Theatre yesterday and today

 

 

On Sunday, Alan Alda received a much-deserved SAG Lifetime Achievement Award at the televised SAG Awards. On Monday, he celebrated his 83rd birthday. Today, a day or two late (and a dollar or two short), I would like to offer a tribute to him for the simple reason that...

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On Sunday, Alan Alda received a much-deserved SAG Lifetime Achievement Award at the televised SAG Awards. On Monday, he celebrated his 83rd birthday. Today, a day or two late (and a dollar or two short), I would like to offer a tribute to him for the simple reason that he has (and always will be) one of my heroes.

 

Alan Alda with his SAG Lifetime Achievement Award, January 27, 2019.

 

I was first introduced to Alan Alda by way of one of his natural talents perhaps not known to many: his singing. In 1966, he had billing above the title in a new Broadway musical called The Apple Tree, alongside Barbara Harris and Larry Blyden. In those days, at the age of nine and still in elementary school, I couldn't afford to buy my own record albums. So I would take them out of the library and The Apple Tree was one of my first. The show's unique format was not lost on me, comprised as it was of three one-acts, none of which were connected. I was immediately smitten with the first act's "The Diary of Adam and Eve," (to the exclusion of the others), adapted from Mark Twain's satiric short stories about the first man and woman. Musicalized by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick, the songs are close to perfection in their melodiousness and cleverness, as well as deeply touching. And for reasons hard to explain, I was totally taken with the acting and charming singing voice of Alan Alda. In those early days of my dreaming to become an actor, he became one of my heroes. And to this day, in spite of all he's achieved, I still feel a little cheated by his never returning to the musical stage, especially with "never" being a long time in a career that's spanned more than sixty years.

 

Alan Alda as Adam in The Apple Tree (discovering things in the "Beautiful Beautiful World").

 

His father, Robert Alda, had a fine voice. He was such a good singer that he was cast as Sky Masterson in the original Guys and Dolls, for which he won a 1950 Tony Award as Best Actor in a Musical. But Alan had more in mind than following in lock step with his dad's footprints, especially with Robert's training in such dead arts as burlesque and vaudeville. Alan studied acting as a craft, as well as exploring writing in all its forms, something that would pay off for him later in his career. He struggled as all young actors do, hoping for that one big hit that would launch him. When, at age twenty-three, he made his New York stage debut as "The Telephone Man" in the Broadway comedy Only in America, it must have made his crest fall, folding as it did in under four weeks. " Two years later, a bigger and better role in the longer running Purlie Victorious gave him greater exposure, but after it closed, it didn't make him that much more employable. Seeking new ways to better himself and improve his odds, he journeyed to Chicago to work with Paul Sills, a master of theatre games, thereby discovering the world of improvisation to further hone his skills.

 

In 1964, he was able to command above-the-title billing on Broadway in the two-hander The Owl and the Pussycat, which really showed audiences (and the critics) what he could do. Playing opposite Diana Sands, who was African-American, was one of the earliest examples of color-blind casting, and it gave Alda one of his first footholds in making a statement through his work. "It would show an interracial couple kissing for the first time in a romantic comedy on Broadway," he wrote in his 2005 memoir Never Have Your Dog Stuffed. "Neither Diana nor I realized we were breaking new ground." But forever onward, he always struck the right note on social, political and humanitarian causes, which only added to the list of things that made him one of my heroes.

 

Diana Sands and Alan Alda in The Owl and the Pussycat (1964). 

 

I will never forget how excited I was when I read in TV Guide of a new sitcom that Alda would star in. The night it premiered, September 17, 1972, I pulled myself up close to the TV to find out what this half-hour version of the 1970 hit film M*A*S*H would be like. Suffice it to say it did not disappoint— and it made Alan Alda a superstar. He was soon starring in motion pictures opposite the likes of Jane Fonda, Ellen Burstyn, Meryl Streep, Carol Burnett, Madelyn Kahn Michelle Pfeiffer, and his Apple Tree co-star Barbara Harris. Some of those films he was writing and directing as well, skills he tried out while serving his time on M*A*S*H . In fact, Alda became the first person to ever win Emmys for acting, writing and directing. The fandom that came with his beloved rendition of Dr. Benjamin Franklin ("Hawkeye") Pierce, is still prevalent today. He was outrageous, funny, sexy, touching and the linchpin of the series, even amidst the storm of brilliant character actors who came and went during the eleven seasons M*A*S*H was on the air. His bravery on all the creative fronts he took on deepened his heroism to me.

 

An Al Hirschfeld rendering of Alda during his M*A*S*H years.

 

It was also during  M*A*S*H that Alda learned to use his celebrity well— beyond the projects in which he chose to develop and star. In the late 70s, he prominently lent his male face (and voice) to the Equal Rights Amendment, that sadly died aborning. During that specific fight for women's equality, he earned both bouquets and darts in equal measure, ridiculed by some for being "a male feminist." Time has proven he was on the right side of things, with still much work to be done, as he discussed in a 2015 Vanity Fair interview:  “There’s a very basic male problem that is genetic and it needs to be addressed, but just because it has genetic roots it doesn’t mean you can’t do anything about it.” Again, a hero to me.

 

More hero stuff:  The twelve years he hosted the PBS series Scientific American Frontiers; his wonderful books of autobiography; his nearly sixty-two year marriage to photographer and writer Arlene Alda; his raising three daughters to whom he went home most weekends to their New Jersey home during his twelve years shooting M*A*S*H in Los Angeles. Are you tired of winning yet?

 

Arlene and Alan Alda, taken at the Bronx Botanical Garden (not far from where Alan was born).

 

But today, in much the way it first began, I love Alan Alda for the talent he has shared with audiences every time he has stepped onto a stage or in front of a camera. Now in the early stages of Parkinson's Disease, which he formerly announced in a public statement last year, there is the probability of his prolificness being affected. As he enters his 83rd year amongst us mortals, slowing down would seem an appropriate course of action. But since this is Alan Alda, who has faced death many times (all of which you can read about in both Never Have Your Dog Stuffed and Things I Overheard While Talking to Myself), one can never be sure.

 

After all, if you ask me, the man is a Super Hero.

 

 

If you enjoy these columns, check out Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, available at Amazon.com in hardcover, softcover and e-book. Also sign up to follow me here, as well as email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.

 

 

 

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