Alan Alda has been acting for six long decades. And while he may be a familiar face to most of us, for a while there was something that his many fans didn’t know about the screen legend. It appears, in fact, that the M*A*S*H star had been hiding a life-changing diagnosis. But after more than five years of living with his illness, Alda spoke out about how he’s coped.
Quite simply, Alda is arguably one of America’s most beloved actors. And the award-winning TV star is perhaps most famous for his portrayal of “Hawkeye” Pierce – the much-loved army captain from the war comedy-drama M*A*S*H.
But Alda has achieved many great things over the course of his 60-year career. Aside from M*A*S*H, he has starred in shows such as The West Wing and E.R. as well as having hosted Scientific American Frontiers. And that’s not even to mention his considerable success on the big screen.
Some of Alda’s most notable film roles include that of George Peters in 1978’s Same Time, Next Year and Lester in Woody Allen’s 1989 movie Crimes and Misdemeanors. In 1981 he even turned his hand to directing by helming romcom The Four Seasons, in which he also acted.
And the New Jersey resident’s work has earned him some substantial accolades. Alda has six Emmys to his name, for instance, as well as a further six Golden Globes – nearly all of which are for his work in M*A*S*H. In 2004 the actor also received an Oscar nomination for his performance in The Aviator.
It’s perhaps unsurprising that Alda went into acting, given his background. He was born Alphonso Joseph D’Abruzzo in New York City on January 28, 1936, to vaudeville performing parents. His father was Robert Alda, and it was through him that Alda received his first taste of the limelight.
In fact, showbusiness was just a part of life for Alda as he was growing up. He made his stage debut while he was still a baby and spent his formative years traveling the country with his family as part of an entertainment troupe. There were comics, strippers and showgirls, and all of them were apparently quite smitten with the youngster.
Given the eccentric circles in which he moved in as a child, Alda began to see the outside, non-entertainment world as quite boring. In March 2020 he told The Washington Post newspaper that he saw normal folk as “civilians” who couldn’t make each other laugh. Clearly, that’s where Alda stepped in.
It seems that comedy came naturally to Alda, despite the fact his childhood was marred with some difficulties. For example, he battled polio as a youngster, while his mother struggled with her mental health. Nevertheless, Alda had a talent when it came to entertaining people and would perform in sketches with his father.
Alda’s family eventually made California their home, after his father got his break in the film industry. It wasn’t until seventh grade that Alda started attending public school. And he later told The Washington Post, that his first reaction to his classmates was, “Wow, look at the size of that audience.”
But that being said, Alda admitted that his peers were not particularly a willing audience. He explained, “I did bits, impersonations, a little improvised tap dance. For some reason I didn’t understand, this made kids want to hit me.” Even so, Alda refused to give up performing.
At the age of 16, Alda first flexed his acting muscles while performing in a summer stock theater in Pennsylvania. He would go on to attend Fordham University in New York and study theater and improvisation. Later, when he was just 23, the actor made his Broadway debut. But while Alda was hitting his stride professionally, it seems that he was not as slick when it came to matters of the heart.
After Alda watched Arlene Weiss playing Mozart on her clarinet at a college party, he told The Washington Post that his opening line had been, “Hi. You were good.” But despite his underwhelming first impression, the world had plans for Alda and Weiss and the pair were reunited at a dinner a few weeks later.
The young couple cemented their bond after a cake their host had made fell off the fridge onto the kitchen floor. Unperturbed, Alda and Weiss were the only guests to grab a spoon and get stuck into the dessert. The actor told The Washington Post, “So that was it. From that time on we were almost inseparable.”
Alda and Weiss ultimately married in 1957. And with his wife by his side, Alda made the leap from Broadway to Hollywood, bagging his first film role in 1963 in a flick called Gone Are The Days. According to the actor, Weiss encouraged his dreams by never asking him to get a more steady job, even when the going was tough.
In his interview with The Washington Post, Alda said of his wife, “I was thinking the other day she’s the soul of my soul… Because I wouldn’t be who I am without her.” Together they’ve raised three daughters: Beatrice, Elizabeth and Eve. Alda and Weiss also have eight grandchildren – two of whom are reportedly eager to follow their grandfather into the acting profession.
With his successful career on stage and screen and a loving family of his own, Alda realized he was lucky. However, in 2003, he underwent emergency surgery after almost losing his life as a result of an intestinal obstruction. And he claims that his brush with death left him questioning the meaning of life.
Alda later told The Washington Post he’d concluded that the thinkers which he had studied in his college days had been right. He explained, “They said the meaning of life is the meaning you give to it.” With that in mind, he decided he had to keep busy in order to inject a sense of purpose into the time he had left.
Armed with this mantra, by mid-2018 the accomplished actor, director and dedicated family man had showed no sign of slowing down. It was then, after all, that the 82-year-old launched his Clear+Vivid podcast, which explores human interaction and communication.
In order to promote his new venture, Alda then gave a number of interviews to the press. And it was during one particular TV chat – on this occasion with CBS This Morning in July 2018 – that the actor revealed that he had been diagnosed with a life-changing disease more than three years prior.
