Friday, August 26, 2011

What's Alan Alda really like?

It’s why we look forward to the weekend – Friday Questions!   What’s yours?

Becky Asks:

What was Alan Alda like in person? Hawkeye Pierce was my first character crush as a 10-year-old girl and I've always wanted to know what the actor was like as a person.

Becky, you’ll be happy to know Alan is a terrific guy. Much like Hawkeye except he can’t do heart surgery worth a shit.

But working with him on MASH, he was always supportive, always respectful, and always positive. He was a great cheerleader. Never would Alan say, “This doesn’t work, fix it.” He would always say, “What could we do to make it better?” The key words there were WE and BETTER.

Alan was always willing to pitch in, and unlike with some other TV stars, his participation was very welcomed. He’d occasionally come up to the room and help out in a rewrite, and if you pitched a good joke he’d always be the one laughing the loudest.  And then he'd take us out to dinner. 

I know it sounds like I’m nominating him for Pope, but I genuinely loved working with Alan Alda. And would jump at the chance to work with him again.

From Chris:

Here's one for friday: I remember you saying extras aren't allowed to talk or else they would have to be credited as actors, how does that work when an extra or two have to laugh and it's obvious it's their laugh are those actors?

Laughing is not considered dialogue. Extras can laugh without being considered day players.

It’s often hard though, to get extras to react big enough. Not their fault really. They’re so used to miming. But at times when you’ll want them to really react to something they’ll give a muted performance. Or worse, most will give a muted performance and one or two will go way over the top.

Like everything else, being a good extra is a skill.

Depending on the show, the laughter you hear from the extras may not even be from their own mouths. Especially if someone’s laugh is too distinctive and possibly distracting. Looping people come in during post production and add laughter, additional screams, and background walla walla. All that chatter you hear in TV squad rooms or busy hospital corridors – that is all recorded after the fact.

Smoke and mirrors... smoke and mirrors. 

Rob has a common CHEERS/U.S. Government question:

This morning someone who works for my company mentioned flags being lowered in Wisconsin for a former Chariman of the Joint Chiefs of staff. That reminded me of Admiral William Crowe, another former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who was born in the town where I lived for a large portion of my life. I looked him up to confirm that he was indeed born there and saw that he was in an episode of Cheers written by...

How in the world did you come to write an episode including the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff?

Here’s the full story and a great excuse to plug my archives. Lots of good stuff in there if you’re incredibly bored one day.

ernie changes the subject:

How are you able to keep positive and up when the team's hitting is horrible and in a seventeen game losing streak?

That seventeen game streak is now just a distant memory. For all I know it didn't even happen.

Staying positive is easy because I love baseball and love broadcasting it. Every game is different. Just because a team is struggling doesn’t mean they can’t pull off incredible feats. And no matter how long you’ve been covering the game, from time to time you’ll always see something you’ve never seen before. This even goes for Vin Scully and at last count I think he’s witnessed 3,474,864,843 ballgames.

But you never know. Last week there were two triple plays. On any given night you might see a perfect game or someone hit for the cycle or a spectacular catch or seven errors. Not to get too flowery or poetic but baseball is the Greatest Show on Dirt.

And finally, from Betty:

How did you get that first spec to the producers of MTM and did you have an agent before you made that spec and how did you get him/her?

We did have an agent… sorta. She worked out of her house. So you could call her agency either fly-by-night or boutique. But she was licensed and a signatory to the WGA.

We were signed because her daughter was dating my partner.

She claimed she was friends with David Lloyd, a producer of THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW and submitted our spec MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW episode to him. When she didn’t hear back in a month she sent a second copy along with a tart letter accusing him of shirking his duty.

This infuriated David who promptly rejected our script and began his letter with “How dare you!” The rest of the note went downhill from there.

Once we sold a JEFFERSONS and joined the Guild we were able to move onto more effective and reputable representation.

Years later I worked with David Lloyd on CHEERS and brought up that story. He didn’t remember the incident but did say if he rejected our script he was sure it was shit.

And while we’re on the loose subject of archives, it’s worth going back and revisiting my thoughts on David Lloyd, a brilliant writer who passed away last year.


Jaclyn M said...

I have a question. I started watching Cheers when Kirstie Alley was on, so the Diane episodes were always reruns to me. Looking back at the season where Diane & Sam were engaged, I figured the writers must have known then that Shelley Long was leaving, and wrote the engagement plotline knowing full well that the wedding would never happen. But since Sam proposed at the end of season 4, that would be a heckuva lot of advance notice that she was leaving. So, did the writers already know Shelley was leaving when Sam proposed? Or was there always a plan to have them back out of the wedding at the last minute (if she had stayed)? I just can't imagine how the show would have continued with them married, as it would have really changed the dynamic of the show.

