Pop Cultural Sainthood


Woman in Donahue show audience to guest Alan Alda: “I want to know what you’re absolutely lousy at. What is the worst thing you do?”

Forgive the desperate note in that query. But it often does seem that since Medevac-ing to fame as M*A*S*H‘s Hawkeye Pierce, Alan Alda, 45, has achieved something close to pop cultural sainthood. Behold his three miracles. First, in a medium where wit is usually preceded by nit, Alda has injected his cutup TV surgeon with unprecedented literacy for a phenomenal nine seasons. Second, his outspoken support of liberal causes—which shows through in some of the episodes of M*A*S*H he’s written and directed—hasn’t hurt the series’ Top Five Nielsen ratings, even in states where the ERA may surpass understanding but does not pass legislatures. And third, his marriage (who hasn’t heard of his bicoastal weekend commutes?) has survived 24 years of Hollywood stresses with scarcely a California fault.

At 6’2″, Alda is a foot taller than his hitherto seldom seen wife, Arlene, 48, but otherwise they see eye to eye. No one is more pleased than Arlene, an accomplished photographer, that Alan’s protean talents are making him a major Hollywood presence. The occasion is The Four Seasons, a ruefully comic paean to friendship that features Alda as writer, actor and, for the first time, film director. “M*A*S*H was somebody else’s success,” he exults. “This time they’re standing in line for me.” The movie is the first of a three-picture deal with Universal budgeted at $20 million (he got coveted rights to each movie’s final cut) that Alda landed after writing and acting in 1979’s The Seduction of Joe Tynan. Like that other family-man actor turned auteur, Robert Redford, Alda has scored big—Seasons grossed $11.5 million in just its first 10 days.

Alda conceived the film (he jots ideas on three-by-five cards, shuffles them into order, then dictates the story into a tape recorder) while thinking about a real friendship in which he was “too judgmental.” Recalls co-star Carol Burnett: “When friends said they were going to get a divorce, Alan acted like, ‘How dare they do this to me?’ Then he went through a bit of self-analysis. I told Alan he was very brave to do that.”

His aspiring actress daughters Elizabeth, 20, and Beatrice, 19, both drama majors at East Coast colleges, gained their first professional experience in Seasons, playing college students. Alda admits he wrote the parts specifically for them—”After all, it is my movie.” Alan wants to “pass on what I know. If I had a delicatessen, I’d be teaching them that business. Very few people make a living as film actors—four times as many men as women. You either get out or you get strong. If they decide to do something else, I’d be a little happier.” But for now, he admits, “I love it when they get applause.”

Eldest daughter Eve, 22, a University of Connecticut graduate working in a mental health center to prepare for a psychology Ph.D., helped Mom with her contribution: a series of wacky vegetable photos that figures in the plot. After photographing them, Arlene laughs, “we had a great vegetable dinner—and then I found out some would have to be reshot.” Unperturbed, Arlene stayed on the set for the entire nine weeks. That was something she had never done before because “as close as Alan and I are, I don’t like just standing around.” Instead, she clicked, and the result is a behind-the-scenes photo album, On Set (Fireside/Simon and Schuster, $9.95), that documents the making of the movie. “Having a book published,” says Arlene, “is a special thrill.”

Alan, in fact, has managed to share his success with more than just the Alda women—Four Seasons‘ New York premiere was a benefit for the Ms. Fund for Investigative Journalism (an arm of the feminist journal), raising $60,000. And with Arlene, he recently contributed to save the deteriorating Seneca Falls, N.Y. home of pioneering 19th-century feminist leader Elizabeth Cady Stanton. “It should exist as a symbol,” he says. Ms. editor Gloria Steinem, who has known Alda since the 1960s, comments: “We might really believe that men were not concerned about the ERA, if not for Alan.” Even before he had a lot of money, Steinem relates, Alan refused scripts that were hostile to women. He once returned one with the note, “I won’t act in this, but if you tell me when it’s opening, I’ll picket.”

Given Alan’s fierce commitment, Arlene says she still doesn’t have to try to be the kind of woman he espouses. “I am the woman he espouses,” she proclaims. “Otherwise, we never could have stayed together all these years.” Their love is manifest in features great and small. On Arlene’s last birthday, for instance, Alan managed to move a surprise party of 18 friends, a Chinese chef and a USC string quartet into their living room while she was upstairs on the phone. He has a bawdy sense of humor among friends (“Thank God,” says Burnett, “he isn’t Goody Two-shoes”), and he and Arlene share a tender delight in the absurd. At the Manhattan party where they met 25 years ago, they were the only guests who happily sat on the floor to eat the hostess’s rum cake—which had toppled off the refrigerator.

