Alan Alda (born under the name Alphonso Joseph D'Abruzzo) is an American actor, comedian, film director, and screenwriter from New York City. His father was the Italian-American actor Robert Alda. Alda's best known role was playing chief surgeon Benjamin Franklin "Hawkeye" Pierce in the medical-themed sitcom M*A*S*H (1972-1983) for 11 seasons. He twice won the "Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series" for this role. Alda was later nominated for the "Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor", for his portrayal of career politician Ralph Owen Brewster (1888-1961) in the biographical film "The Aviator" (2004). The film depicted Brewster's opposition to the commercial interests of Howard Hughes, and the alleged political corruption which caused the end of Brewster's career.
In 1936, Alda was born in the Bronx, New York City. By that time, his father Robert Alda (1914-1986) had already started performing in vaudeville and burlesque theaters. Alda's mother was former beauty queen Joan Browne. Alda had Italian ancestry on his father's side of the family, and Irish ancestry on his mother's side of the family. Alda spend much of his childhood touring the United States with his father, as his father's acting job required frequent travel.
In 1943, Alda contracted polio. His parents chose to administer a painful treatment regimen, "consisting of applying hot woolen blankets to his limbs and stretching his muscles". This treatment had been developed by the Australian nurse Elizabeth Kenny (1880-1952), and was based on the principle of muscle rehabilitation. Though the treatment was considered controversial, it seemingly helped Alda to recover his mobility.
Alda received his secondary education at Archbishop Stepinac High School, an all-boys Roman Catholic high school located in White Plains, New York, United States. The school was named in honor of Aloysius Stepinac (1898 - 1960), the Archbishop of Zagreb who was hero-worshiped for his conviction for treason by communist Yugoslavia. Alda received his college education at Fordham University, a Jesuit research university located in New York City. He graduated In 1956 with a Bachelor of Arts degree.
During his college years, Alda worked for the radio station WFUV. The station was owned by Fordham University, and was operated by its students. Alda joined the Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC) , a training program intended for prospective commissioned officers of the United States Armed Forces. He subsequently entered the United States Army Reserve. He served for a year at Fort Benning, a United States Army post straddling the Alabama-Georgia border . He then spend 6 months stationed in Korea. His official rank at that time was that of a gunnery officer, though Alda claims that he was placed in charge of a mess tent.
In 1956, Alda was introduced to Jewish-American musician Arlene Weiss (a clarinetist). They soon bonded due to their similar tastes in humor, and started dating each other. They were married on March 15, 1957. They had three daughters, born between 1958 and 1961.
Alda started his acting career in the mid-1950s, as a theatrical actor. He joined the Compass Players (1955-1958), a short-lived improvisational theatre revue which was based in Chicago. He subsequently joined the improvisational group Second City, and the regional theater company Cleveland Play House for its 1958-1959 season. In 1958, he had his first guest star role in television. He appeared in an episode of "The Phil Silvers Show", a military-themed sitcom about a swindler operating within the United States Army.
Alda made his film debut in the comedy-drama film "Gone Are the Days!" (1963). The film was a satire of segregation and bigotry, based on a play written by Ossie Davis (1917-2005). Alda was part of the recurring cast of "That Was the Week That Was" (1963-1965), a political satire series which targeted various political figures of the era. It was based on a British satire series of the same name. Most episodes of the American version are considered lost, though there are surviving audio recordings.
In 1968, Alda had his first starring role in a film. He portrayed sports journalist George Plimpton (1927-2003) in the sports comedy "Paper Lion". The film depicted Plimpton's brief term as a player of the Detroit Lions, and focused on his inexperience and ineptitude as a football player.
Alda played the accountant Morton Krim in the World War II-themed war comedy "The Extraordinary Seaman" (1969). The film depicts four sailors of the United States Navy who have been stranded on an island of the Philippines. They encounter the ghost of a British naval officer who was killed in World War I, and he encourages them to launch an attack on Japanese positions. Due to the ghost's perpetual bad luck, their attack is ill-fated.