Kerry said...

I've always wanted to ask the Alan Alda question but was afraid of the answer - so thanks!

When I was little I used to watch MASH with my dad, he loved the show. He (circa the 70s) looked like Alan Alda (circa the 70s) and my father was in the military and a Captain so I always had a real soft spot for Alda. Thanks for not destroying my childhood memories!!

Anonymous said...

My question: I was listening to the commentary you were a part of for "Dancin' Homer" and finally heard that you're a Le-VINE. What do you think about those cowardly Le-VEENs who soften their proud name?

Anonymous said...

Becky says
I'm delighted to hear that he was such a joy to work with. It doesn't help the fact that I've been trying to snag a Hawkeye for years (remember what a confirmed bachelor he was... :) )

One more similar question: I've always admired Harry Morgan, thought he seemed like a lot like Colnel Potter. Lots of horse sense, a heart of gold and a tough man. Is that true? What was he like? Okay, that's my last question. Thanks, and keep up the good work. I definitely visit your archives!

Anonymous said...

Hey Ken,

Rumor has it that you've never made the pilgrimmage to Albuquerque to see what you've started and watch the Isotopes. It forever will be a shrine to you and The Simpsons. Please come. Even in the off-season. You have to see this park! BTW: The old Dukes Stadium that it replaced was 360 to the corners. Is there any other ballpark that was that long?

Michael said...

About a losing streak, Ken's Orioles partner, Jon Miller, worked their 22-game streak and I heard the tape of when they snapped it. It wasn't quite "THE GIANTS WIN THE PENNANT," but the relief in his voice was so palpable ....

Byrum Saam broadcast the Phillies and A's from 1937 to 1949, when, combined, they finished in the first division only a couple of times. The two teams finally split their broadcasts, airing home and away, and Saam loved Connie Mack, so he chose the A's ... and the Phillies won the 1950 pennant. When the A's moved to Kansas City after 1954, he returned to the Phillies and retired after the 1975 season ... the year before the Phillies went to the playoffs for the first time since 1950. Harry Kalas, Richie Ashburn and Andy Musser brought him back to call the clincher because they felt he'd earned it. But he once said of broadcasting a bad team that the fans deserve a good broadcast, and he'd concentrate on what was good--if they were playing the Pirates, talk about Clemente, for example. Ken worked with another great, Dave Niehaus, who did a LOT of losing baseball, and never seemed to lose his enthusiasm.

I grew up watching MASH, and I'm not surprised to read that Alda was and is a great guy--and he's a terrific actor too. I've read the same about Harry Morgan. said...

@Michael: I remember in 1985 when the Cubs had big, legitimate hopes coming off their 1984 post-season meltdown. And then they hit a 13 game losing streak. You want a sense of palpable relief? Imagine Harry Caray calling that 14th game.

brian t said...

Alan Alda was fantastic on The West Wing too, for which he won another Emmy. I Wonder how much input he had in to the character (Vinick) there? A "compassionate conservative" Republican who had no time for religion, liked junk food, and could talk the hind legs off a donkey. 8)

ernie said...

thanks for answering my question, Ken. I wonder how many fans left the stadium early last night and didn't see the historic third grand-slam home run?

chalmers said...

Not to sound like a flack, but having occasionally encountered the Aldas growing up, I have to say that Alan Alda's nice guy, devoted husband/father image wasn't an act.

While celebrity autobiographies are hardly impeccable sources, I would recommend “Never Have Your Dog Stuffed” if you want some insight into him. It’s not 200 pages of “Let me tell you about the time we put eggs into Frank Burns’ helmet.”

Carson said...

Shows are often shortened for their syndication run to fit in more commercials. But why do more commercials need to be fit in for the syndication run as opposed to their network run? I'd think it would be the opposite since most of the upfront costs hit the network.

Mark said...

Most of the celebrity books I've read are either "here's why I'm so cool" or "here's some stuff I thought was interesting and maybe you will too." Alda's books are the latter.

MikeN said...

What was your reaction when Conan hosted the Emmys and drew a tiny circle and said 'Black people who watch Frasier'?

YEKIMI said...

So, "The Jeffersons" got you "Movin' on up".....

Michael said...

Are you surprised that there are experienced showrunners interested in working on Charlie Sheen's proposed new show as reported here:

Jason W. said...

Friday Question: I have seen outtake reels from "Everybody Loves Raymond" where Ray (and occasionally Brad Garrett) start switching out joke payoff lines, take after take.