The namesake son of actor Robert Alda (both were baptized Alfonso D’Abruzzo), Alan was raised on vaudeville routines, growing up in L.A. with “a lot of relatives and laughter.” (His parents divorced when he was in his 20s.) Stricken with polio at 7, he recovered to swim eight hours a day. He was tutored at home until the seventh grade. Chubby and inept at football (“I preferred to live”), he “knew what it’s like not to fit a stereotype, to hear people say, ‘If you don’t behave a certain way, you aren’t welcome in our gender.’ Somewhere in there was the fertile ground of my feminism.”

After graduating from Fordham University, he joined the Army Reserves (his experiences later inspired an episode of M*A*S*H) and married Arlene Weiss, the Bronx-born daughter of a lithographer and a seamstress. An “extremely active” child, Arlene had begun to play the clarinet in high school, and by the time she graduated from Hunter College was sufficiently skilled to land a seat in the Houston Symphony. She gave it up to marry Alan. “He had directness, honesty, loyalty, a deep intelligence and a sense of humor,” she says now.

While Alan drove cabs and colored baby pictures for a photo studio awaiting his acting breakthrough, Arlene gave birth to their three children. Daughter Beatrice now speculates that having only girls may have helped shape Alan’s feminist views. (Retorts Alan: “If I’d had sons, I’d be a feminist with sons who are feminists.”) Eventually he starred on Broadway (The Owl and the Pussycat), in movies (The Paper Lion) and on TV (That Was the Week That Was) before landing in M*A*S*H. Meanwhile, Arlene taught music, played in a few concerts and had several shows of her photos. “I don’t feel I lost anything,” Arlene says of giving up her symphonic career. “I gained a stable home life, which is more than many people have.” Adds Alan: “I know I wouldn’t be where I am without Arlene. It sounds perfunctory, but only because people don’t know our intimate business.”

With their daughters on their own, the Aldas now divide their time between their home in L.A.’s exclusive Bel Air and the 50-year-old New Jersey brown frame house they have owned for 17 years. They’re also building a beach house on a 53-acre Long Island plot they own with friends. The days when Arlene carefully stuffed Alan’s cabdriving tips into envelopes marked “rent,” “food” and “electricity” are long gone. Alda’s M*A*S*H salary (one of TV’s highest) has been estimated at more than $200,000 per episode. His writing and directing stints, residuals and movie profits should bring in several million more. Yet the Aldas are hardly extravagant. Alan’s preferred duds are blue work shirts, and he winces when Arlene mentions the Mercedes she gave him for his 40th birthday.

Together they play chess and bid for “old masters” oils at Sotheby Parke Bernet and Christie’s. Alan wakes up to tennis every morning at 6:30, and Arlene takes piano lessons “just for fun.” Her next project is a children’s alphabet book, made up of photos of everyday things (example: the end of a saw-horse for the letter A). Alan often cooks dinner—Chinese food, sans MSG—and eats the leftovers for breakfast. He claims he likes to sleep a lot, but usually manages only a few hours. He still finds time to catch M*A*S*H every Monday: “I’m aware the rest of the world is watching then, and I can see it through their eyes.”

Alda is planning a 10th season—but that’s all he’ll say: “I’ve made the best of it, by writing and directing. But I can’t play Hawkeye forever.” His friend Carol Burnett attests that Alan’s on-set intensity can make him a demanding colleague, and onetime M*A*S*H director Jackie Cooper took a few swipes at an “aloof” Alda in his soured-on-Hollywood autobiography, Please Don’t Shoot My Dog. Alda recognizes that fame itself increasingly poses problems. “In public, I have to keep moving. But I don’t want to be imprisoned by my success.” Once he tried wearing a false beard. “People saw who I was and realized that I was trying to hide”—a sensation particularly uncomfortable for someone who prizes frankness in his life as well as in his marriage. Says Arlene: “I’ve always been the sounding board for his work. We’ve always considered ourselves a team.” She adds, “We’ve led a fortunate and charmed life. I think I’m a very lucky woman—and my husband is a very lucky man.”

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