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Alan Alda Biography


Home > Actors > A > Alda,Alan > Biography


Birth Name: Alan Alda
Born: 01/28/1936
Birth Place: New York City, New York, USA


Born Jan. 28, 1936 in New York City, NY, Alda was raised by his father, Robert, an actor and singer best known for playing George Gershwin in "Rhapsody in Blue" (1945), and his mother, Joan, a former Miss New York who suffered from paranoid schizophrenia, which plagued the household with constant tension and occasional violence. When he was a toddler, Alda's father worked in burlesque, giving him the opportunity to watch strippers, comics and chorus girls from the wings. At age seven, Alda suffered from a bout with polio, which at the time had no cure - either one died or, like the then current president, FDR, became paralyzed. But doctors were able to alleviate the condition with an intense regiment of hot towels, heat packs and deep massage, an excruciatingly painful process that was developed by Sister Elizabeth Kenny, a nurse from Africa who traveled the United States teaching the method two years before Alda contracted the disease. Thankfully, the youth suffered no residual effects after the successful treatment.

Because of his early exposure to show business, it was only a matter of time until Alda tried his own hand in that arena. When he was 15, Alda performed Abbot and Costello-style routines with his dad at the famed GI hangout, The Hollywood Canteen. Two years later, he made his theatrical debut starring in a summer stock production of "Charley's Aunt" in Barnesville, PA. After graduating high school, he attended medical school at Fordham University, but switched to English once he accepted the fact that becoming a doctor was his father's dream, not his. During his junior year at Fordham, Alda traveled to Europe, where he acted with his father on stage in Rome and on television in Amsterdam. Back in the States, he attended the Cleveland Playhouse on a Ford Foundation grant, where he studied improvisational acting with Paul Sills. Alda continued his training at The Compass in Hyannisport, MA, before joining The Second City improv troupe in Chicago. Though he made his New York stage debut as an understudy in "The Hot Corner" (1956), Alda became known for his performance as Charlie Cotchipee in the Broadway production of "Purlie Victorious" (1961-62).

Alda made his film debut with "Gone Are the Days" (1963), then had his television series debut on the pioneering political satire show "That Was the Week That Was" (NBC, 1964). Returning to the New York stage, Alda had his first lead, starring opposite Diana Sands in the two-character hit "The Owl and the Pussycat" (1964-65), which he followed with a Tony-nominated performance in the musical "The Apple Tree" (1966-67). On the big screen, Alda starred in "Paper Lion" (1968), playing George Plimpton, the real-life journalist who became an honorary quarterback for the Detroit Lions in an unsuccessful and painful fashion. Alda went on to star in several more films, playing a man looking to avoid the military draft by marrying a pregnant woman (Marlo Thomas) in "Jenny" (1969) and one of four American soldiers stranded on a deserted island during World War II in John Frankenheimer's mediocre comedy, "The Extraordinary Seaman" (1969). After starring in the offbeat thriller, "The Mephisto Waltz" (1971), Alda played a college professor convicted of manslaughter who is adjusting to life in prison in the gripping drama "The Glass House" (1972).

In 1972, Alda landed the role that changed his fame and fortune forever, playing the goofy, hooch-drinking, nurse-chasing surgeon Hawkeye Pierce on the acclaimed TV version of the successful Robert Altman film, "M*A*S*H" (CBS, 1972-1983), a searing comedy-drama about the wild antics of the medical staff at a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital during the Korean War. Though his character started off the series as a carefree anti-authoritarian whose favorite pastime - besides bedding nurses - was getting under the skin of tent-mate Frank Burns (Larry Linville), Hawkeye slowly evolved into a man of conscience and morality in a world gone insane, reflecting the political leanings of the actor, though some fans who loved the amiable goofball decried the change. The change was largely steered by Alda himself; over the years, he gained more and more control over the creative direction of the series as several writers and producers left. By the final season, Alda had become a writer and director, as well as the central star of the show, earning an astounding 21 Emmy nominations for all three categories. In the end, Alda won five Emmy Awards, becoming the only person ever to win for acting, writing and directing, and was the only series regular to appear in all 251 episodes. Perhaps most significantly, Alda directed the famed series finale, "Goodbye, Farewell and Amen," which lived on as the single-most watched episode in television history.