Alda next played the male lead in the drama film "Jenny" (1970). In the film, main character Jenny Marsh (played by Marlo Thomas) was impregnated in a one-night-stand and has few options in life. Her acquaintance Delano (played by Alda) agrees to marry her and to claim the child's paternity, in an effort to avoid being drafted for war service. The film depicts the problems of a typical "marriage of convenience" (a marriage contracted for reasons other than that of love and commitment), and Delano's attempts to maintain both his marriage and his long-term relationship with another woman. The film earned 2,825,000 million dollars at the worldwide box office.
Alda also played the main character in the crime film "The Moonshine War" (1970), which was set in Prohibition-era Kentucky. He played John "Son" Martin, a man whose main source of income is the production of moonshine whiskey. An acquaintance in the Internal Revenue Service starts pressuring him for a cut on the profits. When Son refuses, the acquaintance reports his activities to a violent gang leader and his henchmen. Son has to outwit the gang in order to survive. The film was one of several films greenlit by Louis Polk and Herb Solow, the then-new co-leaders of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
Alda had his first role in a horror film, when he played the main character in the occult-themed horror film "The Mephisto Waltz" (1971). He played music journalist Myles Clarkson, who unexpectedly befriends piano virtuoso Duncan Ely (played by Curd Jürgens). He does not realize that Ely is dying due to cancer, and that he intends to perform a body-swapping spell to take over Clarkson's body. Once the spell succeeds, Ely starts a new career in Clarkson's body and kills Clarkson's daughter. Ely fails to realize that his new "wife" Paula Clarkson (played by Jacqueline Bisset) intends to use the same spell to swap bodies with Ely's adult daughter. Bisset was praised for her "chillingly effective" performance, but film critics argued that Alda had been miscast in this role.
Alda had a scarier role in the psychological thriller "To Kill a Clown" (1972), playing disturbed Vietnam War veteran Evelyn Ritchie. Ritchie was once a military officer, but retired after having one of his legs amputated. He agrees to become the landlord of a young married couple, despite his intense dislike for the artistic lifestyle of his tenant Timothy Frischer (played by Heath Lamberts). He starts treating Frischer as a military subordinate, and insists on keeping both of his tenants as prisoners in their residence. The young couple soon learn that Ritchie has sadistic tendencies, and that he had a history of tormenting his subordinates throughout his military career.
Alda had the big break in his career when cast to play chief surgeon Benjamin Franklin "Hawkeye" Pierce in the medical-themed sitcom M*A*S*H (1972-1983). The series depicted life within a "Mobile Army Surgical Hospital" (MASH) during the Korean War (1950-1953). It was based on the novel "MASH: A Novel About Three Army Doctors" (1968) by military surgeon H. Richard Hornberger. The series often questioned the United States' role in the Cold War, and satirized authority figures. Its ratings placed it among the top 10 most viewed shows throughout most of its run, and it was critically acclaimed. Alda appeared in all 256 episodes of the series, which helped him become a household name in the United States. Alda eventually served as the series' producer, creative consultant, and co-writer.
Alda played the male lead in the romantic comedy "Same Time, Next Year" (1978), which was his first film role since the early 1970s. The film depicts an extramarital affair which lasts for 26 years (1951-1977), despite the two lovers only meeting once per year. The film also covers the effects time has on the couple's political ideologies, and how they react to the deaths of various family members. The film was partially shot at the Heritage House Inn in Little River, California. The inn became a popular romantic getaway due to the film's enduring popularity. Alda was nominated for the Golden Globe Award for "Best Actor in a Motion Picture - Musical or Comedy", but the award was instead won by rival actor Warren Beatty.
Alda was part of the ensemble cast in the comedy film "California Suite" (1978). He played successful screenwriter Bill Warren, who is involved in a custody dispute with his ex-wife, the workaholic Hannah Warren (played by Jane Fonda). Both parents claim custody over their adolescent daughter Jenny Warren (played by Dana Plato), and have little regard for Jenny's plans about her own life. The film's cast was nominated for several awards, but Alda was overshadowed by his co-stars.
