effortlessly mesmerized me and all the smart folks for over an hour, making us laugh and think.

I am deeply grateful for the opportunity to have been part of his work. He is a gem, a nice guy, and a gift to us all.

Check out Whispers In The Dark. It's not brilliant movie, but Alan is lots of fun.

Jabroniville said...

One thing I always notice about him is how he can laugh on camera an it comes off as natural. I imagine that "fake laughing" is one of the harder things to do naturally.

AndrewJ said...

Alda's one of the most well-liked people in the industry. In the 1960s Alda worked on stage with Henry Morgan (the radio comedian and game-show panelist, NOT Harry Morgan from MASH). Henry settled a ton of scores in his memoir HERE'S MORGAN, but was incapable of saying anything nasty about Alda.

J Lee said...

I'd also like to throw a little love Alda's way for the first time I remember seeing him on screen, pre-MASH, as writer George Plimpton in 1968's "Paper Lion", with Alex Karras and Lauren Hutton. The 10-year-old in me still loves the image of Alda running into the goal post.

Mark Murphy said...

I first saw Alan Alda in the mid-'60s in THAT WAS THE WEEK THAT WAS. He made an impression even then. Sadly, I've read that at least most of the episodes of that show no longer exist.

As to his character in CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS, I've wondered whether at least part of that character was based on Steve Allen. As I recall, Allen, like Alda's character, carried around a small tape recorder into which he would dictate ideas as they occurred to him over the course of the day; a secretary would later type up these notes.

Sif said...

Don't forget he is a major science advocate in addition to his day job as actor/writer.

B.G. said...

Thanks for this piece, Ken. Really lovely. One phrase that sticks with me that was used to describe his performance as Hawkeye was "seemingly effortless." There are so many times when I'm watching the show when that description comes to mind. He just wears that role like a second skin. Which reminds me… I think "A Night at Rosie's" was one of your scripts, right? When he's dancing with himself in Rosie's as Charles comes up to him, that is just Hawkeye being 100% Hawkeye. Bravo to you both.

chalmers said...

Even if you're not Yankee fans, if you get the YES Network, it's worth setting a reminder if they rerun the "Centerstage" when Michael Kay interviews him. As always, Alda's charming and funny, and it's obvious that more good stuff had to be edited for time.

He and his wife Arlene have a great, true "meet cute" story and the way he talks about her as she's sitting in the audience makes your heart melt.

At the end of each episode, Kay does his version of the Proust/Pivot/Lipton questionnaire. One of his questions is "Who would you want in a foxhole with you?" I've heard it answered dozens of times, usually predictably. Alda pauses for a second and says, "The leader of the country that's shooting at me."

MikeN said...

>Alan steals scenes before you know they are missing.

It would be weird if you know they are missing before he steals them.

MikeN said...

In The West Wing, he ends up being named Secretary of State by the man he lost to, so the President would not have to fear him as a rival four years later.

Lorimartian said...

Re Roger Owen Green's comment: "A Final JEOPARDY! this week in the category Historic TV: "An authentic Bell H-13 Sioux air ambulance was used in the opening credits of this television series." Two of the contestants got it. I knew it instantly."

Yes, I was watching, too. Hmmm...historic TV. Thinking early TV and not knowing anything about helicopter models, my guess was "Whirlybirds," which, even if it didn't feature the helicopter, would have better fit a category titled "historical TV"...or even better, "prehistoric TV." Damn, those Jeopardy writers know their stuff. There is a difference between "historic" and "historical." I marvel at their precision in crafting the answers.

Sif said...

It is on YouTube

Kyle Connor said...

Didn't know anything about Adam Alda or M.A.S.H but I did remember Captain Hawkeye. I did some extensive reading about him and the show here http://bit.ly/1U3faU1
It had garnered quite a lot of fan following and stirred up a controversy for portraying Nurses as sex symbols.

Carol said...

@ Greg Ehrbar - not sure if you'll see this now, but I LOVED the Atalanta story on that album. I was around 6 or so, I guess, when FTBYAM came out, I listened to it all the time. Shaped me in many ways to be the (hopefully) open-minded human I strive to be. It's a shame the lessons didn't really stick in the world at large.

Also when I was around 9 or so I was in an acting class and we did a play version of Free to Be. I played the 'big sister' in the 'The Pain and the Great One' and I was the horrid little girl in Ladies First who got eaten by a tiger. :)

Tom Galloway said...

A Cornell professor friend of mine posted a little while ago about Alda visiting there and talking about how scientists can better communicate with lay audiences. My friend had nothing but good to say about both Alda and the communication material, and his posting about it on Facebook got a huge number of Likes and many "I'm so jealous" comments.

Johnny Walker said...

Also, I should add: It's a great idea to start celebrating great talents when they're alive. Alda sounds like an amazing collaborator, and is clearly a brilliant and smart talent.