Sunday, September 7, 2008

Feature: Alan Alda on his Unsinkable Optimism

(Originally published in the Denver Post, October 2007)

By Dylan Foley

In 2003, the actor Alan Alda almost died of an intestinal blockage in a remote Chilean mountain village. His life was saved through emergency surgery, and in 2005, he went on to be nominated for an Oscar, an Emmy and a Tony, and had the bestselling memoir “Never Have Your Dog Stuffed.”

Alda’s vivid awareness of his new lease on life left him with many questions about his own career and choices, and those of others. Alda revisited and reread a series of commencement and memorial speeches he’d made over the past three decades, addressing the sticky question of the meaning of life. Thus was born his second memoir “Things I Overheard While Talking to Myself”(Random House, $24.95), Alda’s witty take on the platitudes of public speaking, his own passion for life and his optimism, and the experiences that backed them up.

“When I realized what I was doing, I found myself leery of confronting the question of the meaning of life,” said Alda from his publishers office in New York City. “A lot of very smart people have been addressing that question for thousands of years. In a way, it is an insolvable question. What saved me was I realized that I was talking about the meaning of my own life.”

The 11 years Alda spent as Hawkeye Pierce on the TV show M*A*S*H from 1972 to 1983 made him one of the most famous actors in America. At 71, Alda’s hair is finally gray and thinning, but he is hale, very charming and ready with a laugh or a joke.

“The talks I gave at the school commencements, I worked on harder than anything else I’ve ever done,” said Alda. “I’ve written for movies, I’ve written for television, but I always had to justify why I was up there speaking.”

Alda often found himself with tough speaking engagements. “I was always scaring myself. I’d be speaking to the brilliant young minds at Cornell Medical School or a group of psychiatrists,” said Alda. “When I talked to the doctors, I talked to them as a patient. When I talked to the psychiatrists, I talked to them about somebody who had tasted celebrity and the strangeness of celebrity. I called it ‘Celebrity and Its Discontents.’ They were getting a report from the front line, where around celebrities, people lose their balance, lose their syntax.”

In the book, Alda talks about his business manager Marty Bregman, who stopped him from taking a seven-year movie contract that would have hobbled his early career. Marty, he noted, was a tough producer, but couldn’t fire people. “Here I was, with the reputation of being ‘Mr. Nice Guy’ and I was the one who’d have to go in and fire the guy.”

Despite his brilliant success as both an actor and writer in 2005, it was also a year full of loss. Three close friends, the actors Ozzie Davis and Anne Bancroft, and anchorman Peter Jennings all died that year. The memorial speeches Alda gave in his new book are some of his most poignant writing in his new book.

“I was asked to speak at all three memorials,” said Alda. “Looking back to what I said, I talked very little about their professional accomplishments. What interested me was who they were to me. I picked small personal moments. I remembered Peter for the fact that I never left his house with a book, and he gave me a copy of the Constitution to carry around with me. With Anne, I remember her holding beach glass she had collected. With Ozzie, I thought he was going to live forever. I remember his goodness and generosity in little moments. What connected me to them had effect on me, not their accomplishments.”

Alda has been married to the children’s book author Arlene Alda for almost 50 years. They have three daughters and seven grandchildren. In his new memoir, he recounted watching the Indian director Sanyajit Ray’s classic “Panther Panchali,” which involves a tragic father-daughter relationship. Alda realized that he might have been distant with his own children.

“I always expressed a great deal of love to my children,” he said. “I wondered if I could have done it better. I wondered if I used my children as an audience. It’s very easy for an entertainer to do that. It’s much harder to make it a two-way street. I questioned if I could do it better with my grandchildren. I think I listen better now.”

In his speeches to students, Alda urges them to have passion for their work, and expresses a sense of optimism about the value of life.

Alda’s own childhood was turbulent. His mother suffered from schizophrenia and was prone to delusions. His father, the actor Robert Alda, could be emotionally inaccessible. Somehow, Alda developed his own style of relentless optimism. When prodded on the roots of this optimism, Alda had a few ideas where it came from.

“Your constitution is important,” said Alda. “Because of that, some people can tolerate more stress. If you can’t tolerate stress, you get weakened by it. In an effort to block out more stress, you can block out a large part of life.”

“My father and mother also loved me,” he said. “I knew I was loved. There is nothing better than that for a child.”

Some of his optimism came from reading philosophy. “I have a peculiar kind of optimism,” said Alda “It is sometimes hard to explain. My favorite philosophers were the existentialists. They thought that life was meaningless and absurd. What I hooked onto was the next sentence, which said that life was meaningless, unless you gave meaning to it by what you chose to do.”

“I think it is worth looking into the abyss, but don’t make up abysses if they don’t exist,” said Alda. “I don’t think you can be optimistic without knowing what you are being optimistic about.”

Dylan Foley is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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