Starring in M*A*S*H, one of TV’s biggest-ever shows, made Alan Alda a star. Adored by the industry and fans alike, this multi-award winning actor has since been on our screens for decades. But his success doesn’t end with shows including ER and movies such as The Aviator. In fact, the star is a noted activist, with a shelf full of trophies for his off-screen work. Given that he’s now in his 80s, you’d be forgiven for wondering how he keeps going. And during a recent speech, he revealed the three words that motivate him, whatever the situation.
Receiving a doctorate from Scotland’s Dundee University in 2017, Alda gave a revealing address. Which is something that he should be used to, given that the actor has had no less than eight honorary degrees bestowed upon him by venerable institutions such as Pennsylvania’s Carnegie Mellon University. Suffice to say, then, acceptance speeches come naturally to the actor. And this one was a doozy.
But, as Alda told website Considerable in 2019, speeches can sometimes pose a challenge. This one most certainly did. “[The University] told me I’d have three minutes to speak. Three minutes isn’t very long!” Despite that limitation, though, the actor managed to come up with a fantastic topic. And the address ended up revealing something very special.
Recalling the address during the interview, Alda explained, “When I got up to speak, I said, ‘I only have three minutes, so I thought I’d give [you] the secret to life.’” Which, for a short speech is a pretty impressive goal. But when said secret comprises just three words, it seems a lot more achievable. And given the actor’s rather incredible life, it might just be worth a listen.
The baby that would become Alan Alda came into the world in 1936. Back then, though, he was known as Alphonse D’Abruzzo. And his showbiz life started almost immediately, thanks to his father, Robert. A stage performer, Alda’s dad is widely credited with creating Sky Masterson, a role later made famous by Marlon Brando in Guys and Dolls. As a result, the young Alda had an interesting start in life.
As Alda told TV program 20/20 in 2019, his childhood was definitely interesting. “My earliest memories are standing in the wings watching my father singing while the chorus girls danced half-naked.” But the future star’s interaction with the slightly creepier side of showbiz didn’t end there. “Then the chorus girls would take me up to their dressing rooms and they sort of made me their mascot.”
Alda went on, “[The dancers] would say, ‘We’re going to change our clothes now, turn your back.’ I’d turn my back and I’d stand with my face right in the silk costumes they had worn.” And perhaps unsurprisingly, those events left their mark on the little boy. Because, believe it or not, he was only a toddler when he was in those changing rooms.
“I’m two and a half, three years old [at the time],” Alda continued. “And you might think this doesn’t make an impression on a kid that age. It does. It doesn’t go over your head.” Despite this mildly R-rated episode, the future star’s strange childhood was only just getting started. And showbiz had little to do with it.
In addition to those dubious child-minding practices, the young Alda also faced a very different challenge. Joan, his mother, suffered from paranoid schizophrenia his entire childhood. As a result, the actor explained to 20/20, “She thought people were trying to kill her. She thought I was trying to kill her. She thought I was trying to kill her very often.”
Inevitably, as a result of Joan’s illness, her relationship with her son suffered. “I resented her for not being a mother,” Alda once wrote. “I hated her for it.”This difficult home life, though, taught the future star a valuable skill that would stand him in good stead in the coming years.
“In order to survive,” Alda told 20/20, “I had to watch very carefully what was happening.” But his vigilance didn’t end there. Given his mother’s illness, it became hard to tell what was true. The actor explained, “Was she telling me something that was really happening or was this a psychotic fantasy?” As awful as this may sound, it gave the young man something many people don’t have: a heightened sense of others’ emotional states.
And, it seems, that experience proved essential preparation for Alda’s future career. He explained to 20/20, “It made me super-aware of what was going on around me. I think eventually that was helpful to me as an actor and writer, because […] I’m focused on the other person.” Before screen success beckoned, though, came another painful challenge.
As a seven year old, Alda caught polio. In an effort to cure the young man of the disease, he was put through a series of excruciating treatments. The actor described them to 20/20, saying, “My parents had to wrap these scorchingly hot blankets around me and hear me scream.” A painful run of physical therapy followed, and even to this day, the actor refuses anything even remotely related, such as massage.
