Alan Alda Is Still Awesome

The actor and director talks about his podcast, the comedic chops of Volodymyr Zelensky, and being called an “honorary woman.”

ew actors inspire the warm fuzzies like Alan Alda. At eighty-six, he’s still the platonic ideal of “nice dad”: the type of guy you’d find in a cardigan, reading a copy of the Sunday Times in an armchair. But the popular image of Alda doesn’t cover the remarkable breadth of his career. There was, of course, his eleven-year run playing Hawkeye on “M*A*S*H,” the era-defining wartime dramedy. (The series finale, which Alda directed, is still the highest-rated episode of a scripted series ever aired.) He was a genial presence in Woody Allen movies in the eighties and nineties, a voice in Marlo Thomas’s children’s album “Free to Be . . . You and Me,” a Republican Presidential candidate on “The West Wing,” an aging hippie in “Flirting With Disaster,” and a kind but inept divorce lawyer in “Marriage Story.” During the “M*A*S*H” years, Alda was an outspoken advocate in the feminist movement. He’s directed four movies, written three books, and, from 1993 to 2005, hosted PBS’s “Scientific American Frontiers,” becoming a kind of pop-culture science teacher. In 2009, he helped create the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science, at Stony Brook University.

These days, Alda’s primary occupation is podcaster. He recently released the two-hundredth episode of “Clear+Vivid with Alan Alda,” on which he has interviewed authors, artists, scientists, and luminaries, including Yo-Yo Ma, Helen Mirren, Stephen Breyer, and Madeleine Albright. (It has an all-science offshoot, “Science Clear+Vivid.”) His conversational style, as you might expect, is gentle, informed, and unendingly curious. When Alda appeared on my Zoom screen recently, he wore tortoiseshell glasses and occasionally sipped from a blue mug with a sailboat on it. His right hand had a visible tremor, a symptom of Parkinson’s disease. He was at his house on Long Island, where he’s spent the pandemic with his wife of sixty-five years, Arlene Alda. When he’s not preparing for his podcast, he and Arlene play chess during the day (“She’s just beaten me three times in a row, which she’s exultant over”) and ladder ball before dusk, then eat a nice dinner and binge-watch TV shows (lately, Scandinavian family dramas). “It’s not noisy in the country,” Alda said. “I don’t have to show up places. Places come to me.” Our conversation has been edited and condensed.

What made you want to become a podcaster in your eighties?

It was to help the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science. Whatever income comes in from the podcast goes directly to the center. We’ve trained about twenty thousand scientists in nine different countries to communicate science better. But the podcast is fun just in itself, so it’s a double whammy for me. It’s about communicating in every way, which includes through acting, music, food. I get to talk to some of the most interesting and smartest people in the world.

Do you have a guiding philosophy for interviewing?

I do, and that is to have a genuine conversation and not ask them questions that I prepared in advance. It should come out of genuine curiosity, because that opens the other person up. I realized, while I was doing “Scientific American Frontiers,” that I was making use of things I’d learned as an improviser and as an actor.

How does improvisation help you communicate with people who are not actors?

Improvising requires relating. I’m not talking about comedy improvising—I’m talking about improvising based on the work of Viola Spolin. 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 really saying to you. When I would be talking to the scientists, it took them out of lecture mode and put them in conversational mode.

I’m going to try to keep all this in mind as I ask you questions.

You know, it’s funny. For the book that I wrote about this, called “If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face?,” which is in a nutshell what we’re talking about, I think three people who interviewed me said, “I’m taking the challenge. I’m closing my laptop right now.”

Helping scientists communicate is a real passion of yours. Were you seeing a problem you wanted to help solve?

It didn’t occur to me that there was a problem to be solved. What we were doing on the television show was useful to making science more accessible to the public, and I wondered, If we trained scientists, starting from actually improvising, would they be able to relate to the audience the way they were relating to me? I did a kind of experiment. One day I was at a university in L.A., and I had twenty engineering students come in one at a time to talk to the others about their work. Then we improvised for three hours and they talked again, and everybody in the room was surprised at how much clearer it was, how connected they were to the audience, not just rattling it off at them. Later, we developed a curriculum.

Can you give an example of an improv exercise that you’ve done with scientists?

