Speaker 1: Here's a little bit of TV trivia. What was the highest rated episode of any scripted TV series ever? Here's a clue. It aired almost 40 years ago, pretty easy right? The finale of Mash. Alan Alda directed that episode, any starred as Hawkeye Pierce on the show during its 11 year run.
Speaker 2: Whenever I see a big pair of feet or a cheesy moustache I'll think of you.
Speaker 3: Whenever I smell month old socks I'll think of you.
Speaker 2: The next time somebody nails my shoe to the floor or somebody gives me a martini that tastes like lighter fluid.
Speaker 1: Let's put nostalgia aside. Alan Alda has been extremely busy as an actor over the decade since Mash. He was in everything from The West Wing to 30 Rock and he was in the recent film Marriage Story, playing a divorce lawyer for Adam driver's character. He was also in a Tony Award winning production of Glengarry Glen Ross, the David Mamet play and more. Staff writer Michael Schulman, who covers arts and entertainment for The New Yorker has watched Alan Alda's career evolve over the years.
Michael Schulman: The more I looked into his life story, there's so much breadth in what he's done. He was a major activist in the feminist movement in the '70s. He created an institute at Stony Brook for helping scientists communicate. He has this podcast Clear and Vivid now, at 86, where he interviews scientists and politicians and artists and actors and all sorts of people. He really has this ravenous, curious intellect as well as being the Alan Alda that we all know and love from TV and movies.
Speaker 1: Schulman sat down recently with Alda to talk about his life and his more recent role as an interview host on TV and on his podcast.
Michael Schulman: Do you have a guiding philosophy for interviewing?
Alan Alda: Yes, I do. It comes out of the hundreds of interviews I did on Scientific American Frontiers TV show on PBS. That is to have as much as I can to have a genuine conversation, not ask them questions that I prepared in advance. It should come out of curiosity, genuine curiosity, because that opens the other person up. I realized when I was doing Scientific American Frontiers that I was making use of things I've learned as an improviser and as an actor.
Michael Schulman: Do you have an example of that, of how improvisation has helped you communicate with people who have nothing to do with acting?
Alan Alda: Improvising requires relating. I'm not talking about comedy improvising. I'm talking about improvising based on the work of Viola Spolin. She made a real contribution to theater in the country and acting. You have to relate to other person. You have to observe the other person, you have to be watching their face, their body language, because from that you find out what they're saying really means. If you're paying that kind of attention, you're not worried about how you're doing so much. When I would be talking to the scientists on the science show, took them out of lecture mode and put them in conversational mode.
Michael Schulman: Well, I do want to ask you about helping scientists communicate because that's obviously a real passion of yours. Were you seeing a problem with scientists that you wanted to help solve?
Alan Alda: It didn't occur to me that there was a problem to be solved. What occurred to me was if we trained scientists starting from actually improvising, if they would be able to relate to the audience the way they were relating to me.
Michael Schulman: Can you give me an example of an improv exercise that you did with scientists and what it helped teach them?
Alan Alda: One of the most basic things for me is the mirror exercise. You and I do it. You be my mirror.
Michael Schulman: Does it work on Zoom?
Alan Alda: Yes. There's a little bit of a lag on Zoom, so it's not that easy. You're my mirror. It's just like the Harpo Marx mirror. No matter what I do, you have to instantaneously do the same thing. There's no echo. Now, did you see what just happened there? What happened? Why weren't you able to keep up with me?
Michael Schulman: Was I not concentrating?
Alan Alda: No, because I went too fast. What you learn when you do this is it's your responsibility to help the other person be the mirror. You're helped to learn how to pay attention to the other person and to recognize that it's your job to help them follow you.
Michael Schulman: I was reading your first book, Never Have Your Dog Stuffed. There was a line that I really liked. You write, ''I was curious from the first moments, not as a pastime but as a way to survive.'' Can you explain what you meant by that?
