The Enduring Delight of Alan Alda: A Personal Essay

Last night, at the 25th Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards, Alan Alda was presented with his lifetime achievement award. Today, it is his 84th birthday. Here, I reflect back on the strangely wide effect that Alan Alda has had in my own lifetime.

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The cast of M*A*S*H being cute as always.

Alan Alda has been in my life for practically as long as my own father has. One of the first shows I can remember watching is M*A*S*H,  and one of the first characters I fell in love with and projected onto (without quite realizing that was what I was doing), was Benjamin Franklin “Hawkeye” Pierce. Every day I got home from school and my dad got home from work, we would sit on the couch together and watch a few episodes of M*A*S*H before bed. For years, a go-to present for my dad for Father’s Day, his birthday, Christmas — you name it — was any box set season of M*A*S*H that he didn’t own yet (of course that only lasted until he had the whole set).

In retrospect, M*A*S*H shaped a lot of my humor, as well as my general world view. M*A*S*H, despite being about a mobile army surgical hospital during the Korean War, was never pro-war. It wasn’t even pro-military. In fact, most episodes involved humorous escapades with the underlying message that anyone who actively wants to go to war is absolutely crazy, power hungry, and evil. Usually, this was told comedically through the farcical interactions Hawkeye and Trapper John (and later BJ Honeycutt) had with pro-war loons like their bunkmate Frank Pierce, or even sometimes high ranking generals of the army.

Other times, though, the show allowed itself to get serious and dark. These are episodes that I did not see until later in life. Whether my dad didn’t agree with the message, or simply thought it wasn’t a funny, entertaining thing to watch with your 10 year old child I’m not sure, I just know they were skipped over in my childhood. Maybe this was for the best, as I can’t imagine I would have gotten the same thing out of them then that I do now. Revisiting these darker episodes, I realize just how powerful and influential M*A*S*H was during its time on air — and certainly onwards.

Alan even wrote a directed a few episodes within the series’ 11-year runtime, and one of those was titled “Dreams.” The episode follows the staff of the M*A*S*H 4077 on an extremely hectic day filled with casualties as they try in vain to take naps any time they have free. We get a look inside the traumatized, overworked, exhausted minds of our protagonists as their surrealistic and sometimes terrifying dreams play out in front of us. It takes a serious look at the reality of war and the trauma that the characters that we have come to love so much have been facing. This episode also showcases not only how passionate Alan Alda is about filmmaking, but just how skilled he is at it. As one of the stranger episodes of the series, it is obvious the risks that were taken (at least at the time of its airing), and it has more than a simple sitcom story structure. Most of all, though, there was a clear love and affection for the characters that everyone on that set had come to relate to and inhabit.

M*A*S*H was a large part of my childhood, but at some point it started to fade away. My guess would be that it was sometime in my freshman year of high school. I always joke that I was raised in the 1970s in 1997, but it really is true. My home felt like a time machine, from the wallpaper in my parents’ room that belonged to my grandmother, to the couch in the family room that my dad had owned since his college days, to all the films and television shows my dad shared with me. I didn’t fully recognize what was modern and what was old. I would go out into the real world, say to a middle school English class, and find out there was all this music and entertainment I should have seen but was too busy begging my dad to watch an old 1970s sitcom to bother to find out about. When this started to change, and I became more autonomous or my dad became more busy at work (whichever came first), we stopped being able to watch things together as often. Time moved forward rapidly, and I moved six states away to go to college. I always spoke about how much I loved the old sitcoms of my youth, and sometimes a professor or stranger in class would bring it up and my face would light up at such a wonderful memory, but it was always in the back of my mind.

Then the summer of 2018 came, and my life was changed forever. All thanks to Alan Alda.

The summer of 2018 was the summer right before my senior year of my undergraduate career. It was also the first year I stayed in my own apartment and did not go home for the entire summer, which means I had more time to myself. I was also, of course, having a bit of a crisis. My life was changing extremely quickly, while at the same time feeling frustratingly stagnant. To be frank, I didn’t do much except go to work, get drunk, and get sad. However, sometime in June I met two people who are now great friends of mine: Jamie and Eric. Jamie and Eric were two people I followed on Twitter who started – seemingly out of the blue – to tweet about watching M*A*S*H. They had never seen it before and they were absolutely loving it. They loved Hawkeye Pierce, they loved Alan Alda. It felt so crazy to see this kind of love exist outside of my own time capsule of a household, especially from two people who were even younger than I was! It made my heart warm, and it reminded me of some of my best and most cherished memories. So obviously, when one of them posted an open call to stream one of Alan’s films on the screen-sharing site Rabb.it, I jumped at the chance. As it happens, it was only Eric, Jamie, and I in the chat. The film was The Mephisto Waltz (1971), a strange attempt to cash in on the era’s obsession with satanic possession horror films. It was by no means a masterpiece, but we found Alan so absolutely charming and wonderful, and had a great time cracking jokes and trying to decipher the confusing not-at-all understandable plot of the film. We decided it would be an absolute delight to watch more of Alan’s films together and hey! why don’t we set a goal to watch his entire filmography together?