One of the most basic things is the Mirror Exercise. Let’s you and I do it. You be my mirror. [He holds his palms up.] No matter what I do, you have to instantaneously do the same thing. [I put my hands up to the screen. His hands drift apart and then together, and I follow. Then he jerks his right hand to the side, and my left hand trails behind.] Now, did you see what just happened? Why weren’t you able to keep up with me?

Was I not concentrating?

No, because I went too fast. What you learn when you do this is that it’s your responsibility to help the other person be the mirror. Another primary thing you learn is that if you don’t observe the other person so carefully that you can almost predict what they’re going to do, it’s not going to work, because it has to be instantaneous. And that’s just the beginning. After we do a number of exercises based on improvising, then we help them tailor their message to the audience that’s going to hear it.

This seems so relevant to what we’ve been through in the pandemic, when public-health officials have had to communicate complex and evolving information to everyone on the entire planet, basically. Dr. Fauci is a good communicator, and yet people still have trouble understanding what is happening day to day.

I’ve been sorry to see that a basic message about science has not been communicated better than it has been, which is that science evolves. We had this problem long before covid, where people would say, “Last year, you told me that red wine was good for me. This year, you’re telling me that it’s not. What are you going to tell me tomorrow? You can’t make up your mind!” Good scientists doubt their own work. It’ll look like they’re contradicting themselves, but they’re learning more about it in different ways. One scientist had a good analogy: If you were in a football game and you kept doing the same play over and over again, even though you were losing, would a fan say, “What are you doing? You’re changing the plan! First, there was passing. Now you’re telling me to run through the middle?”

And yet so many people say, “Why are you telling me to wear a KN95 mask, when six months ago a cloth mask was fine?” The science is evolving, and the virus is evolving, so naturally it’s going to change.

I think there’s a problem when you see a line at the bottom of a science article that says, “More research is required.” That ought to be closer to the top. And the headline shouldn’t say, “New Breakthrough! Everything’s Fixed!”

Why do you think that there’s such a persistent anti-science sentiment in this country? It’s been really pronounced during the pandemic, with the anti-vax movement, but it seems like a feature of American life. Or maybe it’s human life.

I don’t know why people have lost touch with the basic workings of science. When you hear people who don’t believe there’s a problem with climate change, they call themselves skeptics. Scientists are professional skeptics. When the vast majority of them talk about the problems of climate change, they’re working from a set of facts that the person who’s just heard about it has not.

As a science enthusiast, are there any particular scientific concepts that you’re really interested in at the moment?

It all knocks me out. I have only a smattering of knowledge, so I don’t have to pretend to an ignorance I don’t possess. I thought it was really interesting that crispr, the gene-editing tool, borrowed machinery from bacteria, which can find a spot in the DNA of viruses that are trying to invade the bacteria and chop up the DNA of the virus. So it can find like a G.P.S. system and snip like a pair of scissors, as far as I understand it. And the lowly bacteria are now helping us revolutionize medicine. Did that make sense, what I said? I’m curious.

I think so.

Because what that’s enabled us to do is to make edits in the DNA at the right place. And, of course, there are dangers involved in that, because you can start fooling around with human characteristics, which can be highly unethical. But it enables us to develop medications and cure genetic diseases.

I listened to a recent episode of your show where you talked to Mike Brown, the astronomer who “killed Pluto” by demoting it from a planet. Has space been a long-standing interest of yours?

No. It was funny because I never understood why it was such a big deal that Pluto had to be demoted. Maybe it’s because Pluto is associated with the name of the cartoon character—sort of soft and fuzzy. On that same show, I talked to the biographer of [the carbon scientist] Millie Dresselhaus, who I met in Oslo when I helped give her the Kavli Prize. Every couple of years, I’d help the King of Norway give the Kavli Prize, and Millie was one of those people. It turned out she came from the Bronx, where Arlene, my wife, came from, so she included her in her book, called “Just Kids from the Bronx.”

Who else is from the Bronx?

Oh, so many people. Carl Reiner. And some people you never heard of—but all people who had interesting lives. It’s just about their childhoods in the Bronx. It’s a lovely book. This came out of something you asked me, and I forget what it was.

Me, too. But that’s O.K. I’m happy to talk about the Bronx. I went to high school there, and we did a lot of nature trips to Van Cortlandt Park.