Alan Alda: I don't know the whole context, but it probably has something to do with the fact that my mother unfortunately was schizophrenic and paranoid and I had to decode her reality to figure out what actual reality was. She would see things that weren't there, she'd assume she was being sped on. I remember, from a very early age, noticing her depression and wondering what it was all about, like four or five. I was curious, but I think I was maybe a little extra curious because I had to figure out what was happening. What did people mean when they said things, especially her?
Michael Schulman: Your childhood is so different than what I think people might assume. You've always had this decency and goodness that you radiate as an actor, but in your book you describe your father working in these seedy burlesque nightclubs and he and his friends shooting craps. I just think that's so different than how people might imagine Alan Alda as a child.
Alan Alda: Well, it's not the polar opposite of being decent. There was no indecency that I was aware of. Just a lot of nakedidity.
Michael Schulman: Nakedidity?
Alan Alda: A lot of laughing and a lot of joking. As. you know from reading that book, I was in the wings watching burlesque shows from the time I was two or two and a half. I was very aware of the naked women, but I was also aware of the comics and I watched their sketches. Sometimes as a joke they put me in this sketch, this little kid. I think that's how I learned about the theater. It's that's how I learned acting is from watching on the side.
Michael Schulman: Well, I learned from reading the book that your father was the original Sky Masterson in Guys and Dolls on Broadway, which is incredible.
Luck be a lady tonight.
Luck be a lady tonight.
Alan Alda: Yes. Stood in the wings, watched that every Saturday, two shows.
Michael Schulman: How old were you?
Alan Alda: I was about 15, 16.
Michael Schulman: Guys and Dolls. I have to tell you, I was in Guys and Dolls in high school. I was Harry the horse. I would love to hear about that original production. What do you learn watching from the wings? What did you observe?
Alan Alda: First of all, I knew my father so well. I could see how he used himself in his playing that character. The difference between him and the character was instructional to me. Even better than that was watching Sam Levine, who was a very spontaneous actor. I really value spontaneity. Say the exact same words every night, standing in the same place, but it would come out of him differently every night to such an extent that he would sometimes get a laugh in a different place tonight from where it came last night. That's really unusual.
Michael Schulman: He was Nathan Detroit?
Alan Alda: Yes.
Michael Schulman: That's the part I wanted, but didn't get.
Alan Alda: That's a great part.
Michael Schulman: Did you want to be the kind of actor that your father was?
Alan Alda: No, I didn't want to. Interestingly, I was always more competitive with my father than he was with me. He was very gentle with me and thoughtful and almost never tough on me.
Michael Schulman: Did you ever completely slip up and forget a line on stage?
Alan Alda: Well, everybody does once in a while, but I loved improvising so much as a young actor. I would just love it if somebody forgot to make an entrance, which has happened, and you're on stage all by yourself. Now the play belongs to you. Whatever you say or don't say or whatever you do, that's the play.
Michael Schulman: One of your breakout roles in the '60s was in The Owl and the Pussycat on Broadway. This comedy about an aspiring novelist and his neighbor who's a prostitute played by Diana Sands. I'd love to hear about that experience. Was it fun?
Alan Alda: It was fun. It was an interesting experience rehearsing that. We rehearsed only for three weeks and the director, who was Arthur Storch, had us reading at the table for more than two weeks. We never got up. When we did get up, he said, ''Put the script down and play the script as much as you can remember it and move wherever you feel like moving.'' It was almost an improvisation. What was interesting about that was we weren't learning the words so much as we were learning the intentions. We were learning what was happening. We were learning the emotions and the exact words to put that in that the author had chosen could come later, but first, you had the impulses.
There was a lot of energy in the show that you get when you arrive at something through improvisation. I really enjoyed that very much. Dan and I were a little competitive with each other. It was only a two-character play and each one of us was trying to take the stage away from the other. The result of that was we were watching each other like hawks and we got a lot of praise for ensemble acting when what we were doing was the opposite of ensemble acting.
Michael Shulman: Then you were in the Broadway Musical The Apple Tree directed by Mike Nichols. What about his direction stuck in your mind?
