On talk TV during the last election, it sometimes seemed as though Alan Alda were running for office. Chris Matthews rasped about the Democratic primaries, “What’s this? An Alan Alda contest where you have to prove you’re the sensitive male?” Crossfire’s Tucker Carlson was particularly obsessed, characterizing Kerry supporters as “Barbra Streisand’s friends, Chardonnay sippers, NPR listeners, you know, people who, you know, like Alan Alda.” After the Dean scream in January 2004, Carlson described the party’s response as, “Out with Che Guevara, in with Alan Alda”—then he directly warned John Kerry: “Don’t be Alan Alda.”
It’s been 33 years since he played Hawkeye on M*A*S*H, and three decades since he supported the Equal Rights Amendment, but Alda’s name still serves as a synonym for wussiness—in the conservative imagination, anyway. Hawkish Hawkeye haters name-check him as a kind of flouncy, male Jane Fonda, despite a raft of devious, even homicidal roles—many of them Republicans. And this winter, Alda’s playing against type as never before.
In Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator, he’s flat-out sadistic as the corrupt Republican senator Ralph Owen Brewster. For playing the backroom brawler who clips Howard Hughes’s wings, he earned an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor—his first major screen nod since 1989 (when he played another bad guy, the corrupt TV producer in Crimes and Misdemeanors).
This spring, Alda will tackle one of the stage’s toughest roles, as the hard-bitten real-estate salesman Shelly in a Broadway revival of David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross. And as Martin Sheen exits The West Wing, Alda has returned to weekly television to play Sheen’s potential successor. As Arnold Vinick, a tough California conservative, Alda portrays the Republicans’ presidential front-runner—an alpha male even Tucker Carlson could love.
“It doesn’t even get to my back to roll off it,” Alda says of the hard right’s use of his name as an epithet. At first, he shrugs off the Carlson critiques, so I rattle off more unfair comparisons (the Washington Times said Alda played Hawkeye “as if he were suffering the worst attack of pre-menstrual syndrome in the annals of gynecology”). It doesn’t take long before Alda raises his hackles, displaying the curt condescension he deploys so aptly on The West Wing.
“It’s people avoiding having to think by using nicknames,” he says. “It’s like a top that keeps going around and never gets anywhere. That side of the political spectrum—if they think something’s good for the country, they do it. But if somebody from the other side does something that they think is good for the country, they derogate you. They find a personal way to respond.”
Alda derides this “stereotypical notion of myself”—and he notes that it has a perverse upside, since Alda (who used to tell his wife, “You can’t get mad at me, I’m the world’s most sensitive guy”) says he’s learned to use the good-guy-gone-bad hook. “They’re going by a stereotype, and I guess that’s good for me,” he says, noting that he’s played plenty of bad guys—that “even Hawkeye wasn’t a guy you’d want to share a tent with.”
“I mean, I do Aviator and I play a really creepy guy,” he says. “Suddenly, everybody says, ‘Gee, what a difference—we know he’s not like that.’ Well, they don’t know what I’m like.”
“I do The Aviator and play a really creepy guy. Everyone says, ‘Gee , what a difference—we know he’s not like that.’ Well, they don’t know what I’m like.”
These days, with those soft wrinkles and silver hair, Alan Alda can seem like a sweet older gentleman, but that’s just from a distance. At 69, he still has the goods that made women swoon over Hawkeye decades ago: those lanky arms and gangly legs, the winking charm. And that steely something still lurks behind his droopy eyes, that glint that allows him to casually toss off the most cutting insult—even after a pratfall. From M*A*S*H to The West Wing, Alda’s best performances have always played his sharp wit off his casual exterior. Though his laconic demeanor sometimes reads floppy, it’s actually sly: a relentless, attractive confidence that allowed him to wear M*A*S*H’s most-popular-actor-in-the-world mantle comfortably, when it might have made a monster out of another. It has something to do with his roots.
Alda was born in 1936, the son of Robert Alda, born Alphonso Giuseppe Giovanni Roberto D’Abruzzo, a journeyman actor who soft-shoed onstage in the Catskills. (He was also the original Sky Masterson in Guys and Dolls.) From the age of 3, Alda acted with his father in racy revues. As a teen, he appeared in summer stock with Mae West. He spent four years at Fordham University, then six months in the Army reserves, before he returned to New York City to seek work.
“When I was an out-of-work actor, I sold mutual funds in this little office in Brooklyn,” recalls Alda, who also drove cabs and worked as a doorman. “It wasn’t nearly as bad as Glengarry Glen Ross, but there was still that pressure to get your name on the board.”
Alda first got his name on the Broadway boards in 1961, and scored a Tony nomination six years later. Ambitious, he ditched 42nd Street for Hollywood, landing roles—including the part of George Plimpton in Paper Lion—that could have been breakthroughs, but weren’t. Then he was drafted for M*A*S*H.
Hawkeye became the kind of national icon—like the Fonz or Lucy—that post-cable television won’t ever mint again (no, not even you, Carrie Bradshaw). But even during his eleven-year run, Alda was planning ahead. He wrote scripts for the show, then persuaded M*A*S*H’s producers to use them and to allow him to direct 30 episodes. As the series concluded, he negotiated an unusual $20 million deal with Universal to direct, write, and star in three of his own pictures (Sweet Liberty, Betsy’s Wedding, and The Four Seasons, in which he coined the bumper-sticker phrase “Are we having fun yet?”). While less-savvy M*A*S*H actors faded away, Alda did not.
Alda also leveraged his fame for favorite causes, including the ERA. And he worked steadily over the years, from Woody Allen films and Broadway plays to his stint as PBS’s pop-scientific ambassador. But nothing in nearly three decades approaches the excitement around his current trifecta of roles.
“I don’t know how this buzz thing works, but it’s kind of fun,” Alda admits. “It reminds me of when M*A*S*H was so popular.” When I suggest that sometimes these cycles of fame and awards can be arbitrary, Alda shoots me down. The praise for his performance in The Aviator, he says proudly, is no accident. “These things can come in cycles, but this is a terrific picture. It’s a showy part; it comes at the right place in the movie; it’s an interesting character—and I connected with it.”
That’s also why he declines to comment on the length of his stay on The West Wing: “I have no plans at this time,” he says diplomatically, before noting that his candidate is a natural—a socially moderate, fiscally conservative Republican from California. “He’s not just a smart guy, he’s a tough guy,” Alda points out. “The Democrats don’t want to tangle with him.” But what really puts his character over the top, Alda says, is the performer. Jimmy Smits, who plays the maverick Democratic candidate, is “a nice guy,” too, Alda jokes. “But do you really think he can beat me?”