Alda received his first screenwriting credit for the political drama film "The Seduction of Joe Tynan" (1979). He also played the film's eponymous character. He portrayed an ambitious American senator, whose marriage seems to be deteriorating. He briefly has an extramarital affair with labor lawyer Karen Traynor (played by Meryl Streep), but decides against seeking a divorce. The film earned about 19.6 million dollars at the worldwide box office. Alda was praised more for his ability as a screenwriter than his acting in this film. Streep was nominated for several acting awards for her supporting role, having a breakthrough in her career.
Alda made his directorial debut with the romantic comedy film "The Four Seasons" (1981), depicting the relationships between three upper middle-class married couples. Alda kept for himself the role of Jack Burroughs, a lawyer who has a tendency towards expressing narrow moral attitudes. The film was an unexpected box office hit, earning about 50,4 million dollars at the box office. It was the ninth highest-grossing film of 1981, and won the "Bodil Award for Best Non-European Film". Alda was again nominated for the "Golden Globe Award for Best Actor - Motion Picture Musical or Comedy", but the award was instead won by rival actor Dudley Moore.
Alda had a hiatus in his acting and directing career during the early 1980s, as he had to take care of his terminally-ill parents. He attempted a comeback by directing the comedy film "Sweet Liberty" (1986), which parodies Hollywood filmmaking. Alda kept for himself the role of Michael Burgess, a college professor and historical novelist. Burgess wants to oversee the adaptation of his historically-accurate and realistic novel into a Hollywood film, but soon realizes that the film's screenwriter has turned the film into a historically inaccurate soap opera. He then sets out to sabotage the film. The film only earned 14.2 million dollars at the box office, despite the critical praise for its leading actors. The poor box office performance was attributed to its release time at movie theaters. It was directly competing with two more lucrative films, "Top Gun" and "Short Circuit".
Alda's next directing effort was the romantic comedy "A New Life" (1988), which depicted the problems faced by middle-aged divorced people. Alda played Steve Giardino, a workaholic businessman who received a divorce after more than 25 years of marriage. His attempts to pursue a new romance are complicated by his inexperience at dating and his unwillingness to father children again. Giardino soon suffers a heart attack due to his poor eating habits. He falls in love with the female physician attending to his problem, Dr. Kay Hutton (played by Veronica Hamel). The film was a box-office flop, only earning 7,7 million dollars at the box office. Critics found the film pleasant, but predictable.
Alda played pompous television producer Lester in the comedy-drama film "Crimes and Misdemeanors" (1989). In the film, Lester wants to finance a documentary celebrating his own life and work. He hires his brother-in-law to direct it, documentary filmmaker Clifford "Cliff" Stern (played by Woody Allen). He is unaware that Stern despises him. Stern uses the film to expose Lester's mistreatment of his employees, and Lester's sexual harassment towards actresses. The film earned 18,2 million dollars at the box office. For his role, Alda won the "National Board of Review Award for Best Supporting Actor".
Alda had his final directing credit with the romantic comedy "Betsy's Wedding" (1990). Alda played the main role of Eddie Hopper, a construction contractor who insists on organizing a lavish wedding for his beloved daughter Betsy Hopper (played by Molly Ringwald). Since Eddie can not actually afford the wedding expenses, he requests financial assistance from loan sharks. The film earned 19.7 million dollars at the box office, but its leading actresses (Molly Ringwald and Ally Sheedy) were both nominated for Golden Raspberry Awards. Unlike Alda's previous directing efforts, critics were mostly hostile towards the film.
Alda played the evil mentor Leo Green in the erotic thriller "Whispers in the Dark" (1992). In the film, main character Ann Hecker (a psychiatrist, played by Annabella Sciorra) seeks help from her mentor Leo Green due to suffering from disturbing dreams. Hecker is soon implicated in the murder of her female patient Eve Abergray (played by Deborah Unger), and then in the murder of the police detective investigating the case. She eventually realizes that her mentor has been obsessed with her for years. He committed both murders in a misguided attempt to protect her. This was Alda's first villainous role in a film since the early 1970s. The film only earned 11.1 million dollars at the box office.
In 1993, Alda became the new host of the science-themed television program "Scientific American Frontiers" (1990-2005). The series was a spin-off of the popular science magazine "Scientific American" (1845-). The show typically focused on new technology, and on scientific and medical discoveries. Alda remained the host for 12 years, and was credited with inspiring youngsters to follow scientific careers.
