Happy birthday, Alan Alda, who is 83 today, January 28th.
Alda was born into show business. His father Robert Alda was a well-known stage, film and vaudeville actor, and young “Allie” was out on stage himself by age nine.
His 2005 autobiography “Never Have Your Dog Stuffed” was a richly told story of his childhood, his youth, and about his evolution into a happy, well-adjusted human being.
And as I found when I first met and interviewed him in the fall of 2005, there are very few celebrities who have treated me more like an old friend than Alan Alda.
The young Alan Alda got a pretty sophisticated education pretty early on, as he followed his father’s show business career:
“I thought it was normal, at the age of two and three, to stand in the wings watching burlesque shows. Five times a day, I watched the strippers and the chorus girls and the comics — the comics were the only ones with their clothes on.”
BT: When did you first feel a kinship with the comics?
“Right away. They were my playmates. I didn’t have many friends, or any friends, my own age. My friends were burlesque comics who thought anything could be made funny, it didn’t matter how horrible it was. I wanted to be like that.
“And I watched them from the wings, which is the best place to watch an actor, or any performance. A few years later, when I was about eleven, and my father was touring in vaudeville — he had graduated from burlesque — I would watch Blackstone the magician and I would watch him do his tricks. Now, he was doing them for the audience’s point of view. But I watched from the side, and I could see where he hid the pigeons in the card table. and the audience couldn’t see that, and that’s what you see when you watch actors perform. You see where they hide the pigeons.”
All that practical know-how that Alda picked up may have been more valuable than any formal acting classes.
“I never really had any training, other than studying improvising, which I think is excellent training, but I really didn’t have formal training as an actor. I wish I had, but two things got in the way of that. One, I was too poor to afford lessons, and the other thing was I thought that taking lessons would hurt my natural genius, which I thought I possessed. And what I didn’t realize is that .. it took me about fifteen years to get rid of a lot of annoying mannerisms, which turned out to be mostly what was involved in my natural genius.
BT: You made a great observation in the book. The people you called ‘civilians,’ they would tell each other jokes and maybe get the punchline right and maybe not, but they couldn’t originate something that would make each other laugh…
“They couldn’t be funny. The burlesque comics could be funny. They could say things that, in themselves, weren’t funny, if you wrote them down wouldn’t be funny, but they could be funny about the way they did it. Steve Allen used to make the distinction between some comedians, some funny people. Some of them could say funny things, others could say things funny. And most of the comics I knew, knew how to say things funny.”
BT: Well, take ‘Slowly I turn…’
“Yeah, ‘slowly I turn.’ You just said, ‘Slowly I turn,’ who cares? But the way they said, ‘SLLLOWWLY I turrrrnn, step by step …’ and the other one’s going, ‘Oh, no, oh my …’ I mean, they were innately funny.
“And they called the people in the audience the ‘civilians,’ the people in regular life. I grew up with this crazy notion that we were somehow superior to the civilians, because we could be funny. They were good as an audience, because they could laugh.”
BT: Which is, perhaps, not a bad attitude to have until you go to elementary school.
“Well, yeah, because if you have that attitude when you go to elementary school they like to beat you up about it, which is what they offered to do to me frequently.”
In his 2005 book, Alan Alda wrote sensitively and poignantly about his mother, Joan Browne, who had her own unique influence on her son.
“Well, the poor woman was mentally ill, she was psychotic. And finally, when she was institutionalized for a while, they diagnosed her as schizophrenic and paranoid. She thought that people were trying to kill her, she thought I was trying to kill her, that my father was trying to kill her. She thought people were spying on her with cameras.
“It was very hard to grow up with a person like that as my mother, At first I couldn’t tell if she was telling me about reality or if this was her reality. I had to learn to separate those.
“It was actually good for me in a way because I learned to observe her, and you have to be a good observer if you’re going to write or act. And I wanted to write from the time I was eight and I wanted to act when I was nine. I did benefit, in a way, from that relationship, but I also had to get over my resentment, because as a little boy you don’t understand that she didn’t choose to be ill. You don’t even understand that it’s an illness. I just knew that she didn’t seem to be a mother to me.
“And then I realized, way later in my life, that she was a very loving mother and she actually gave me a lot. She was a generous person,and she passed on that generosity to me. I think I tend to be generous, and whatever generosity I have I got from her. She was a good-natured open-hearted person who loved to laugh. There was a lot of laughter in my family, and I think that I learned that from her.
“You know, she was severely handicapped and yet she did her job, although I didn’t understand at the time that she was doing a great job.”
And then there was “MAS*H” a show that Alda says no one had very high expectations for, but which endured for eleven years and made Alda and the pther cast members major stars.
And Alda appreciates how different his career could have turned out:
“Who knows what I would have .. I would have done something, but .. what if I had done, instead of “MASH”, a pilot that I did before “MASH” had become successful, even for a few years? It was called, ‘Where’s Everett?’ Everett was an invisible baby left on my doorstep by Martians, or somebody from another planet. The baby’s invisible, and I would bring up an invisible baby. This was the kind of idea they were selling in those days.
“Now, I did the best I could, but it wasn’t a very good show. And if that had been successful, then I would only be able to act with invisible people after that. I’d be categorized. Here, this [
MAS*H”] was such a quality show that there was no stereotyping. It gave me a chance to learn, because we did it for so long, to learn more about acting, more about writing and directing. It gave me a different kind of career