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One On 1: Actor Alan Alda

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NY1's Budd Mishkin continues his series, "One On 1," with a profile of one of the nation's most respected actors, a New Yorker born and bred - Alan Alda.

 View the full, uncut interview with our web-only "One On 1 Extra" feature at the bottom of the page.


You know Alan Alda's reputation as a nice guy. In the 70's and 80's, he was the epitome of the sensitive man.

Sensitive?

"If you can be rich and anonymous, that's the best. That's the best. The worst is to be famous and not have any money,” he says with a laugh. “If you save somebody's life and you become a hero and you're an elevator operator, you're in bad shape. Don’t do it - let them lay there, let them drown. Mister Sensitive, you know?"

Alan Alda's ability to laugh at his own reputation is only one of the traits that has endeared him to television, movie and theater audiences for the past 40 years.

I spoke with Alda at his alma mater, Fordham University, only the second time he'd been back since graduation 50 years ago.

“I had fun in spite of the fact that, you see all these women walking around? There were none then,” he says.

Alda has been in a reflective mood the last two years, writing a collection of personal vignettes and memories into a book called "Never Have Your Dog Stuffed."

“These past two years have been an extraordinary time in my life - probably the best time of my life, partly because it's for free," he says.

It's for free because Alda almost died of an intestinal blockage two years ago in the mountains of Chile. He was there for a segment on the PBS show he hosts, "Scientific American Frontiers."

As he told a gathering at the 92nd Street Y, a local doctor told Alda he'd have to cut out one part of his intestine and sew the two good ends together.

“And I said, ÎOh, you're going to do an end-to-end anastomosis,’” he says. “He was really stunned, and he said, ÎHow do you know that?’ I said, ÎI did many of them on ÎMASH.’”

The near-death experience led to the book, which contains stories that make the plot twists of Alda's acting career seem tame.

He was born Alfonso D'Abruzzo in New York, but spent much of his childhood traveling the vaudeville circuit with his father, actor Robert Alda. And he had a unique perspective.

“I’d stand in the wings and watch strippers when I was 2 and 3-years-old. I didn't realize other people didn't have a background like that,” he says.

Alda eventually took the stage with his father, easing the competitiveness of the father/son dynamic, at least temporarily.

“We were just equal playmates on the stage. I didn't feel he was controlling toward me, and he didn't feel i was rebellious toward him,” he says. “Soon as the curtain came down and we left the stage, then that's what we went back to."

But his mother Joan suffered from mental illness, a topic not discussed at the time. When Alda was a child, she tried to stab his father. Years later, she thought her son was trying to push her out of an airplane.

“To me, having a mother meant how to figure out, why does she think I’m trying to kill her?” he says. “Even when I was younger, is she right when she says they're taking that picture from that crack in the wall? You know, there were a lot of things that were difficult to get through."

Long before he had his pick of roles on stage and screen, Alan Alda was a struggling young actor working all sorts of odd jobs. One month he made the rent by taking the daily racing form to Aqueduct and devising a system of numbers and probabilities to handicap the races.

But sometimes, choices had to be made, like the rent or his nightly can of Foxhead beer.

"It cost $1.05 a six-pack. That was pretty cheap, even then,” he says. “One week we wouldn't be able to pay the rent if we didn't really watch the pennies, so I didn't drink that $1.05 six-pack that week."

Things got better. Much better. But in 1972, no one could have predicted that a show about doctors in the Korean War would last 11 seasons.

“Nobody knew we were going to be successful at all,” he says. “The studio didn't think so, and they put us in the smallest sound stage they had so they wouldn't waste any money on us if it bombed after a few weeks."

“MASH” became more than a successful television show. It became part of the culture, an offbeat look at war while the country was going through the aftermath of Vietnam. And Alan Alda as Hawkeye Pierce became one of the most famous faces in America.

There was a downside. He received letters from people considering suicide seeking his help.

When the show first became popular, Alda suffered from nightmares that a man was choking him.

“When you suddenly get very well known, how do you respond to that? How do you live with it?” he says. “There are a lot of people that think being famous would solve their problems, and what they don't realize is, if they had problems to start with, they're going to have more after they are famous. It doesn't solve your problems - it complicates them and complicates your life. I don't recommend getting famous.”

How do you stay normal when the world around you has gone crazy? Alda tried by keeping his family in New Jersey, and commuting home on weekends from Los Angeles.

“The only thing about it was I had a constant jetlag buzz all the time,” he says. “I wouldn't be able to overcome it during the week, and I’d be getting up early and going to bed late acting on ÎMASH,’ so I didn't get much sleep and I was always somewhere over Iowa, in my system.”

The public may have seen him as Hawkeye Pierce, but Alda says he never lost a part because of typecasting, perhaps because he played other parts in movies during “MASH.”

We've seen him in a wide variety of roles throughout his career: As writer George Plimpton trying to make the Detroit Lions football team in “Paper Lion.”

"People don't know what an athlete I am,” he says. “And also you'll see me boxing with Sugar Ray Robinson. Unfortunately, he gave me a bloody nose."

Some know Alda running for president on “The West Wing” as Senator Arnold Vinick. Friends and family have but one question.

“I was talking to a bunch of people and somebody said, ÎWho's going to win?’ And I said, ÎI don't know,’” he says. “He said, ÎAlright, let me put it another way; how long is your contract for?’ I said, "I'll be there as long as I have to be to turn this great country of ours around.’”

Alda's had a lot of good lines through the years. He appeared frequently on Broadway before the mass success of “MASH.” Over the last decade, he's been back in shows like “Art” and “Glengarry Glen Ross.”

Alda says he's looking forward to getting better in the only job he ever wanted.

"My father had a deadline. He said, ÎIf I don't make it by the time I'm 29 I'm going to find another job.’ I would have gone on until this age,” he says. “I'd be working at the post office or someplace, as long as I could still act and write and stuff like that. I was just totally immune to the idea that I might not succeed."

- Budd Mishkin

ONE ON 1 EXTRA

 Take a behind-the-scenes look at this week's "One On 1" profile with Budd Mishkin's full, uncut interview in Real Video:

  PART 1

  PART 2

  PART 3

  PART 4

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