Alda Right Moves
TV, film, and stage star Alan Alda returns to Broadway in Glengarry Glen Ross.
What attracted him to the role of real estate salesman Shelly Levene? "I'm always drawn to a play rather than a part," says Alda. "When you think of our greatest plays, they're often about salesmen: this one, Miller's Death of a Salesman, The Iceman Cometh. And one of our greatest musicals, The Music Man, is about a salesman. It's such a major part of our culture. Glengarry is probably the most searing portrait of salesmanship, a dark picture of the way business is conducted."
Alda didn't have to research his role: "I was in an office like that when I was a kid, an out-of-work actor. I sold mutual funds and I was trained by other salesmen. It wasn't as cutthroat as [the play], but the basic idea was that people with money had the mistaken impression that it was theirs, when it really was yours. We had to turn them around in their thinking."
Glengarry is a definite change of pace from Alda's most recent Broadway gig, as an occasional "mystery guest star" in the 2003 British import The Play What I Wrote. He rotated with a number of other actors -- including Kevin Kline, John Lithgow, and Roger Moore -- as a surprise guest who joined in some folderol with Sean Foley and Hamish McColl. "I loved working with those guys," Alda enthuses. "I thought they were brilliant! Once, I got a call saying that Roger Moore had collapsed during a matinee and had to be taken to the hospital. They asked, 'Can you come and do it?' I had to go to the Museum of Television and Radio to interview Marvin Hamlisch in front of a few hundred people, but I told them I'd skip the dinner afterwards. I said to start the show without me and I'd get there at intermission. It's one of those great show business stories: I'm dashing across town in a taxi and they're not sure if I'm going to make it!"
A native New Yorker, Alda is the son of Joan Browne (a one-time Miss New York) and actor Robert Alda (1914-86), who made his film debut playing George Gershwin in Rhapsody in Blue (1945) and, on Broadway, originated the role of Sky Masterson in Guys and Dolls (1950). At the Grand Theatre in Sullivan, Illinois in 1959, Alan Alda played "a very young Sky. The leading man got sick and they had to open in two-and-a-half days. 'Can you fly out here and do it? Do you know it?' I was out of work, so I said, 'Sure, I know it' -- but I didn't. I got on a plane, went out there, and we opened two days later. I got through it. I had watched my father do the part twice a week [on matinee days] for two years. I would stand in the wings -- the best place to learn."
Robert Alda had taken the first letters of his real first and last names (Alphonso D'Abruzzo) to form his stage name; years later, the adult Alan made "Alda" his legal surname. Alan's stage debut occurred when he was six months old: "It was in a schoolroom sketch in burlesque," where his dad sang and played straight man to comics. "But I really performed for the first time when I was nine, with my father at the Hollywood Canteen. We had a great time doing Abbott and Costello routines."
At 10, Alan survived a battle with polio. His professional debut came when he was an apprentice for summer theater entrepreneur John Kenley: "When I was 16, I did Charley's Aunt [playing Jack] in Barnesville, Pennsylvania." His first Broadway credit was as understudy for Don Murray in The Hot Corner, a five-performance 1956 comedy that starred and was directed by Sam Levene, who had created the role of Nathan Detroit in Guys and Dolls. Also in 1956, Alda graduated from Fordham University with a B.S. degree.
After service as a gunnery officer in the Army Reserve, Alda continued to pursue an acting career. In 1959, he made his Broadway debut in the short-lived comedy Only in America, a Jerome Lawrence-Robert E. Lee adaptation of a popular Harry Golden book. But the role that really brought him to the attention of critics and audiences was Charley Cotchipee in Purlie Victorious, the 1961 Ossie Davis satire on racism. Alda reprised the part in the 1963 movie version, Gone Are the Days, which marked his film debut.
Some unsuccessful shows on and off Broadway preceded his appearance in the two-character hit comedy The Owl and the Pussycat, opposite the gifted Diana Sands. "At the same time," Alda recalls, "my father was doing [the Broadway musical] What Makes Sammy Run. We have a picture together with our posters." The younger Alda received a Tony Award nomination for Bock and Harnick's The Apple Tree, a 1966 compilation of three one-act musicals. He was also nominated for his next Broadway appearance -- 26 years later -- in Neil Simon's Jake's Women. Alda has been married since 1957 to the former Arlene Weiss, and the couple has three daughters.
It goes without saying that his most famous role was army doctor Hawkeye Pierce in the 1972-83 TV series M*A*S*H. "That changed my life," he says of the experience. "It gave me a chance to learn and get better as an actor, director, and writer." For his work on M*A*S*H, Alda won three Emmy Awards (out of a dozen nominations) for acting, two more (out of nine nominations) for directing, and another (out of four nominations) for writing. Robert Alda made two guest appearances on the series during its long run.
Among Alan Alda's screen credits are Same Time, Next Year, The Four Seasons, Crimes and Misdemeanors, and Betsy's Wedding. He has hosted PBS-TV's Scientific American Frontiers and is pleased about his participation in The West Wing, remarking, "I'm amazed that they can deal with such complex issues and have an avid audience keep up with them. Look at what TV entertainment has become! Cable stations have shows where you can watch an operation for hours; you can watch people being cut open, or you can watch them eat bugs. That's really a strange comment. It's surprising that The West Wing can get away with treating the audience with respect.'"