One of the people in her book, to make a little extra money one summer, grew pot in the park and sold it to musicians in the Borscht Belt. He later turned out to be a solid citizen. I can’t remember if he became a judge or what.

I was reading your memoir “Never Have Your Dog Stuffed,” and there was a line that I liked: “I was curious from the first moments—not as a pastime, but as a way to survive.” What did you mean by that?

My mother, unfortunately, was schizophrenic and paranoid. 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 spied on. And I remember from a very early age, noticing her depression and wondering what it was all about. I was curious, but maybe a little extra curious, because I had to figure out what was happening.

Do you think that has anything to do with your sense of curiosity about science, about human behavior?

Well, I was also an amateur inventor as a kid. I would make drawings of inventions. I invented a five-way can opener, and I built a malted-milk machine.

Did it work?

It didn’t explode, I know that. And I remember designing a house that was on a hill over a swimming pool, so you could look down through the glass floor at the pool. Kind of a stupid invention. But one of the things I invented that was not so stupid was a lazy Susan in a refrigerator, so you wouldn’t have to reach to the back. A year after I thought of that, one was on the market. But then they stopped selling them a year or two later. I guess there were ketchup bottles flying across the kitchens of America.

You’ve always radiated a kind of decency and goodness as an actor—

How dare you speak to me that way!

—but you grew up around seedy burlesque clubs. In your book, you describe your father shooting craps, and you being in the showgirls’ dressing rooms as a kid, which is so different than I think how people would imagine Alan Alda as a child.

Or any other child! Well, it’s not the polar opposite of being decent. There was no indecency that I was aware of, just a lot of naked-idity. I was in the wings, watching burlesque shows, from the time I was two or two and a half, and I was very aware of the naked women. But I was also aware of the comics, and I watched their sketches, and sometimes as a joke they put me in the sketch. That’s how I learned acting, from watching from the side.

Your father, Robert Alda, was a “tit singer”?

He would stand on the side of the stage and sing a song in the opening number while the chorus girls paraded, usually with nothing on from halfway up. There was this one number—I think the music might have been “Battle Hymn of the Republic”—and at the end an American flag rose in the background, and the chorus girls yanked open their jackets, revealing their chests, and saluted. It was educational. And historic.

Oh, boy. And your father was the original Sky Masterson in “Guys and Dolls” on Broadway.

I stood in the wings and watched, usually every Saturday, two shows. I was about fifteen, sixteen.

What did you learn from watching in the wings?

It was wonderful. I knew my father so well, so the difference between him and the character was instructional to me. Even better than that was watching Sam Levene [as Nathan Detroit], who was a very spontaneous actor. He would say the exact same words, but they would come out differently every night. The music of what he was saying was different. He would sometimes get a laugh in a different place than when it came last night. That’s really unusual.

Did you want to be the kind of actor that your father was?

No. Interestingly, I was always more competitive with my father than he was with me. He was very gentle and almost never tough on me. But I was very competitive with him. Once, I was helping him learn his lines when I was ten years old, and I said, “I think you could read that differently.” I was directing him.

When you started acting, were you defining yourself in opposition to him?

I thought he had the leading-man thing sewn up, so I saw myself more as an eccentric comedian. Then, as I got older, I realized I had to take on the leading-man part.

What was the first acting role that really challenged you?

They all did. I like the notion of working as hard as you can but eternally being a kind of amateur. I’ve often thought that whatever method I have changes with each part I play. Somehow I gotta get to where I want what the character wants. I don’t feel I’m there until I feel I’m entitled to get what the character wants.

What do you mean by “entitled”?

Well, whatever he wants—from “I want your lunch” to “I want your wife” to “I want you dead.” They call us actors because we accomplish action. There’s something dynamic going on, and that’s usually associated with a want, a desire. You can act as if you want something but not really believe it. That’s not very interesting to watch.

In your early career, were there people who taught you or showed by example what you’re talking about?

Once in a while, I’d find myself being mentored by someone, but in very minor ways. Things like “Don’t run out of breath in a long speech.” I was at an audition once, when I was about twenty-one, and the guy sitting next to me had been in the theatre for decades. He said, “You know, it’s very important to know your first line.” When you think about it, I guess it is! If you’re going to pick a line to not know, it shouldn’t be the first one.

