Alan Alda has achieved what few actors have - the star of a long-running, revered sitcom (‘M*A*S*H’) of the seventies / early-eighties who remains one of the most celebrated and beloved actors of our time.
A five-time Emmy Award and six-time Golden Globe Award winner, Alan Alda connected with television viewers in a singular way through Hawkeye’s flip wit and self-assured nature. As the star of one of the hottest shows the medium has ever produced he came to exemplify the modern seventies male - cool, confident, compassionate, smart and popular.
It was one of those 'you had to be there' things. No other program then or now attracted both young and old, conservative and liberal, all united in laughter. Of course, it was the stellar writers that made ‘M*A*S*H’ what it was but without Alan Alda the production never would have transcended the boundaries of the medium and become a pop culture touchstone.
Since 'M*A*S*H' Alan Alda has been busy working on those projects that interest him most, acclaimed supporting roles in motion pictures, a 2005 Tony nominated run on Broadway in 'Glengarry Glen Ross,' and select key roles on TV series like 'ER' and 'The West Wing.'
Thursday, December 9th Alan Alda returns to '30 Rock' in his Emmy nominated role as Jack Donaghy's father. This is the series' holiday show and the last original episode until next year sometime.
Alan Alda spoke with myself and other members of the press on December 6th - here are some of his observations about his '30 Rock' character and 'M*A*S*H':
On filming M*A*S*H:
"We would shoot a day or two of each episode outdoors and when it got too cold and the days were too short we wouldn't go out at all and we would do the whole show indoors. We had a set indoors that looked like you were outdoors part of the time too."
"The cold [weather] was responsible for some of the camaraderie that we had on that set. We had an enormous amount of camaraderie but when we shot the pilot we did it in December, it can get really cold in the mountains in Malibu in December. We were all wearing Hawaiian shirts, it was supposed to be summer, and we were freezing so we would stand with our arms around one another by big oil drums that had fires in them just to keep warm between the shots. So you get to know the cast very well when you spend two weeks hugging each other. And that sort of put us in the same boat together."
"When we were in the midst of doing it we really had no idea of the impact we were having because were just working as hard as we could to do good shows. Or as Jack Benny once said, he said, "I try never to do a lousy show." That's actually a pretty good standard. In the beginning we were shocked that people would come up to us in airports and they'd whisper, "Keep up the good work" like we were part of some kind of underground movement.
"The night show ended we drove through the streets and saw that the streets were empty because everybody was home, about half the population of the country was watching the show at the same time. And it was a shock to us. We didn't understand until that moment what kind of an impact the program had. Which is good because otherwise you get a little stiff, you get a little self-important.
Will there ever be a M*A*S*H TV movie or revival?
"No, we did the best we could and the time is past, I think what we did ought to be left as it is. It represents what we did at the time and I would hate to see it raked over again."
"It's interesting, so many people want to be directors. You know, there's an old joke that somebody is meeting Mother Theresa, telling her how wonderful she is and she says, "Yeah but you know what I really want to do is direct" It's because everybody wants to. But I did that already. I did it on ‘M*A*S*H,’ I did it on several movies that I wrote and directed.
"It makes me very happy now when a director has to worry about where to put the camera and how to organize the shot and get the day in before everybody goes home and it's not me that has to worry about it. It's one of the extra pleasures in life not to worry about those things.
“For the experience itself I don't really need to do it anymore and I don't need that feeling of power. There is a wonderful feeling of power when you're a director, especially on a big movie, less so on a television show. You can say, "I'd really like that building painted yellow" and the next day it's yellow. Or you say, "I'd like to have it moved over there" and it's gone, you know? That feels pretty good. But I don't think I need that and I'm okay without it. No, I'm very happy to play on '30 Rock' and doing movies and that kind of thing.”
Working on '30 Rock':
"When I first went on '30 Rock,' and this is now the third time I've been on the show, I had the same feeling about the group there that I had when we were doing 'M*A*S*H.' It's a very collaborative company, everybody knows where they're going and what they're doing. And they all are supportive of one another. They all recognize one another's unique personalities... they're very tuned in to one another just the same way we were. It's a pleasure to see that. Plus they're working in way similar to what we did, only in a very different kind of comedy. It's similar to ['M*A*S*H’] in they're taking chances and we took chances. We weren't officially a comedy; we worked in drama, satire all kinds of different forms and on this program I think they're expanding to another kind of comedy and that's risky. But the people who love it, I think, realize how interesting and funny in a new way it is. And I'm one of those people who love it, I think it's just great."
"I've known Alec Baldwin's work for a long time and I've always known how talented he was. But Tina [Fey] is relatively new on the scene and it just amazes me how much ability she has in so many areas. She can satirize, she can impersonate, she writes like a dream and she's a wonderful actress. And she's really fun to be with, it's fun to talk to her so she's really an amazing character to me."
"They're very precise about their work, they come in ready to do it and they do it. They're able to keep up with this very fast pace that television has. But in the midst of that, in the course of it, they're really fun, they like to laugh and they like to gossip and it's just fun to be with them. So I really enjoy that. And they're very bright people, very talented people. It's always inspiring to work with a talented person.”
"That writing is very very carefully worked out. There were a lot of people working on those scripts. We did a table reading of this show that's going to be on Thursday night and usually you're at a table and there are, you know, six or seven writers there. I didn't know who all these people were, there was a room full of about fifty people and they were all involved in creating the show. So it was like an audience, it was like you did an off-Broadway play that morning. And it was really exciting to do that because you got live reactions to the humor and it sparked everybody into another level of energy, the actors. It was a very interesting experience, it was a table read of a kind I hadn't been to before because there were so many people involved."
"I'm not authoritative about this but I get the impression that '30 Rock' is unusual among modern shows in that it's shot on film like a movie and that's the way we shot 'M*A*S*H.' So it's a rhythm and a schedule that I'm used to. It's not shot in front of an audience the way a many shows are with four cameras shooting the show in one go and they do two versions of it and pick ups all night long. That's a process that I don't think I've ever done. I'm used to this process. You can do things in this way of working that you can't do the other way, and vice versa I suppose."
On working with Broadway legend Elaine Stritch on '30 Rock':
"She's remarkable. When we were shooting this episode that's going to be on Thursday night she was coming in and shooting for a full day, which is tiring for anybody, and then she was going out at night and leaving the set and going do a Broadway musical, 'A Little Night Music.' To do a musical it takes a tremendous amount of energy because you have to act and sing at the same time and everything has to be precise, you can't forget the lyrics because the band keeps playing, you know? You're under a certain amount of pressure and she was doing two full time jobs at the same time. I admired her energy very much.”
Would Alan Alda like to return to weekly series TV?
"I like coming in and out of '30 Rock' so the more I can do that the happier I'll be. For one thing I don't have to travel very far, I just cross the river into Queens."