Republican role allowed Hawkeye to reinvent himself
IT’S a strange legacy that M* A* S* H* has left Alan Alda. The usual line about the situation comedy is it ran longer than the war it was nominally about ( 11 years, while the Korean War lasted three), but with the series still running in low- rating slots about 25 years after its final season, it’s fair to say its legacy will easily outlast even the cultural memory of the war.
However, although Alda’s face may remain familiar to children for generations to come, this kind of ubiquity comes at a cost: a sort of counter- intuitive invisibility that springs from being a permanent fixture.
For a man of Alda’s range, intelligence and achievement, it seems a shame his name conjures up little more than memories of a childhood spent watching M* A* S* H, slightly perturbed by the sight of his ostrich- like neck thrusting at the screen a head with more teeth than a novelty comb.
Alda has never been hard up for work, but his filmography doesn’t really present much competition for Hawkeye, the character he is so closely identified with.
M* A* S* H* ’ s overwhelming success means it represents just about everything modern sitcoms have turned against, and this combination of credit and criticism belongs in no small part to Alda, who stepped in as creative consultant and sometime writer and director midway through the show’s run.
The show was never really a true ensemble piece, but Alda guided his character into a focal point, overshadowing the rest of the cast, elbowing out heavy comedy for intense and sometimes preachy drama, and gradually turning his character to the ‘‘ saint in medical garb’’ role that so strongly, and perhaps pungently, lingers in the memory today.
Reading about Alda’s breadth, depth, intelligence and confidence makes you wonder if he based this messianic image on his own vision of himself.
Whether pretension or aspiration, the nicer- than- nice image sure left an impression that hasn’t given Alda much room for reinvention, as least as far as mainstream media is concerned. Too ingratiating to be hilarious, too comfortable to be sympathetic, too quaint to be dramatic, for years Alda’s been the kind of guy we know we should like, the kind of guy we want to like, but just can’t find a place for.
Plenty of Alda’s appearances, including a recurring role on medical drama E. R. , still seemed to draw on M* A* S* H* . Alda has filled the past decade with great supporting roles ( including a celebrated turn in Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator ) but for too long he looked like a big grin with nowhere to go.
Alda’s role as presidential contender Senator Arnold Vinick in The West Wing may have changed this. Making people laugh is a precursor to just about any other emotion and established comedy figures, especially those as self- aware as Alda, have always had plenty of potential to reinvent themselves in other genres.
Clearly, Alda had been in no hurry to foist himself on the viewing public, but The West Wing ’ s reliance on presenting intelligent, rounded characters with an underlying streak of nobility seemed tailor- made for his mannered depths, even if the liberal icon had to become a Republican. Kit MacFarlane