SOMEONE FORGOT TO TELL the American actor Alan Alda that there won’t be a GCSE exam on, well, all human knowledge at the end of his career.
In the past two decades, in between acting in films by directors as diverse as Woody Allen and Martin Scorsese, the 71-year-old has travelled the world interviewing scientists – six or seven hundred to be exact. Along the way he got bored, so he taught himself how to program computers. He also learnt to build websites, had his car converted to electric power, befriended inventors, began fiddling around with solar panels. He even designed a computer game to mimic a therapy session.
“If you mentioned your mother, it would pick up on that,” he says, sitting at an Italian restaurant on New York’s Upper West Side, “and it would begin asking questions about your mother. And as soon as you got really, really involved, it would say ‘I’m sorry, your time is up’.”
Were a man of this temperament to have a brush with death, he wouldn’t simply walk it off, as they say after a rough tackle in American football. He would analyse it, figure out what it means.
And the quality of analysis wouldn’t surprise the millions of fans of Hawkeye Pierce, the thoughtful surgeon that Alda played for 11 years on M*A*S*H*, one of the most popular American television series made, on both sides of the Atlantic. The 1983 finale was watched by 106 million Americans, and even now the reruns still draw millions of viewers.
Alda could have coasted after that, but he has branched out – writing and directing his own film ( The Four Seasons), playing a jerk (in Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors) and going back to his comedy roots (with John Candy in Canadian Bacon).
He also began to indulge his interest in science by hosting the Scientific American Frontiers television programme. It was in this capacity that Alda did have a brush with death. He found himself on top of a mountain in Chile – as he was wont to in his 11 years of hosting the show – with terrible stomach pain.
It turned out that about a metre of his large intestine had died, and if he hadn’t reached a doctor in time, the rest of him would have gone too.
Alda survived, and the experience rejuvenated him. He wrote a bestselling memoir, Never Get Your Dog Stuffed, and was nominated for an Oscar and a Bafta for Scorsese’s The Aviator, but his life began to feel a little empty.
“That whole thing about meaning,” Alda says, his big, sensitive eyes crinkling, “I really did begin to think it was meaningless. That word has no meaning after a while.”
“I got so obsessed for a while, the bell would go off in the microwave after I cooked my oatmeal in the morning, and I would realise three minutes had gone by that I couldn’t account for.”
So Alda began combing through his notebooks and old speeches, looking at what he pretended to know – or seemed to know – in the past. The result is a second memoir, Things I Overheard While Talking to Myself,a project that would be self-indulgent were it not so unabashedly earnest in its pursuit of meaning.
Never Get Your Dog Stuffed told of his growing up as Alphonso D’Abruzzo, the son of a burlesque comic and a schizophrenic mother. This instalment weaves further tales about his life as a father, grandfather, and activist.
Alda is not discriminatory – the book ranges from eulogies for pet rabbits to a run-in with a firefighter at the World Trade Centre after September 11. “He was just destroyed,” Alda recalls. “I thought I was talking to him because he needed to vent, to feel better. Then I had this realisation that he was talking to me because I needed to hear his story.”
Many times, Alda was speaking to people who knew more than he did about the topic at hand – such as the historians of a Jefferson society, or the doctors at Columbia University College of Physicians, who knew him only as Hawkeye Pierce.
“It’s interesting how often I was telling young people about values, and to live according to their values,” Alda says. “I kind of left out ‘I hope you have good values, or values we can all agree are good’, because there are people in both prisons and palaces who are living their values.”
There was a time when Alda would have launched into a political discussion at this point. But he has given that up. In 1975, at the height of his M*AS*H* fame, he briefly considered running for the US Senate, until he realised the level of decision-making that it would require. “The idea of running simply because you could get elected I found appalling.”
But he has played politicians on the screen – mostly Republicans of late. He won an Emmy in 2006 for his portrayal of the presidential hopeful Arnold Vinick in The West Wing, and an Oscar nomination for the rich sense of entitlement he brought to Senator Ralph Owen Brewster in The Aviator.
“People would turn to me and say: ‘Is it going to be hard to say these conservative things?’ When I played a murderer, nobody asked me how I would go and do that, but if I played a Republican, look out, it was like I had crossed a line!”
In fact, fittingly for the child of an improvisational comic, he has played everything from death row inmates to struggling husbands to the American physicist Richard Feynman (in the play QED). Now he can see a similarity between acting and what he does when trying to make sense of the world and his own experiences in it. “I think it’s the same process – in both cases I am drilling down into my own unconscious to see what is there.”
“Everything I know, everything that passes through my mind during a performance, I think is coming to the surface for a reason.
“I had to improvise a scene in Crimes and Misdemeanors where I was coming on to a young woman – I don’t do that – but if I did do that, how would I do it? I realised that I wouldn’t flatter her beauty, I would flatter her intelligence.”
This year, Alda celebrated the 50th anniversary of his marriage to his wife Arlene, a photographer and children’s author. It might seem something of a Hollywood record, but Alda never went to live in California for good.
As he reveals in Things I Overheard While Talking to Myself, even when he was shooting M*A*S*H*, he commuted from New Jersey to California so that his children wouldn’t grow up into the kind of warped kids of stars that we see these days.
It seems to have worked. His three daughters have given him seven grandchildren, and he is just as intent on rearing them into thinking individuals. One chapter of the new book describes the coffee talks that he has with them on the Upper West Side, encouraging them through ethical puzzles like a Jesuit teacher.
As he teaches his grandchildren how to think, Alda continues to watch himself do the same. He listens to the audiobook of Brian Greene’s The Fabric of the Cosmos over and again in the car. “I told Brian: ‘I learn something every time’,” Alda jokes. “Unfortunately it’s the same thing.”
But he won’t give up. He’s done with science for Scientific American, but he does occasionally wonder if the American public can be coaxed into caring about mathematics. “What’s the difference between calculus and advanced calculus?” he asks me. He really wants to know and his face falls a bit when I cannot provide a definitive answer. It would seem he has absorbed one lesson from his own mouth over the years – time is not infinite.
Scientific American Frontiers is at pbs.org/saf
THINGS I OVERHEARD WHILE TALKING TO MYSELF by Alan Alda
Exclusive interiew with M*A*S*H star and author Alan Alda – Times Online14 10 2009