Alan Alda: It's funny, it comes right on the heels of what we just were talking about. Barbara Harris and I were rehearsing a scene and Mike said, "You're not relating to each other much at all." He said, "You kids think relating is the icing on the cake. It's the cake." That put into words what I was learning and that has become foundational for me, not just in my work as an actor, but in all this other stuff we've been talking about, the podcast, communicating all kinds of things.
Michael Shulman: It sounds easy to be spontaneous, but it's probably the hardest thing in the world.
Alan Alda: I think you can see when you watch acting into which not a lot of time has been able to be put and people are pretty much getting their lines out. Whereas in life and in exciting theater, people don't talk, don't behave rather, people don't behave in a certain way without being made to behave that way by the other people or by the drive that's in them. That's forcing them to do certain things. Usually it's you are ignited by the other person, not because it's in the script. You see it a lot in the procedural police television shows where you know they got to get 12 close-ups of 12 people in a room.
They're saying things like, "Maybe he did it at four o'clock. No, the freeway was closed at four o'clock. Maybe he did it at three o'clock." They're not really talking to one another. They're saying it because it's on the page.
Michael Shulman: Well, you of course played the same character, Hawkeye, on Mash for 11 years. I'm curious, was it difficult over that incredible span of time to maintain the level of freshness and spontaneity that you're talking about?
Alan Alda: I think there were probably dips. One of the ways the process we developed off-camera while we were waiting to do the shots. You have to wait while they light the set sometimes an hour or two hours. Instead of going back to our dressing rooms, most of the time we sat around in a circle of chairs and made fun of each other. That laughing together, stories, just relating to one another, having a little party, a little get-together, gave us a connection that when they called us to the set we still had. We just continued it into the scene, but using the dialogue of the scene.
Speaker 4: While you're writing, make note of the fact that thanks to the failure of the world's various elected heads, not to mention just plain dictators to keep a cold war from turning hot, I am forced to operate alongside a surgeon who can't trim his toenails without committing malpractice.
Speaker 3: I resent that.
Speaker 2: How do you know he meant you?
Alan Alda: Sometimes we would keep talking while they were calling for quiet on the set through the clapper board. Just before the first line of dialogue, we get quiet. I remember one or two times where that actually happened and it sounds undisciplined, but it was a discipline of a different kind. We were keeping the connection going.
Michael Shulman: Well, what you're describing sounds a lot like the camaraderie of the characters in the show. These are doctors working in a really dangerous uncertain environment and all they really have is each other's company.
Alan Alda: I'm sure that none of us ever experienced anything like what the people in real mass units had to go through, but we had long days that were exhausting, 12-hour days was common. Sometimes 14-hour days.
Michael Shulman: I was curious, thinking about Mash. We've seen so many images over the last year of war of really horrible atrocity, whether in Afghanistan or Ukraine. I was curious if you feel like your experience doing Mash has affected how you think about those images and think about war in general.
Alan Alda: I don't think so. I think I started out having really negative opinions about war. As a little boy during World War II, watching war movies, I had a piece of cardboard with the silhouettes of American planes and Japanese planes. I would always watch the skies to see if we were being invaded by Japanese pilots. We played war games in the backyards. As I got older and I got to think about what it would be like to kill somebody or get shot at myself, I developed a real distaste for it.
Michael Shulman: Mash was so brilliant at combining the terror of war and comedy. It makes me think a bit about Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who of course was a sitcom actor and is now the president of a country at war and has been praised as an incredible communicator. What have you observed about him?
Alan Alda: I watched his show and I was really interested to see. What an amazing experience it was to watch the show where a high school teacher becomes a president of a country. Then the guy who plays that part becomes the president of the country, almost mirroring the story of the play. The other experience was looking at modern beautiful cities that now are in rubble, and wondering how many of the cast are either afraid for their lives or maybe already dead. I never had an experience watching an entertainment like that.
Michael Shulman: On a completely different note. I wanted to ask you about your involvement in Free to be... You and Me in the '70s', which was, of course, this children's album and TV special created by Marlo Thomas. It's such an incredible project because children are still bombarded with so much gender stereotyping. It told people that they really don't have to follow those conventions. Why was that important to you at the time?
