Alan Alda On 'M*A*S*H*' And His 'Tremendous Education' Growing Up In A Burlesque Club
DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. On Sunday, Alan Alda will receive the life achievement award from the Screen Actors Guild. The SAG award acknowledges both Alda's humanitarian efforts and his long list of acting roles for the large and small screen. His starring film roles include "California Suite," "Crimes and Misdemeanors" and "The Seduction Of Joe Tynan." But his most famous role is on TV as Dr. Hawkeye Pierce. He was drafted during the Korean War and assigned to a mobile army surgical hospital, a MASH unit. Alda won several Emmys for that series, for writing and directing as well as acting. In the very first words we heard Alan Alda speak as Hawkeye in the 1972 pilot, he was reading from a letter he was writing to his father back home.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "M*A*S*H")
ALAN ALDA: (As Hawkeye Pierce) Dear Dad, Hawkeye here. You said I sounded a bit callous about my job in my last letter. Well, let me see if I can put it another way. This particular mobile army hospital, we're not concerned with the ultimate reconstruction of the patient. We only care about getting the kid out of here alive enough for someone else to put on the fine touches. We work fast, and we're not dainty because a lot of these kids who can stand two hours on the table just can't stand one second more. We tried to play par surgery on this course. Par is a live patient.
BIANCULLI: Alan Alda in the pilot episode of "M*A*S*H." When Terry Gross interviewed Alda in 1997, she asked him about that pilot.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
TERRY GROSS, BYLINE: What were your first impressions of the script?
ALDA: I thought it was an extremely good pilot when they sent me the pilot. I was in the Utah State Prison at the time...
GROSS: Filming - filming a movie.
ALDA: Yes. Well, yes. I was trying to work on the image there a little bit.
ALDA: I was shooting a movie for about three weeks in the Utah State Prison, and they sent me the script of "MASH," and it was the best script I had read while I was in prison, certainly. But it was also the best script of any television show I'd ever seen, I think. Larry Gelbart had written it. And it was really sharp, you know? But I was concerned that - I was concerned about what would happen after the show went into production. I didn't know if Larry would be part of it. And I was worried that it would become a high jinks at the front and that the war would just sort of exist as a pretext for silly stories.
And in fact, some of the early scripts done by freelance writers, who didn't know what the possibilities were and were sure that on television you don't go for anything substantive, wrote, in essence, "McHale's Navy" in Korea. You know? And "McHale's Navy" on the ground. And it really scared me at that point. But by then we had already had an agreement because before I agreed to do the show, I had a midnight meeting with Larry Gelbart and Gene Reynolds, who were producing the show. And we all agreed that we wanted to do a show in which the war was seen for what it is, as a, you know, a place where people are badly hurt. And the humor came out of the reaction to that. The humor came out of the crazy pressure everybody was put under.
GROSS: I guess the thought of things turning out badly, of it not being the script that you wanted, during the Vietnam era was pretty scary. I mean, you know, a war TV series during the Vietnam era that gave a kind of high jinks on the front message probably would have made you particularly uncomfortable.
ALDA: I think it would. Yeah. It probably would have been even more so then than it would be at any other time. But I always felt strongly about wars. And I...
GROSS: You were in the military, weren't you?
ALDA: Yeah. I was in - well, I was in the Reserves. I don't know if you call that being in the military. They put me in charge of a mess hall at one point, and we had to feed 200 people three meals a day. And I had six guys who sort of stared blankly at the wall and played with the liver. They were - I don't know how we fed those people. But I wouldn't call that being in the military. But, you know, I had to face the idea of it, which was interesting. I mean, when I was - I saw myself, I watched myself as I was teaching people. That was one of my jobs, to teach people how to kill the greatest number of people with a mortar shell. And I would keep them interested and, you know, I wanted to be a good teacher. As long as they gave me a job, I did the best I could.
And I was, like, getting good at making them learn how to do this. And I, (laughter) - you could have long discussions into the night, especially if you're a sophomore in college, about whether that's a moral thing to do. But the interesting thing about it is, I understood just from doing that that when you're in a war, it's real. It's the real thing. People are going to get killed or lose their arms and legs. And when we did "MASH," I wanted to make sure that at least that understanding that I had came out - that that's what we dealt with, and that we didn't gloss over that and make the show about how funny things were in the mess tent.
GROSS: I want to ask you about your formative years. You grew up in show business. Your father was Robert Alda, who, among other things, originated the role of Sky Masterson in the Broadway production of "Guys And Dolls," played George Gershwin in the 1945 film "Rhapsody In Blue." What was he doing before the movies, when you were a young boy?
ALDA: Well, when I was born, he was in burlesque. And I spent the first three years of my life standing in the wings watching strippers and comics and chorus girls. And it was a bizarre beginning to a life. Probably a lot of - most of the questions you ask me today can be answered by that, I think.
GROSS: What did you make of it, as a very young boy, watching strippers? Did you have any idea what that was about?
ALDA: I didn't. I didn't. But I do remember - you know, children are so much more aware than everybody gives them credit for. I remember thinking - 'cause when the chorus girls would take me up to their dressing room, you know, they would take me up, and they would comb my hair and talk to me. And I was like a mascot, like a little pet. And then they'd say, OK, Ally (ph), we're going to change our clothes now. Turn your back. And I'd stand with my face pressed against their costumes hanging on the wall, and I'd smell the perfume and I'd hear them behind me.
