Alan Alda Talks About Coating Villains In ‘The Slime Of Amiability’ & The Importance Of Empathy As A Performer

The legendary actor talked hosting a 'M.A.S.H.' reunion on his 'Clear + Vivid' podcast and about life as a constant learning process.

Alan Alda speaks at the 2018 Hamptons International Film Festival.
Eugene Gologursky / Getty Images

The legendary actor talked hosting a 'M.A.S.H.' reunion on his 'Clear + Vivid' podcast and about life as a constant learning process.

To call Alan Alda a legend of acting would be a near-libelous insult to the man, by way of understatement. Evidenced by his recently bestowed Screen Actors Guild Lifetime Achievement Award, the undeniably likable actor has brought numerous relatable characters to life in his storied career, to the point that audiences fall in love with even his villainous roles.

Perhaps it’s the dulcet rhythm of his speaking voice; perhaps it’s the irresistibly charming and easy smile that appears without effort any time Alda’s attention is focused on something worth discussing.

Beneath the warm exterior, Alda is profoundly human. As someone whose focus is on connecting and communicating, he’s a true practitioner of what he preaches. Alda opened up candidly about resenting his mentally ill mother, who suffered from schizophrenia, well into adulthood, and his obsessive love for his family. He also touched on the importance of empathy as a performer trying to adopt the persona of myriad characters, each with their own flaws.

Alan Alda believes “you’re never finished learning and figuring out how to live”; he offered that, and many other lessons, in this exclusive interview.


Dominick Miserandino: Where am I catching you? Are you on the West Coast right now?

Alan Alda: Yeah, man. I’m still in L.A. I’ll be leaving tomorrow.

DM: As I understand you’re usually on Long Island like myself.

AA: Oh, where are you in Long Island?

DM: I’m in Oceanside, but I went to school in Stony Brook.

AA: Oh, you did?

DM: Yeah, I’ve heard wonderful things you’ve done over there.

AA: We have a wonderful association with Stony Brook.

DM: Well, one of the themes I was curious about with you, honestly, was family. In particular, I’ve always read that you flew back when you were recording ‘M.A.S.H.’ from L.A. to Jersey.

AA: I get a little more credit than I deserve for that, because, although the show was on the air 11 years, I only had to do that for about four years because our kids were still at home in school in New Jersey.

I came back for four months out of the year because in the summer we were together and in the spring we were together. But when they went away to college, my wife Arlene and I were together all the time so I didn’t have to do as much flying. But I got obsessed with it and I would go back any time I had two days off. Once I went back three times in the same week.

DM: You went back three times in the same week?

AA: Yeah, I said I was obsessed. I get obsessed easily by things.

Alan Alda and family arrive at the 77th annual Academy Awards.
  Carlo Allegri / Getty Images

DM: But was the motive that you were worried how long the show would last or was the motive just family at that point?

AA: No, it was just family. I didn’t want to be separated from them. At first, I tried going back after three weeks.

DM: OK.

AA: I would talk on the phone with them twice a day and realized when I got back that I’d hear how they were doing in school and I would hear things that had never come up in the phone calls, and I realized I had to be there in person for chance encounters. And most importantly, I needed to be there while they went out the door on their own business, to do their own life.

DM: Where did that focus come from? I mean, looking at your background, was it the Italian American background, the Jesuit schooling? What got you that focus, especially in this industry?

AA: Well, I don’t know. I love children, and I love family. I had a difficult family when I was a kid, because my mother was, unfortunately, schizophrenic and paranoid. But she was loving in any case.

DM: And that was honestly one of my questions, and theories were out of great tragedy, sometimes people go another direction to fix it and make it better, and I always wondered, did that have an inadvertent result in your life, do you think?

AA: It might have. It wasn’t conscious. All I know is I wanted the best for my kids and our whole family and we were a very tight-knit family. We were conscious as much as possible about what everybody else was going through and tried to be as helpful as we could no matter what came up, but I don’t think it’s so important why it happens as that that’s your focus. We were lucky to have that focus.

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DM: And you’ve always kept that focus, it sounds like, throughout your career too.

AA: Yeah, I think so.

US actor and director Alan Alda.
  Keystone / Getty Images

DM: Is that also the secret to success in having a marriage last as long as you have?

AA: Well, I guess it’s part of it. Arlene has her own view of what makes a long marriage. She says the secret to a long marriage is a short memory. So, maybe that’s an important element.

DM: But it sounds like it’s that focus has been on family throughout your career, enough to fly back three times in a week.

AA: Yeah, well look at one week.

DM: Other weeks it might have been two. It’s still a lot of travel, especially in the days without face-time etc….

AA: Yeah, that’s true. Well, it paid off. We have a very loving family. Our children who are now fully grown adults still have this habit that we all have of being happy to travel to be together, and it doesn’t matter how far-flung we are, we get together a lot in the same place.

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