Alda, Alan

Despite the fame, he's just like an old friend from down the street


From the March 18, 1988, Deseret News

DENVER – Alan Alda looks like any ordinary guy as he walks into a Denver television station wearing a nondescript overcoat over a gray sweater. His tie is loosened and the shirt collar is unbuttoned. Maybe he's a technician or an executive.

But that familiar loping gait, the Hawkeye Pierce swagger that has always been part Groucho Marx, gives him away. He hasn't even spoken yet – and that voice really gives him away – but before he gets to the studio that is his destination he's surrounded by an entourage of fans who just want to get a look.

Alda doesn't give autographs, it is explained, and oddly no one seems disappointed. Familiar from "M*A*S*H" reruns that may be TV fodder for centuries to come, as well as his more recent theatrical films and TV ads for IBM, Alda is more than a movie star-director-writer-pitchman . . . he's a nice guy. The fellow from down the street. An old friend.

He's Alan Alda.

Even his name has come to personify something in particular, bandied about in sitcoms as a definition for "the sensitive man" – particularly sensitive toward women. He's a cliché for the gentle male feminist.

"That public image that I seem to have never strikes me as real – it's one-sided, it's ‘Mr. Nice Guy' and stuff like that," Alda said Wednesday. "All clichés are one-dimensional."

The Deseret News interview was held in an empty studio at KMGH-TV, the CBS affiliate in Denver where Alda had come to promote his latest film, "A New Life," which opens next Friday.

He had just finished taping a noon "infotainment" show with a gushing host and an enthusiastic audience, the latter prompted by a stage manager who rallied applause before a film clip from "A New Life" was able to reach its punchline. But Alda graciously pretended not to notice and was quite charming for the full half-hour.

Alda says he's not doing too much traveling with this movie, but last weekend he gave 55 interviews in one day to press from all over the country gathered in Los Angeles. He was in Denver Wednesday, and he'll be in Chicago on Thursday, then on to New York.

He's characteristically modest, always couching his talk about himself with words that indicate he is "trying" to achieve certain success in his work, and not that he's sure he has achieved it.

Despite his protestations, it's hard not to see him as "a nice guy." But he flinches at the shallowness of the description.

"All clichés are one-dimensional. I have to be honest that in the beginning it used to rankle. It's kind of funny that a person would feel bad about being called a nice guy, or sensitive. That's not a bad trait, that's a good trait, and maybe I am sensitive or not too much of a bulldozer, and that's not too bad to be that. But I also know, and people close to me know, that that's just one side of it."

Which may explain why the people Alda has written for himself to play in "The Seduction of Joe Tynan," "The Four Seasons," "Sweet Liberty" and now "A New Life" seem to be slightly obnoxious, rather selfish and self-centered. That's never been more true than with his latest character, a bearded workaholic stock trader, whose wife (Ann-Margret) leaves him after a 26-year marriage, forcing each to begin anew.


                        Ann-Margret, Alan Alda in "A New Life"

"He's very different from any character I've ever played, which made it really fun for me as an actor. (He's) a little selfish, opinionated, doesn't care what people think of him, has his own way all the time and gets really sore if he doesn't get his own way."

But Alda says he doesn't deliberately write characters for himself who are the antithesis of his perceived persona. "When I try to write a character, I try to write a lot of different sides.

"I'm not aware of doing it to try and correct a public image. I don't know. What I'm aware of is trying to find real characters, characters that strike me as real people. And it seems that they're not real if they're not flawed in some way."

As for the beard, which goes from gray to darkened and back to gray during the course of the film: "To me that makes him more of a specific person. People have seen my face a lot, on ‘M*A*S*H'" and on interviews, as a private citizen I campaigned politically for the Equal Rights Amendment, and so people have an impression of this face. I hope it's fun for people to see me try to act a different person. It was a lot of fun for me. I never had such a good time."

Alda said that though he has been happily married for 31 years, he became interested in the subject of divorce in the ‘80s through friends, in particular one who was in his early 50s, married a younger woman and suddenly found that he was going to be a father. "He was going to Lamaze classes and was finally present at the birth." The same thing happens to Alda's character in the film.

But I wasn't really interested in writing it as a movie until I realized I would probably enjoy also following what happened to his first wife. I think you get a more balanced view of what life is like now for suddenly single people (by) following both of them."

What's more, Alda said virtually everything in the film springs from a real-life situation. "Some of the funniest things they say and some of the more touching things they say came from real people. So I can praise them without patting myself on the back because all I did was listen and find a way to put it together."

Alda said his method of developing a script is to write notes to himself and throw them in a "crummy little nylon bag that I carry around with me wherever I go." When the notes get him excited enough he begins to write the script.

For "A New Life" the inspiration came at Robert Redford's Sundance Institute in Provo Canyon two years ago when he came as a resource director for the June lab.

"I was so excited, so stimulated by being with other filmmakers all day long, talking about moviemaking all day long, that I looked at my notes one day and said, ‘I'm going to start. I'm not going to worry about failing.' Not starting is really fear of failing, I think. The tenor of the place there at Sundance is, ‘You're supposed to fail. You come here to fail. To learn and to get better.' And I tried it, and I started writing and I had a first draft a couple of months later."

Alda has no immediate plans for the future, except to promote "A New Life" and do his IBM commercials. Since most of his fellow "M*A*S*H" cast-members have gotten together for IBM ads, the natural question seems to be whether he and the group would all do a mini-"M*A*S*H" reunion as a future commercial spot. "They tell me that (we will). I'm looking forward to that."


                Alan Alda as Hawkeye Pierce in TV's "M*A*S*H (1972-83)

And of trade paper reports that he's working up a sequel to "The Four Seasons"? "I keep reading that too. But I keep not thinking of one. I haven't got an idea that I think works yet. I would love to see what happens to those characters 10 years later, because the world has changed so much. And I love those characters. They're very specific. They really seem like real people to me. But I don't want to do it just to do a sequel. I want it to be something I would like to go see myself. I don't want it to seem like a ripoff either."

Though he writes and directs his own movies now, Alda says he is not opposed to doing films for other writers and directors. He just hasn't found one that's been alluring enough.

"I'm actively looking for it. It would have to be something I really want to do. I'm offered things that wind up being played by a very wide range of people. And some of them are cops and some of them are businessmen, lawyers or doctors, blue-collar people sometimes. And I like that."

Alda's father was the late Robert Alda, a distinguished actor in his own right. And Alda's daughters Elizabeth and Beatrice have also acted, together in "The Four Seasons," and Beatrice plays Alda's daughter in "A New Life."

"I do exactly what my father did. I discourage them and then I do everything I can to help them. That's what he did with me. He got me a job once in Italy working in a play with him. And then I went up and did a small part in a television show he was doing. He tried to help me get some experience. I made my daughters big speeches about how they should find some other profession and I wrote them parts in ‘Four Seasons.' One daughter's not acting now, she's studying to teach deaf children. Beatrice is still acting, although she's exploring other parts of the business. It's very tough to be an actor.

"I hope my kids are happy in whatever they're doing. I hope they can be as happy as I've been. I've been very happy, very lucky."