One of your breakout roles was in 1964, in the Broadway production of “The Owl and the Pussycat,” with Diana Sands. What do you remember about that?

Diana and I were a little competitive with each other. It was only a two-character play, and each of us was trying to take the stage away from the other. We were watching each other like hawks. We got a lot of praise for “ensemble acting,” when what we were doing was the opposite.

And then you did “The Apple Tree,” a Broadway musical directed by Mike Nichols. Do any of his directions stick in your mind?

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.” And 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, like the podcast.

Is that still how you work?

As much as I can. It’s an attempt at empathy: What’s going on in the other person? If you build up that muscle, the floodgates open up, and there’s stuff going on back and forth between the two of you.

It sounds easy to be spontaneous, but it’s probably the hardest thing in the world.

Well, it’s easy to put other things first. You can tell when you watch acting into which not a lot of time has been put. You see it a lot in procedural police television shows, where they’ve got to get twelve closeups of twelve people in a room, and the actors are 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.

You, of course, played the same character for eleven years on “M*A*S*H.” Was it difficult to maintain the level of freshness and spontaneity that you’re talking about?

There were probably dips in attentiveness. But one of the ways that we avoided that was the process we developed off camera, while we were waiting to do the shots. Instead of going back to our dressing rooms, most of the time we sat around in a circle of chairs and made fun of one another. And laughing together, having a little party, gave us a connection, and we just continued it into the scene. Sometimes we would keep talking while they were calling for quiet on the set, and just before the first line of dialogue we’d get quiet. It sounds undisciplined, but it was a discipline of a different kind. We were keeping the connection going.

What you’re describing sounds a lot like the camaraderie of the characters on the show—these doctors who are working in a dangerous environment, and all they really have is one another’s company.

None of us experienced anything like what the people in real mash units had to go through, but we had long days that were exhausting. Twelve-hour days were common. You have to be more alert than you usually are, because this is going to go out over the air. So we needed one another’s energy.

We’ve seen so many horrible images of war over the past year, whether Afghanistan or Ukraine. Does your experience doing “M*A*S*H” affect how you think about those images and about life in wartime?

I don’t think so. I started out having really negative opinions about war. As a little boy during the Second World War, watching war movies, I had a piece of cardboard with the silhouettes of American and Japanese planes, and I would watch the skies to see if we were being invaded by Japanese pilots. And we played war games in the back yard. 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. Now we’ve got wholesale slaughter of civilians—maternity hospitals, schools. This kind of brutality is not new. Every generation or so, you get people saying, “This time, this is a good war. Something good will come out of this.”

Right. Humanity has to keep learning the same lessons over and over again.

I really wonder whether we’ll ever be capable of learning.

M*A*S*H” was so brilliant at combining the terror of war and comedy, and it makes me think about Volodymyr Zelensky, who, of course, was a comedic actor and is now the President of a country at war.

I watched his show, where a high-school teacher becomes the President of a country. And then the guy who plays that part becomes the President of the country, almost mirroring the story. He’s a remarkable guy. Communicating the ideas that are in the show has helped him be a communicator as a President, like when he did that Victory Day march down the street alone, instead of Putin’s tanks.

Yeah, there’s a kind of improv spirit to it.

When you talk about connecting, he’s connected with the whole world in a way that few people have in my life.

On a completely different note, can you tell me how you got involved in “Free to Be . . . You and Me”?

When my friend Marlo Thomas thought of the project, she asked me if I wanted to contribute any material or perform. That was for the album version. Then she used some of that material in the TV version. I wound up acting in it, doing songs in it, and directing most of the sketches. I wound up directing my friend Mel Brooks and Marlo in the baby sequence. It’s going to be fifty years since we did the record, and generations of kids have grown up with that.

It’s such an incredible project, because children are still bombarded with so much gender stereotyping and it tells you that you don’t have to follow those conventions. Why was that important to you in the seventies?

I was a very vocal feminist, mainly in the effort to get the Equal Rights Amendment passed. I spent about ten years or more devoting most of my time to that. When I wasn’t shooting or writing, I was out campaigning, talking to the state legislatures and at rallies in church basements.

Weren’t you called an “honorary woman”?

