It says something extraordinary about a star that he fantasizes about being a workaday sales engineer in New Jersey. It is even more extraordinary when, as it happens, that star actually lives much like a sales engineer in New Jersey. But that is Alan Alda, 39, a very different cat from the glib, womanizing Korean war surgeon, Hawkeye Pierce, he plays on CBS’s M*A*S*H, the slickest, wickedest situation comedy ever made. The real-life Alda—not the lean sharpie with a scalpel in one hand and a torpedo juice martini in the other—will be presented to the American viewing public March 14 by character actor Paul Sorvino in CBS-TV’s new family comedy We’ll Get By. Alda conceived and produced the show right out of his own suburban household and even wrote six of the scripts.
The one thing that Alda could not do was play the lead himself: no one would believe Hawkeye as George Piatt, an updated Fred MacMurray-Robert Young figure with a thick Jersey accent, a thicker waist, a wife and three teenagers. But Alda does in fact commute between Hollywood and a modest house in Leonia, N.J., wherein live his wife of 18 years and three teenage daughters (“and where my neighbors respect my privacy”). Alda unashamedly admits that he poured his heart’s blood into the scripts. “It’s an attempt to show a family living the way people really do live—and not as they do on television,” he says. And not just any family but one very like the Aldas. “Once,” he recalls, “I was watching a tape of the show at home in which there was an argument between mother and daughter. I turned around and my wife and one of my daughters were having exactly the same argument.”
Suburban sobersides notwithstanding, there is no way that Alan Alda can shy away from becoming a superstar. M*A*S*H, long in the top 10 in the ratings, won him the 1974 super Emmy as the outstanding actor in a series. And last week, in TV’s latest awards hokum, the “People’s Choice” special, a nationwide sample of just plain folks chose Alda as their co-favorite male (with Telly Savalas) in all televisionland. What’s next? McLean Stevenson, who plays Henry, the M*A*S*H commanding officer, cracks that Alan has a good shot at the Nobel Peace Prize.
There is indeed a certain pompous sanctity about Alda that both awes and, in one case anyway, bugs his co-stars. Gary Burghoff, the Cpl. “Radar” of M*A*S*H, finds that he admires Alan as actor, director and family man but finds Alda “sits on his feelings” and is generally “aloof” from the cast. Nonsense, says Loretta Swit, the series’ chief nurse, Major (“Hot Lips”) Houlihan, who finds him “fantastically warm” and “the most multitalented and versatile person I’ve ever known.” (“I’m sure, since I’m the only female on the set,” she adds, “there are rumors linking Alan and myself romantically. This is not true.”)
Alda is, to be sure, a more militant activist for causes, especially feminism, than his own wife. He learned commitment from his father, actor Robert Alda. The old man (born Alfonso D’Abbruzzo in New York) is best remembered as George Gershwin in Rhapsody in Blue and Sky Masterson in Broadway’s Guys and Dolls. He broke young Alan in at age 6 at the Hollywood Canteen for World War II servicemen. At 7, Alda came down with polio and credits his mother (since divorced from his father) “with saving me. There she was, every hour for months, dropping hot packs on my back.”
Alda was educated mostly in parochial schools, finishing off at Fordham University. As an Army reserve officer, he married Arlene Weiss, a clarinetist with the Houston Symphony. In New York Arlene taught music (the wife in We’ll Get By has given up a promising piano career) while Alda scrabbled around for parts. They included The Apple Tree and Purlie Victorious on Broadway, Paper Lion in films, but he made a point to try for “statement” properties such as Truman Capote’s The Glass House, a harrowing, well-executed made-for-TV movie about prison life.
At about this time, Alda was sent several M*A*S*H scripts but remained unsold. “If it was going to be just hi-jinks on the battlefield I wanted no part of it,” he told the creators. “I wanted to make my position clear against war. Two doors had already opened,” he says. “All in the Family dealt with subjects not traditionally fit for comedy, such as death, rape, bigotry. Mary Tyler Moore doesn’t deal with subjects, but with human behavior. It’s comedy coming out of character. These two shows have made M*A*S*H possible, and M*A*S*H has gone on from there.” It certainly has—as viewers will realize by the way in which M*A*S*H’s McLean Stevenson is being disposed of. Never in the history of U.S. prime-time TV has a major character been written out of the script so brutally. When Stevenson served notice that he wanted off the show to seek his own series on NBC, the producers wrote a March 18 season-closing episode in which he is transferred. But, in a final page of script which was kept sealed in an envelope until actual shooting, the M*A*S*H ensemble company was emotionally crushed to discover that “Colonel Henry” dies in a chopper crash.
It’s just part of the futility-of-war message that Alda thinks M*A*S*H is all about. When he received an honorary doctorate of humane letters at St. Peter’s College in New Jersey, Alan admits, “I preached at them. It seems that in the ’70s we are reverting to what we did in the ’50s. We’ve had Watergate, Vietnam. We’ve had cars that fall apart, movies that poke their fingers into gore for the fun of it. It’s when you see sex, murder—all the things that in real life have an effect—treated as if they don’t matter, then something is wrong. Making rape casual, making lying casual, making murder casual—we’re screwing around with the moral ecology.”
Straightening out that ecology keeps Alda in California away from Jersey half the year, though he will hop a redeye flight to be back with his kids for even a weekend. Alan’s famed father says proudly, “Energy runs high in our family. I don’t know if it’s the Italian olive oil or what, but it keeps the machinery going.” His son, after finishing a season of M*A*S*H, launching a new series and shooting a pilot for another, is down with the flu these days and feeling momentarily less energetic. “I want to spend time with my kids and not answer the phone,” says Alan. “I want to take a week off and cough. I’m doing all the things I’ve wanted to since I was a little kid. It’s just that I never meant to do them all at the same time.”