May 04, 1989 12:00 PM

N*I*C*E. Everybody agrees on that. Niceness is the universally recognized secret of his love-with-a-touch-of-malice affair with his audience, and the emotion is complicated only because mere mortals have trouble with anybody that n—e. The relationship seems odd because, after all, he made his mark as a sarcastic, rule-breaking, incipiently alcoholic war surgeon on M*A*S*H and has not once played an unadulterated hero. But niceness shines through his characters’ flaws like the sun through wisps of clouds, which makes him seem…sigh…only nicer. As Capt. Benjamin Franklin “Hawkeye” Pierce on M*A*S*H, he was the renegade ringleader of a lovable band of Korean War medicos who sewed up America’s hearts, but there was a time on each show when the funny docs got blood on their hands. Then Hawk-eye most clearly showed his touch. Irreverent, antiwar and bold (one episode consisted entirely of the characters talking to the screen one by one), the comedy about horror ran 11 seasons. After its First, it always ranked among the top shows and helped Alan Alda become the only man ever to win Emmys for writing, acting (three times) and directing.

Spinning off the TV show from the 1970 hit movie wasn’t his idea—he wasn’t even sure it was a good idea at first—but by the time M*A*S*H ended, with an episode watched by more people (125 million) than any show to this day, Alda was its linchpin. He joined decency, wit and rebelliousness to set the tone of the most original program of its time.

It is hard to imagine now, but Alda did not come to success quickly. Born Alfonso D’A-bruzzo, he grew up hopping from one burlesque town to another, watching from the wings as his father, Robert, acted in revues. He made his own debut at 6 months, in a high chair, and “got a laugh,” his dad noted. Later he got into B movies, but, a friend once said, “he had an amazing capacity for picking the wrong roles.” He had to work as a cab driver and gas station clown on the side. And then along came Hawkeye.

M*A*S*H let Alda, now 53, a dedicated feminist and tennis player, develop showbiz muscle. He made a reported $20 million to write, direct and star in three movies and millions more to turn one of them, The Four Seasons, into a TV series. He did spots for IBM and Atari for $7 to $10 million more. But nothing since has quite touched M*A*S*H. The series left the air at the top of its ratings. Five years later it is thriving in syndication. In some places you can watch it five times a day, and Alda takes home an estimated $3 million a year from the reruns. N*I*C*E indeed.

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