What I’ve Learned from Alan Alda


Alan Alda

In 1964, after a year of living the struggling actor’s life in New York, I decided to quit and move back to my hometown of Jackson Michigan. I loved it there. I could imagine a life there, perhaps as a teacher.

Just before I was ready to leave, I got a call from the producer of Buck’s County Playhouse in New Hope, PA, where I’d made my professional debut a year earlier. He wanted me to come do a play called Sunday in New York, starring Alan Alda.

I said of course. That’s all I ever said to acting jobs in those days. I didn’t know much about Alan then, but that didn’t matter. I later found out there was something magic about him. Years afterward, I talked to Harry Morgan, who played Colonel Potter on M*A*S*H. Harry and I were friends. I’d acted in two movies and a TV series with him. He told me in his whole life as a character actor (and there are very few who worked more than Harry did), he never had a better experience working with an actor than he did with Alan.

Last night, I saw an interview with Alan on Charlie Rose. He’s written a new book about communication, empathy, and understanding each other—not as relates to acting, but much more broadly, as relates to communicating and truly understanding each other in all areas of life. The book is called, If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face?

In his mid-twenties, not long before we did Sunday in New York, Alan had taken a workshop for six months with Paul Sills, who founded Second City. When we rehearsed in New Hope, improvisation-based acting was very much on Alan’s mind. Looking back, my impression has always been that when Alan gets something on his mind, he doesn’t let go until he’s gotten every bit of juice out of it (I’m pretty sure he’ll never get the juice out of his passion for communication).

In last night’s interview, he said “When we make contact”—really make contact—with another person, “it feels so good.” Then he repeated a line I’ve heard before and have always loved: “My performance is in the other person’s eyes.”

We rehearsed and performed Sunday in New York for about a month. During that time we (a cast of six, including Alan) also played “theatre games” based on a book by Paul Sill’s mother, Viola Spolin, called Improvisation for the Theatre.

Back in New York, after the show was over, and before Alan went into rehearsals for the Broadway debut of The Owl and the Pussycat, we continued our improvisation sessions, again with Alan as leader.

I was twenty-four. I’d studied with seven or eight different acting coaches by then, all very able. None of them came close to having the effect on me that Alan had. It was exhilarating. He listened to me with his eyes as well as his ears. In one of his books he says, “There’s an ecstasy in acting and that ecstasy is a glorious experience. It can be a noble calling.” He also said that he likes “to infect people with enthusiasm.” And that he’s “avid about being avid.”

It worked for me.

When I got back to Jackson, in my new enthusiasm, I asked the man who ran Jackson “Adult Education” if I could teach theatre games as a class. He said yes, and for the next several months I did that. That was exhilarating too. It was also something I wouldn’t have had the guts to do before.

After a while, I decided to go back to the University of Michigan and finish the work I’d started on a master’s degree. After enrolling, and as I drove back to Jackson, I realized I had no choice but to go back to New York and try again.

I loved the work. Like Alan, I also love writing. It took me a long time to (sorta) grow up. I keep working at it. In regard to working at undoing his “old bad habits,” Alan imagined: “Maybe I’d become a better actor. I didn’t know it then, but maybe I’d become a better person too.” I felt the same way. He was only four years older than I was, but I looked up to him as an older brother, or even kind of a father figure. I was extremely immature. Alan had his ghosts too and they were considerable. He’d had a battle with polio when he was a boy. His mother had mental issues, but mine did too; that only made me feel closer to him somehow (of course I didn’t tell him this).

But mostly he had a joie de vivre that was infectious and a fearlessness that to me, who should have been a little past his formative years, but wasn’t, he was the very essence of a role model. I remember one night before the performance, he was doing push-ups to warm up and he observed that we were similar types. I knew what he meant, but what I was thinking was “in my dreams.” I wanted desperately to learn how to have his attack on life. I felt if I could just manage a little bit of that, I could slowly gain his kind of fearlessness and grow into a success like the one I knew he was about to have.

Those couple of months I spent working with Alan changed me—not always as quickly as I would have liked—but it’s had an unwavering effect on my life.

Last night, Linda and I were at our friend Anne’s home for dinner. One of the other guests, Rosemary, had worked as a personal assistant to Alan for eight years during M*A*S*H. She said she’ll be seeing him next week. I’ve been out of touch with him for a long time; I asked her to say hi to him for me.

In the last few weeks Linda and I have read his previous two books. I’m currently reading If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face? Last night I met Rosemary and saw Alan’s interview with Charlie Rose. It all feels a little like the serendipity of working with him in the first place.

Having the good luck to run into good teachers when you’re young—or anytime—can fill you with optimism, faith and confidence. The name of the town where I met Alan still resonates with me, New Hope.

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