I know you directed a couple "Raymond"s and was wondering if you observed that going on. Was it genuinely done to find the best payoff line, or just to keep the studio audience and themselves punchy?

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Michael: I'm going to guess that there's no surprise in showrunners taking the meetings. Nor in the fact that no actual signed deals have been reported. Big difference.


princessapr said...

My mom was/is obsessed with Alan Alda so I'm always a little skeeved out by him (because I had to grow up and hear how attractive he was and how funny etc.). Anyway, I invited my parents to his booksigning and he was fantastic. He really listened to all the questions and really seemed to genuinely appreciate everyone who made it out that night. When it was time for our individual moment as he signed our book my mother completely embarrassed me, but even then, I noticed how he would make each person feel like they were the only ones in the room at that moment and never hurried anyone along which I really appreciated. The book is just as great as my memory of that night.

(Sophomoric humor, but my word verification is "whizz".)

Anonymous (!) said...

I'm sure some of your commenters only post to see their names on your blog.
Yours faithfully
Dave Gordon

pumpkinhead said...

I wrote a comment to post, but when I noticed that my verification word was "booring" I got paranoid and deleted it.

Anonymous said...

I worked with Alan Alda on The West Wing. I was a behind the scenes nobody, and yet he was always great to me. As a matter of fact, everyone on that show was great, with one exception. And he was fired. Blamed it on everyone else. Everyone else was happy to take the blame to see him gone.

Paul Duca said...

That whole scenario with your first "agent'...I hope David Issacs got something out of it, if you know what I mean and I think you do.

I got the season one DVD of MODERN FAMILY, and just wondered--were you able to offer any assistance to the producers for the "Up All Night" episode, where Jay, Manny, and Manny's father hit a few balls around in the middle of the Dodger Stadium?

Miffy said...

IIRC, Shelley Long informed the producers in the middle of the production of the fifth season (the engagement one, and her last) that she would not renew her contract for a sixth season. And I remember that the original plan - if Long hadn't left - was for the wedding to happen, with the show continuing on more as an ensemble (with less of a focus on the Sam/Diane relationship). And in a way, that's pretty much what happened anyway.

VP81955 said...

Ken, think of Charlie Slowes, who did seven years of losing baseball in Tampa Bay, then moved to Washington (where he had been known for his work on the then-Bullets games) when the Montreal Expos became the Nationals. He got to call a .500 season in 2005, their first season in D.C., but hasn't come close since. (Perhaps Strasburg, Harper et al can change that in a year or two.)

Meanwhile, the now Devil-less Rays have won a pennant in 2008, a division in 2010, and have held their own against the evil empires of the AL East as much as anyone with their resources can. Slowes is on track to be this generation's By Saam.

wv: "sculari" -- co-starred with Tom Hunks in "Bosom Buddies."

Kevin Rubio said...


I've a question. Hopefully you can impart some sage advice.

I once heard some very comforting and needed advice from "Everybody Loves Raymond" producer, Philip Rosenthal. He said essentially, "Make the show you want to make. They're going to cancel you anyways."

I've been both fortunate and unfortunate to have several projects go thought the development process. There are always heated, passionate exchanges that one has during this process. There are compromises (some for the good, some not) but everything is done in the hope of getting a show on the air.

If your lucky, you actually end up with something less than what you started with. I know this is the process, and I accept this. What I hate is network executives who give notes (however necessary and well intentioned) but ultimately have no culpability, and thus suffer no repercussion from their "advice" and opinions.

Here's my question: "Should exec be culpable?" "Should names be named?"

I ask, because I believe that if they had a stake in the process, they might actually make more of an informed opinion.

I know I'm dreaming, but what do you want from me? I work in a dream factory.

rockfish said...

Question: On MASH, you wrote some terrific characters with some of the smaller parts having huge moments. I'm wondering if there was a discussion about turning a smaller part into a more major, reoccurring role (or even a spinoff -- sorry about that AfterMash thing, by the way) from someone who was essentially a guest star -- ie Col. Flagg, who seemed to be a bolt of energy whenever plugged on the show. Sydney the psychiatrist was used almost twice as much -- obviously a completely different character who brought a different tone -- but to me added little to the 'comedy' aspect of the show. Were there other characters you wrote who you felt could have had a bigger life in the show or their own show?
Thanks -- and loved your work with the M's this year!

MikeN said...

Anonymous, re West Wing, I always wondered what happened to that character. Then why did they bring him back for the last episode?

Lumpy said...

The Baseball Hall of Fame is taking nominations for the Ford C. Frick Award, what broadcaster would you like to see honored with this prestigious award?