The disease in question was Parkinson’s, a progressive disorder that affects the central nervous system. Among its many possible symptoms are involuntary tremors and stiff muscles. And, unfortunately, there’s currently no known cure for the condition.
In particular, Alda had decided to speak out about his diagnosis after noticing a tremor while watching his television interviews back. And as a result, he thought he’d take ownership of his journey and perhaps provide some hope to other Parkinson’s sufferers.
Speaking to CBS This Morning, Alda explained, “I could see my thumb twitch in some shots [on TV], and I thought, ‘It’s probably only a matter of time before somebody does a story about this from a sad point of view.’ But that’s not where I am.”
Instead, Alda said that he has lived “a full life” following his diagnosis. Revealing some of his achievements from the past three years, he added, “I’ve acted, I’ve given talks, I help at the Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook [University]. [And] I started this new podcast.”
The M*A*S*H star also revealed that he had first sought a diagnosis after learning that physically performing out your dreams may be an early symptom of Parkinson’s. “I was having a dream that someone was attacking me, and I threw a sack of potatoes at them. But what I was really doing was throwing a pillow at my wife,” he explained.
Regardless of his condition, though, the actor seemingly wanted to promote an attitude of positivity. “In the very beginning [after diagnosis], [you can] be immobilized by fear and think the worst thing has happened to you,” he admitted. “[But] it hasn’t happened to you.” And Alda himself has learned how to live with his illness.
Revealing how he’s grabbed life with both hands, Alda said, “You still have things you can do. I’m taking boxing lessons three times a week. I do singles tennis a couple of times a week. I [also] march to Sousa music because marching to music is good for Parkinson’s.”
And instead of being angry about his prognosis, Alda sees the illness as a kind of “challenge.” He added, “You’ve got to cross the street, [and] there are cars coming. How do you get across the street? You don’t just sit on the pavement and say, ‘Well, I guess I’ll never cross the street again.’ You find a way to do it.”
Alda isn’t the only actor to have spoken out about his Parkinson’s diagnosis, though. Perhaps one of the most prominent people with the disease is Back to the Future star Michael J. Fox. Fox found that he had the illness in the 1990s and has been an advocate for those living with Parkinson’s ever since.
However, during his CBS This Morning interview, Alda was eager to stress that no two experiences of Parkinson’s are exactly the same. “There are some common symptoms, but mostly everybody’s different, and each day is different from the next. One day you wake up, you think, ‘Oh, it’s over, it’s gone.’ Next day it’s back a little worse,” he explained.
And while Alda hoped that speaking out would help others, his actions weren’t entirely altruistic. By being open about his diagnosis, the actor admitted, he could therefore live without agonizing over whether someone would spot his symptoms and out him.
Then, concluding his interview with CBS This Morning, Alda said, “I’m not going to worry [about Parkinson’s.]” He added, “It’s three-and-a-half years since I had the diagnosis, and it hasn’t stopped my life at all. I’ve had a richer life than I’ve had up until now.”
And in the years since his diagnosis, Alda has continued to live life to the full, regardless of his diagnosis. His Parkinson’s has even informed his performance in the Showtime drama, Ray Donovan.In the TV series, in which Alda has starred since 2018, he plays a therapist with a more advanced form of the condition than himself.
During a 2019 appearance on the Present Company podcast, Alda explained how the creators of Ray Donovan had developed his character. He revealed, “When they realized I had Parkinson’s, they said, ‘You mind if we write that into the script…?’ But now I’m doing scenes where the character I’m playing has a worse tremor than I have, and I have to fake it.”
A year after going public with his Parkinson’s diagnosis, Alda gave another TV interview, this time with The Today Show. In it, the star revealed, “I’m good. I shake a little, but I’m good. I work out. You can hold back the progress if you do a lot of specific exercises, so I do a lot of crazy things.”
It seemed that, from what Alda was saying, he was just as active as he ever had been. Listing some of his hobbies, the actor mentioned common activities like tennis, swimming and cycling However, being a born entertainer, Alda had also turned his hand to more flamboyant activities.
That’s because Alda revealed that he spent some of his time not only juggling, but marching too. He revealed that – when it came to the latter – the works of the composer John Philip Sousa were his jam. Alda said, “I march to Sousa music… Lotta Sousa music going on all the time in my house.”
As well as keeping up with his exercises, Alda had dedicated himself to picking up some social media skills. Despite being an octogenarian, the actor has established a presence on Instagram and Twitter. And his technological know-how has apparently earned him an unexpected nickname.
That’s because Alda had become known as the oldest millennial in the world to the people he worked with. He told The Today Show, “That’s what they call me at my office because I’m very into computers and social stuff, you know, and my podcast. I’m very happy with all that stuff.”
So, given his seemingly ceaseless lust for life, Alda claimed that he felt as young as ever. And while he’s keeping busy, he doesn’t let the fact that he’s getting older bother him. He told The Washington Post, “I think of it as an acting thing. Right now I’m playing an older guy with less hair… So, that’s fine. I’ll play that part.”