And so the “Alan Alda Fan Club” was born.

As of now, in January of 2019, we have watched fourteen of Alan’s films (exactly 25%) and even more episodes of M*A*S*H together. These people have become two of my greatest friends, and it got me through a difficult and lonely summer that I would have otherwise spent alone in the darkness of my room. Whether or not the fan club had anything to do with developments in my life – like getting this job at Much Ado About Cinema, or me coming out to my mom – they were there for it. And it was Alan Alda and his delightful laugh, refreshing wittiness, and down-to-earth humanity that allowed us to meet. Whenever any of us is feeling down, we try to see if the others are available to watch a film. It doesn’t really matter what it is, as long as it has Alan Alda – although we have some we’re saving as special treats like Same Time Next Year (1978), a small single-setting film based on the play of the same name by Bernard Slade, or California Suite (1978), a farcical comedy based on Neil Simon’s play. No matter what, though, we always have a great time. Especially when Alan plays a more prominent role, like in Wanderlust (2012) wherein Alan stars in a David Wain farce as the delightful owner of a hippy commune, or The Four Seasons (1981) which Alan both directed, wrote, and starred in as the somewhat anal retentive husband of Carol Burnett.

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Alan in Wanderlust (2012) dir. David Wain.

It is incredible what a common love for an actor can bring about, and it is even more incredible that Alan Alda’s filmography is filled with so many simply delightful films (whether they intended to be or not!). His smile is intoxicating and his optimism is contagious. At a used book store in my town, I found a copy of “On Set,” a book published by Alan’s wife, Arlene Alda, of Alan on the set of The Four Seasons, his directorial debut. I was ecstatic, but when I opened it up I almost fainted. It was marked “autographed” by the store and inside were two distinct signatures: Arlene Alda’s…and Alan Alda’s. I hadn’t been looking for it, I was just skimming the shelves, and yet this book had found its way into my life. Maybe it’s silly to believe in fate maybe you’re laughing as you read this but my heart leapt.

And then, as if Alan Alda didn’t already have a strange importance to me and my life, he became even more connected to it. In 2018, Alan came publicly forward that he had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 2015. When he did so, he tweeted that he “decided to let people know I have Parkinson’s to encourage others to take action. I was diagnosed 3 and a half years ago, but my life is full. I act, I give talks, I do my podcast, which I love. If you get a diagnosis, keep moving!” My dad was diagnosed with Parkinson’s two years ago. Because I don’t live at home or even in the same state, I don’t see him often so when I do, the symptoms feel like they appeared out of thin air and are more apparent and frightening to me. Alan is 84 years old today. My dad is 56. It is so easy to become obsessed and scared of a non-existent hypothetical future with Parkinson’s – with any degenerative disease.

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Alan accepting his Lifetime Achievement Award at the 25th Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards.

Alan decided to speak about his diagnosis because he wanted to spread hope and knowledge. Outside of acting, this is one of his largest passions. For fourteen years he was the host of “Scientific American Frontiers” – a television show that explored new advances in science and technology – and he also created the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science, which helps to “[empower] scientists and health professionals to communicate complex topics in clear, vivid, and engaging ways.” It once again felt like a strange force of the universe that my father who meant the world to me was going through the same thing as the main actor of the show we constantly watched together. It meant something to him too, as he spoke to me about wanting to write him a personal letter.

It is a little strange to look at my life and realize how Alan Alda tends to sneak into the fabric of it when I least expect it. I’m sure many people my father’s age remember him as being a part of their lives through their television sets, but because of my silly little time machine, I feel the same intrinsic connection with him. From my time as a child, bonding with my father, to the strange tumultuous space between young adulthood and real adulthood, and even at a stressful and personal family health issues, Alan Alda has been there in one way or another. And I am so grateful for his smile, his laughter, his scathing wit and – most importantly – his hopefulness.

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