T V wise guy seeks wis­dom

At 71, Alan Alda is de­vot­ing his busy brain to fer­ret­ing out the mean­ing of life, writes John Free­man

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Cover Story -

SOME­ONE for­got to tell Alan Alda that there won’t be an exam on, well, all hu­man knowl­edge at the end of his ca­reer. In the past two decades, be­tween act­ing in films by direc­tors as di­verse as Woody Allen and Martin Scors­ese, he has trav­elled the world in­ter­view­ing sci­en­tists, 600 to 700 of them. Along the way he got bored, so he taught him­self how to pro­gram com­put­ers. He also learned 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,’’ says the 71- year- old Alda, sit­ting in 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 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 US television se­ries. The 1983 finale was watched by 106 mil­lion Amer­i­cans and re- runs 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 Mis­de­meanours ) 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 TV pro­gram Sci­en­tific Amer­i­can Fron­tiers . It was in this ca­pac­ity that Alda did have a brush with death. He found him­self on top of a moun­tain in Chile with ter­ri­ble stom­ach pain. It turned out that about 1m 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, 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 self­ind­ul­gent 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 Thomas Jef­fer­son so­ci­ety or the doc­tors at the 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* A* S* 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 a pres­i­den­tial can­di­date 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 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 and 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 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,’’ he says.

‘‘ 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 Mis­de­meanours 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 Ar­lene, a pho­tog­ra­pher and chil­dren’s au­thor. It may 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 chil­dren 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 au­dio book 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 but oc­ca­sion­ally won­ders whether the Amer­i­can pub­lic can be coaxed into car­ing about math­e­mat­ics. ‘‘ What’s the dif­fer­ence be­tween cal­cu­lus and ad­vanced cal­cu­lus?’’ he asks. He re­ally wants to know, and his face falls 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 ( Hutchin­son, $ 32.95).

Life­long learner:

Alan Alda, left, as Hawk­eye Pierce with Gary Burghoff as Radar in M* A* S* H ; Alda as a Repub­li­can sen­a­tor in The West Wing

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