Alda was reduced to the supporting role of the protagonist's confidant in the black comedy film "Manhattan Murder Mystery" (1993). The main plot involved amateur detectives who were investigating the mysterious death of a neighbor, who seemed to have died twice and on two entirely different locations. They eventually realize that they have stumbled on the deaths of two sisters with a close family resemblance, and that the motive for the murders was their family fortune. The film only earned 11.2 million dollars at the box office. Its perceived failure led to the termination of a long-term deal between director Woody Allen and the film studio TriStar Pictures.
Alda had a more comedic role in the political satire film "Canadian Bacon" (1995). The film satirized international relations between Canada and the United States. Alda played an unnamed President of the United States who wants to start a new war to boost his sagging poll numbers, but lacks a credible enemy to serve as an opponent. He finds that Russia is not interested in renewed hostilities, and a proposal to declare war on international terrorism is rejected as absurd. So he uses a flimsy excuse to declare war on Canada, and uses television channels to transmit anti-Canada propaganda to the gullible American population. The film was a box office flop, despite featuring a large cast of Canadian actors. It is mostly remembered as the final film appearance for actor John Candy.
Alda next had a supporting role in the black comedy "Flirting with Disaster" (1996). In the film, an adult, married man searches throughout the United States for the biological parents who gave him up for adoption. He eventually learns that his biological father is Richard Schlichting (played by Alda), a man who has devoted the last 30 years in producing and distributing "lysergic acid diethylamide" (LSD). The family reunion is less than happy, and the protagonist is introduced to a biological brother who despises him. The film earned 14,7 million dollars at the box office.
Alda had another villainous role in the action thriller film "Murder at 1600" (1997), playing national security adviser Alvin Jordan. In the film, Jordan has organized a conspiracy in order to blackmail the President of the United States into resigning, and to start a second Korean War. The conspiracy involved murdering a White House secretary (who had a brief affair with the president) and framing the President for murdering her. The film earned 41,1 million dollars at the worldwide box office, Alda's most profitable film in a decade.
Alda played news anchorman Kevin Hollander in the media-themed thriller "Mad City" (1997). In the film, a fired museum guard takes several people hostage at his former workplace. The news media decides to exploit the situation for profit, and several reporters compete in trying to get the lion's share of the publicity. The situation escalates until the museum guard becomes a suicide bomber. The film only earned 10.5 million dollars at the box office.
Alda's career had declined in the early 2000s, but this situation was only temporary. In 2004, Alda joined the recurring cast of the political television series "The West Wing" (1999-2006). The series depicted the administration of a fictional United States president and his staff. Alda played Republican senator Arnold Vinick for 28 episodes. His character was depicted as a fiscal conservative, who was opposed to corporate welfare and resented to Christian' right's influence on his political party. Vinick became the new Secretary of State in the finale of the series. For his role, Alda won a Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama Series in 2006.
Alda's film career experienced a revival with his portrayal of career politician Ralph Owen Brewster (1888-1961) in the biographical film "The Aviator" (2004). He was nominated for the "Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor", the first Academy Award nomination in Alda's career. The award was instead won by rival actor Morgan Freeman. The critical acclaim for his role went against years of criticism for his acting abilities. Alda received several new offers for film roles.
Alda remained active as an actor throughout the 2000s and 2010s. He published three different memoirs between 2005 and 2017, covering different aspects of his life and career. In July 2018, he announced in an interview that he had been diagnosed with Parkinson's disease in 2015. While this has not ended his acting career, he feared that the effects could be distracting to viewers of his work.
From 2018 to 2020, Alda had a recurring role in the crime drama television series "Ray Donovan" (2013-2020). The series depicted the life and career of a professional "fixer" of the entertainment industry, in charge of bribes, payoffs, threats, crime-scene clean-up, and other illegal activities. Alda also appeared in the spin-off film "Ray Donovan: The Movie" (2022), which concluded remaining plot-lines from the series. By 2022, Alda was 86-years-old. He may no longer be in his prime, but the aging actor seems to have no plans to retire yet.