Alda survived his illness with few lasting effects, something many sufferers did not. He went on to graduate from high school and then left New York’s Fordham College with a degree in English. And it was while studying that the future star was bitten by the acting bug – but not in America.
During Alda’s time at Fordham, he spent a year in Europe. There, he won a role in a production in Italy and even appeared alongside his father on a Dutch TV show. But despite this early success, the future star didn’t start acting right after graduation. Having joined the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) while at college, he then spent a year in the military. Which, ironically enough, included a spell in Korea, the very conflict in which M*A*S*H was set. But that was still years away.
At the tail end of the 1950s, Alda appeared in a few plays,as well as an episode of TV’s The Phil Silvers Show, but parts were few and far between. As a result, the actor took numerous jobs to support his new family. He married Arlene Weiss in 1957, the pair having been college sweethearts, and they had three daughters together. To make ends meet, the future star worked as a taxi driver, a doorman and, at times, a clown. By the 1960s, however, things were slowly changing.
At the turn of the decade, Broadway beckoned and Alda spent several successful years there. He made his Hollywood debut with a bit part in 1963’s Gone Are The Days!, and movie work began to trickle in. By the time the actor auditioned for what would become his defining role in 1972, he’d made five further movies, including 1968’s Paper Lion. And then came M*A*S*H.
Based on Robert Altman’s 1970 movie of the same name (but without the asterisks, posters excepted), M*A*S*H was a televisual behemoth. Running for 11 seasons from 1973, the show was a runaway success and the stats are simply astonishing. A whopping 256 episodes aired in total and 1983’s finale was seen by a record-breaking 100 million people. To put that in perspective, the Friends finale peaked at 52.5 million. And Alda was the creative heart of the show.
Playing Hawkeye Pierce in M*A*S*H sealed Alda’s celebrity. But he wasn’t just popular. He was, in fact, so essential to the show that he’s the only cast member to appear in every single episode for 11 years. In addition, he directed 32 installments, including the finale. And as if that wasn’t enough, the star also co-wrote 19 episodes. In recognition of this huge talent, the Emmys nominated him 21 times, and he walked away victorious on five occasions. But the actor was only just getting started.
Over the course of the next three decades, Alda continued to showcase his talent. During the 1980s, he wrote three movies, including 1981’s The Four Seasons. He began the next decade with his final script to date, Betsy’s Wedding, a movie inspired by his own daughter’s nuptials. And from there, things just got busier.
With no fewer than nine movie appearances in the 1990s, including Michael Moore’s Canadian Bacon in 1995, you’d think Alda was busy enough. But no. Despite being in his 60s by then, the actor also managed to squeeze in three TV movies. And then there was the award-worthy guest arc on one of the decade’s most popular shows.
Playing a doctor with Alzheimer’s on ER earned Alda yet another Emmy nomination. But this wouldn’t be the last time the actor would appear on an uber-successful TV show. In 2004, he did it again by becoming a regular on every liberal lefty’s favorite series, The West Wing.The TV academy loved his portrayal of a Republican senator so much, they nominated the star a further two times. And in 2006, he won. But he still wasn’t done.
So popular with the Emmys was Alda that they’d bestow another two nominations on him. The first came in 2009 for his turn as ultra-liberal kidney patient Milton Greene on 30 Rock. The second would take a further six years, but in the meantime, the star popped up on The Big C, before his role in The Blacklist saw him back on the red carpet.
During the 2010’s, Alda found himself as in demand as ever, despite now being in his 70s. Starring in Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies, web series Horace and Pete and Love Letters on Broadway in the space of two years, it seemed there was no stopping him. Then, in 2018, the actor took a role in the crime drama Ray Donovan. That same year, though, he also revealed a secret that he’d been keeping about his health.
In 2018 during an interview with CBS showThis Morning, Alda finally spoke about a condition he’d been living with for three years. The actor was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2015, but hadn’t gone public. Having taken the role in Ray Donovan, producers decided to write his condition into the show. But as the star told PEOPLE magazine in 2019, “I’m doing scenes where the character I play has a worse tremor than I have, and I have to fake it.”
Of course, living with a disease such as Parkinson’s can lead to some self-reflection. Indeed, Alda has put his re-evaluations to good use: due to his activism and the consequent huge number of acceptance speeches he’s given, he’s always on the lookout for new material. And during the actor’s address in Dundee in 2017, he took the time to reveal his secret to life. And it boiled down to just three words.