And I remember thinking, they don't think this means anything to me. (Laughter) You know? But this is really interesting. And it had to make, had to have a tremendous impact on me. It was a very unusual beginning to a life.
GROSS: Growing up on the burlesque circuit, you must have grown up thinking that one of the most important things you could do is have a good gag, good jokes.
ALDA: I really had a tremendous education watching the greatest comics that we had at the time - Rags Ragland, Phil Silvers, Red Buttons. All these people were - Hank Henry. He was another great burlesque comic. He was my father's partner, and my father and Hank would write their own sketches. Watching them from the wings, and then later watching Sam Levene when he acted with my father in "Guys And Dolls," I would stand in the wings twice a day for two years watching them. And I'd especially watch Sam.
All of these people were a tremendous education for me. I stood on the side. And watching from the side, you see not only what their performance is, you see where it comes from. 'Cause you're only a few feet from them. And you hear the audience reaction, and you see the way they play the audience. They have the same material every day, but they play the audience in a different way, depending on what the audience gives them back. And that interaction gives you a clue into the way their brains work.
It was a tremendous education for me, and I think I grew up with that interaction with the audience in my head. So when I would write for "MASH," for instance - which we didn't do in front of a live audience - I would know when I wrote the comedic moment. I would know what the audience reaction was. I could hear the reaction. In most cases, that would be true. I mean, I would - then if I'd see it played in front of a live audience, I'd be happily surprised to see that I had guessed right.
GROSS: Just about everyone I've ever met who grew up in the '50s or '60s was in some production or another - high school, junior high school, summer camp - of "Guys And Dolls." Were you ever in a production of it?
ALDA: Yeah. I was in a - not in school. I mean, it was after I was out of school that they were doing productions of it. But I got a - when I was a young, out-of-work actor, only about six or seven years after I stood in the wings watching them do it every day, every week, I got a call. A little theater in Illinois was doing it and, would I come out there and do it? Did I know the show and did I know the part? And I said, of course, I do. You know, when you're out-of-work actor, you say yes to everything.
Well, I'd only seen it. I hadn't learned it. I didn't know the songs really well, you know. And I didn't know the words. And they had lost their leading man and had to do it in two days. I had two days to get out there. And my hands were shaking when I got on the plane. And I didn't stop shaking until the plane - I never stopped shaking. I mean, I went on opening night with two days rehearsal. I didn't know what I was doing. And I was...
GROSS: Which part was it?
ALDA: Pardon me?
GROSS: Which part?
ALDA: I was playing my father's part.
GROSS: Sky Masterson.
ALDA: Yeah, Sky Masterson. And I was out in the opening scene. And I didn't - I couldn't even afford my own suit. So they loaned me a suit that had been hanging on a rack for six months someplace. And I kept my hands in my pockets because they were shaking so hard. And I started - I was so nervous I was playing with a piece of lint in my pocket. And, you know, I'm out there on stage playing the scene with the mission doll. So I - halfway through the scene, I take my hand out of my pocket with the lint in it. And I - you know, I casually look down at the lint, and it's not lint. It's a cockroach.
GROSS: Oh, no (laughter).
ALDA: Yeah. And it was very - the sight of that cockroach brought me back to reality with such a jolt that I lost all my nervousness. And I really looked at the woman I was talking to and really talked to her. And I opened my mouth, and a song came out. Everything was great. I mean, I'm surprised they don't bring a cockroach on with me, you know, every time I go onstage as a result of that.
GROSS: Now, you were going to go to med school, then became, I think, an English major. What was the turning point where you said, well, forget that; it's show business?
ALDA: I never really wanted to go to medical school. My father wanted me to go. He always wanted me to be a doctor.
GROSS: And you were but just on television.
ALDA: Yeah, he was finally satisfied with that. But here's the thing. Doctors were civilians. I was in the arts. I was in show business. That was my life. That was my identity. I didn't want to do anything else. And when people ask me for advice - young people who want to be actors or writers - especially if they want to be actors, I say to them, if there's anything else you can do, you should do it. If there's any hint that you can do something else, don't waste your life trying to be in show business because you have to have an all-consuming need to do it - an all-consuming passion. And I did have that. There was nothing else that I would consider being.
GROSS: What kind of career did you see for yourself when you started in show business?
ALDA: I wanted to be able to work in material that I cared about. I wanted to work with actors that I respected. And I wanted to do that in front of an audience that would get it - you know, that would appreciate the, you know, rich material, something that wasn't just a lot of foolishness.
GROSS: And do you feel like you got it?
ALDA: Yeah, I got - I was very lucky. I got it. I would have been happy if I could do that even in a small theater in - you know, out in the boondocks. It didn't matter to me as long as I had those three things - and as long as I could, you know, support a family. But I got it. I got this one-in-a-million opportunity to to do those three things in the big leagues. I mean, that usually doesn't happen.
BIANCULLI: Alan Alda speaking to Terry Gross in 1997. This weekend, he receives the life achievement award from the Screen Actors Guild. Coming up, I review the upcoming TNT mystery miniseries "I Am The Night," starring Chris Pine. This is FRESH AIR.
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