Alan Alda: Well, I was a very vocal feminist mainly in the effort to get the equal rights amendment passed. I spent about 10 years really devoting most of my time to that when I wasn't shooting or writing.
Michael Shulman: Weren't you called an honorary woman?
Alan Alda: I regret that because menopause was horrible.
Michael Shulman: [laughs] You'll live longer.
Alan Alda: [laughs] That's true. I had never thought of it that way.
Michael Shulman: I can't think of very many other major public figures who are men who went out of their way to identify themselves as feminists. What reaction did you get at the time?
Alan Alda: I think at first, Phil Donahue by the way was very active. I think at first, nobody minded it. It was a curiosity that a man was speaking out about feminism. To me, it seemed like fairness to both sexes is beneficial to both sexes. Why take half the population for any reason and tell them they're not entitled to participate in the culture? Then there was a reaction against it, that it didn't seem manly enough or it was wimpy or something like that. Stuff like that goes away.
Michael Shulman: It's interesting. There's so much talk now about how to be a good ally, whether to women or people of color. I think people are still really trying to grapple with how to be a good ally, but it seems like you saw the value in that really early.
Alan Alda: Yes, and it was welcomed and I was glad. I was glad to be able to help in whatever way I could. I think accepting the help of allies is a good idea as long as the allies are sincere and get the point, which is not always that easy to do. The people on the ground tend to understand what's needed more than the people in the tower. You really have to be willing to listen if you want to be an ally.
Michael Shulman: The feminist movement of the '70s' was so foundational. With this whole Supreme Court opinion on Roe v. Wade, it just feels like that era has been betrayed in some huge way and that 50 years later it's slipping backward so much. How do you feel about what's been happening right now?
Alan Alda: I think it's awful and it's not clear that it's going to stop here.
Michael Shulman: What do you think that the role of men should be now in this fight for reproductive rights?
Alan Alda: Personal outrage, and encouragement of the outrage of the women around them.
Michael Shulman: Can I also ask you, about a few years ago you revealed that you have Parkinson's disease, how are you doing?
Alan Alda: Surprisingly well. It was seven years ago that I was diagnosed. I have a tremor, which means that I can play any character as long as he has a tremor. That's okay.
Michael Shulman: Given your interest in science, has the science of Parkinson's disease interested you at all? I mean, do you look at it that way? "What's happening with my nervous system? What's happening with my body?" Does that give you any sort of comfort or is that an area of interest for you as you deal with it personally?
Alan Alda: One of the things that I wish people knew more about was when you first get diagnosed, it's really important to do a Parkinson's based therapy, physical therapy, right away, soon as possible. It's interesting. I really wanted to know if I had it. I read an article by Jane Brody in The Times that talked about people who acted out their dreams often turned out to have Parkinson's. I had a couple of experiences like that in one case. They're usually violent dreams. I was being attacked by somebody and I threw a sack of potatoes at them to fend them off and in reality, what I was doing was throwing a pillow at my wife, Arlene. That kind of acting out of your dream can be an early symptom, not so well known.
Michael Shulman: Was that one of the first things that you noticed?
Alan Alda: Yes.
Michael Shulman: Wow.
Alan Alda: I went to a neurologist said, "I'd to take a scan to see if I have Parkinson's." He gave me a routine physical examination and said, "You're can have this scan if you want but I'm telling you, you don't show any signs of Parkinson's." Took the scan, he called me up and he said, "Boy, you really got it."
Michael Shulman: Oh, my gosh.
Alan Alda: That's good. That gave me a chance to start doing something about it.
Michael Shulman: Has having Parkinson's changed your sense of what you want to do with your work?
Alan Alda: I don't think so. I think it limits what I can do to some extent. My job is to find out how I can get the most done within the limits that are set for me but I'm just pragmatic about it. I think of it as a part-time job.
Michael Shulman: Thank you so much for talking with me, Alan. I really enjoyed it.
Alan Alda: Well, thank you and thank you for a fun conversation. I appreciate it.
Speaker 1: The New Yorker's Michael Shulman spoke with Alan Alda. There's more from their conversation at newyorker.com