It turns out that for Alda, those three words are, “Adapt, adjust and revise.” As he told Considerable in 2019, “That’s the advice I’d give to my 50-year-old self, and it’s the advice that I followed myself.” Given the star’s success, he might be on to something. But why tell his middle-aged self?
“It’s especially useful when you’re in the second half of your life,” Alda explained. “The longer we live, the more we have to adjust to the fact that things might start to rust and fall off.” The actor went on, “Every time we lose a capacity like hearing […] we have to adapt to a new way of handling those functions.” But his advice didn’t end there.
“We have to respond to changes that make life difficult,” Alda told Considerable. “And we have to keep revising the way that we think about things. If you can’t be agile physically, you have to hope that you can be agile with your thinking.” Given the star’s lifelong passion for science, his mental agility seems just fine.
Indeed, as presenter of TV show Scientific American Frontiers for over a decade, Alda has very publicly declared his passion. And, it seems, he was more than willing to suffer for his convictions while filming the show. Running until 2005, the PBS series took a humorous but factual look at the topics of the day, often putting the host in some odd situations.
In one particularly memorable episode, Alda became visibly unwell while test-driving a virtual car. But things got much worse for the presenter than a touch of nausea. In fact, he once nearly died on a mountain in Chile while filming the show. Suffering from a blocked intestine and miles from anywhere, as he told The Guardian newspaper in 2019, “I had about two hours to live.”
Alda, of course, survived, but it just goes to show how far he’s willing to go to promote science. This passion, coupled with the actor’s natural charm led to something of an ambassadorial role for him in the field. In his goal of communicating complicated ideas in an easy-to-digest way, the star has been incredibly successful. And he has a shelf full of awards to prove it.
In fact, in 2016 the National Academy of Sciences praised Alda’s “extraordinary application of the skills honed as an actor to communicating science on television and stage.” He was, naturally, receiving an award at the time. But the star doesn’t just talk science. He helps scientists teach it as well.
In 2009 the star, along with New York’s Stony Brook University, set up The Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science. Among other things, the organization helps scientists and researchers learn to talk to Joe Public. So far, more than 200 students have passed through its doors. And given its namesake, you won’t be surprised to learn that theater techniques appear in the courses.
But Alda’s ambassadorial role doesn’t end there. He’s also part of the World Science Festival and judges Math-O-Vision, a movie-based contest based on the joy of numbers. You’ll notice that communication continues to pop up as a theme in the actor’s off-stage work. And, in the 21st century, one of the most effective tools for that is a podcast.
In a perfect example of adapting and adjusting, Alda, who is now in his 80s, has a podcast. And a successful one at that. Called Clear and Vivid, the star uses the platform to promote effective communication by talking to those to whom we need to listen. And that covers a wide spectrum.
From theoretical physicists to Judge Judy, through Clear and Vivid Alda has interviewed people from every walk of life. And at the core of each episode is a theme of relating to people. Whether questioning the use of empathy or being able to spot a liar, better human interaction is the goal. Because, as the actor himself once said, “I don’t talk about politics in public, but I am in favour of facts.” And when we have those, talking is a lot easier.
And that love of talking may also help explain Alda’s extraordinarily successful marriage. Having wed his college sweetheart in the 1950s, the pair are still going strong today. And that’s a whopping 60-plus years of cohabitation. How do they do it? In 2019, the actor explained it all to The Guardian, saying, “When you’re in the middle of yelling at each other, which you will at some point, remember that you’re talking to the person you love more than anybody in the world and it might change the tone of the conversation.”
Indeed even as an octogenarian, Alda is working just as much – if not more – than ever. Case in point: as recently as 2019 he appeared in Noah Baumbach movie Marriage Story. In the Oscar-nominated movie, the actor plays a divorce lawyer living with Parkinson’s disease. That year, the actor quipped, “You don’t die from it, you die with it,” when asked how the condition affected his ability to work.
Whether you agree with Alda or not, you have to admit that, “Adapt, adjust and revise,” is some sound advice. And it seems to have worked pretty well for him. In his 80s and still going strong, the actor is building a legacy to those very words. Long may it continue.