The Boston Globe called me an “honorary woman.” But I kind of regret that, because menopause was horrible.

Well, you’ll live longer.

That’s true! I never thought of it that way.

I can’t think of very many other male public figures who went out of their way to identify themselves as feminists. What kind of reaction did it get back then?

At first, nobody minded. It was sort of a curiosity. There weren’t many men speaking out about feminism, but to me it seemed like fairness to both sexes was beneficial to both sexes. Why tell half the population 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.

There’s so much talk now about how to be a good ally to various causes, whether it’s feminism or Black Lives Matter. But you really saw the value of being an ally to women very early.

And it was welcomed. 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. So you really have to be willing to listen. One of the people I interviewed was Melinda Gates, and she told me that, when she was beginning her work in philanthropy, she learned to listen more to the people she wanted to help. When she was in India with sex workers, explaining that she was going to help get them much greater access to condoms, to protect them from diseases, the women said, “We don’t need condoms. We need protection from the men who want to beat us up when we ask them to use a condom.” So if you want to be an ally you can make an assumption that you can help in a certain way, which isn’t necessarily what’s needed.

Right, there’s the risk of arrogance.

Certainly not intentional. It’s just not listening. Listening is the best part of communicating.


With the leaked Supreme Court opinion on Roe v. Wade, it feels like that era of feminism has been betrayed in a huge way. How do you feel about what’s happening now with women’s rights?

I think it’s awful. And it’s not clear that it’s going to stop here. The idea that contraceptives were always a target in the past may be still alive. I mean, I understand the idea that the potential life of a human could be important to somebody. But why not just forbid first dates, because that can lead to conception, too?

As someone who had such a voice in the feminist movement fifty years ago, what do you think the role of men should be now in this fight for abortion rights?

Personal outrage and encouragement of the outrage of the women around them. I really hope that women who are reacting to this draft opinion with anger translate that into action and organizing. Otherwise, it’s going to be a steamroller.

What is your feeling about the idea of an Alan Alda type—the “nice guy” thing? I’ve heard you say, “No, I don’t really play only nice guys.”

I’m always interested in characters who are flawed, and at least half of the people I’ve played have been seriously flawed. So I don’t know. I must ooze something that I’m not even aware of. Every time I play a really bad guy, somebody says, “Gee, you’ve never done that before.” And I’ve done many bad characters. So I don’t know what’s oozing there.

You’ve played a lot of senators. I counted at least three.

Yeah, senators, doctors, lawyers. I look better in a suit than a loincloth.

You were at the opening night of “Oh, Hello on Broadway,” and I love those characters, George and Gil [the alte kakers played by John Mulaney and Nick Kroll], who are intense Alan Alda fans. How did you find out about them?

I think they contacted me through my nephew, who’s an actor, Ian Alda, and I looked at their stuff on YouTube. Was that opening night I was with them?

Yes. When I heard you were there, I thought, They’ve done it! The ultimate coup! But people love to think of you as the ultimate Upper West Side intellectual, lovable fuddy-duddy.

The fuddy-duddy part I don’t get. I need to get my thesaurus of idiomatic English out.

A few years ago, you revealed that you have Parkinson’s disease. How are you doing?

Surprisingly well. It was seven years ago that I was diagnosed, and I have a tremor, which means that I can play any character as long as he has a tremor.

Did your character in “Marriage Story” have a tremor?

Yeah. We didn’t mention it. It was a very slight tremor at that point. I worked with Liev Schreiber on “Ray Donovan,” and they wrote it into the script, because [the main character’s] brother had a tremor. So his therapist had the same problem that his brother had, which they thought would be interesting.

I imagine that you spend more of your time with doctors since you got this diagnosis. Have you noticed anything about the doctors’ abilities to communicate with you as a patient?

I find the doctors I talk with all very communicative. Except, at least on one occasion, one of them said, “There’s this study, but I’m sure you know all about that”—assuming that I know more than I know, because I’ve interviewed so many scientists.

They probably also know that you played a doctor on “M*A*S*H” and assume that you have vast medical knowledge.

We actually had a friend once whose husband collapsed in the bathroom in the middle of the night, and her first instinct was to call me. And I said, “What did you think I’d do? Come over and tell him a couple good jokes?” ♦

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