During his success on "M*A*S*H," Alda continued with outside projects, co-directing and co-starring opposite Carol Burnett in an adaptation of the Broadway comedy "6 Rms Riv Vu" (CBS, 1974), for which he earned an Emmy nod for his performance. Alda picked up yet another Emmy nomination, playing convicted killer Caryl Chessman in the made-for-television movie "Kill Me if You Can" (NBC, 1977). Back on the big screen, Alda starred in "Same Time, Next Year" (1978), a warm comedy-drama in which he played a married man who shares a weekend getaway once a year with a housewife (Ellen Burstyn) for a quarter century, through which the audience witnesses the ever-changing attitude of America. After appearing in the ensemble cast of the amusing Neil Simon comedy "California Suite" (1978), Alda made an assured feature screenwriting debut with " The Seduction of Joe Tynan " (1979), a political drama that featured Alda as the titular U.S. Senator juggling relationships with his Southern mistress (Meryl Streep) and his long-suffering wife (Barbara Harris). Though not as searing as other political films of the decade, "The Seduction of Joe Tynan" was nonetheless a well-intentioned indictment of a system gone wrong.

Throughout the 1980s, Alda wrote, directed and starred in a series of genteel comedies of variable quality which depicted the foibles of American bourgeois life, starting with "The Four Seasons" (1981), a bittersweet comedy-of-manners about the trials and tribulations of a group of middle-aged friends over the course of a year. Thanks to a strong ensemble cast that also included Carol Burnett, "The Four Seasons" was a commercial and critical success. After "M*A*S*H" took its final bow in 1983, Alda tried to revamp "The Four Seasons" (CBS, 1983-84) for television, which failed to catch on with audiences, leading to an abbreviated first season. Returning to the big screen, Alda directed his second feature, "Sweet Liberty" (1986), a light satirical comedy about a college professor (Alda) whose historical novel about the American Revolution gets the Hollywood treatment, much to his dismay and frustration. He next directed "A New Life" (1988) and played a recent divorcee who finds new love with a younger doctor (Veronica Hamel), while his ex-wife (Ann-Margret) falls in and out with a sculptor (John Shea). Veering from his nice guy image, Alda received rave reviews for his performance as a sleazy, egotistical television director in Woody Allen's masterpiece, "Crimes and Misdemeanors" (1989).

After directing and starring in "Betsy's Wedding" (1990), a mediocre family comedy about a middle class father (Alda) forced to ask his mobster brother-in-law (Joe Pesci) to help pay for his daughter's overblown wedding, Alda retreated from directing features to focus squarely on acting, though his capacity as a leading man was diminished by the 1990s. His work on stage also continued, notably as the star of Neil Simon's mild farce "Jake's Women" (1992), a role which earned him a Tony Award nomination, and which he later recreated for the 1996 television adaptation. Meanwhile, he gave another strong performance as an unsympathetic character, playing controversial National Institute of Health official Dr. Robert Gallo in acclaimed expose of the AIDS crisis, "And the Band Played On" (HBO, 1993), for which he earned an Emmy nod for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Miniseries or Special. Following another collaboration with Woody Allen on "Manhattan Murder Mystery" (1993), he played an unrepentant advertising executive responsible for five deaths on a white-water rafting expedition in "White Mile" (HBO, 1994). After a forgettable turn in "Canadian Bacon" (1995), playing the bumbling President of the United States who starts a new Cold War with Canada, Alda received more kudos for his pairing with Lily Tomlin as the aging hippie parents of Ben Stiller in David O Russell's comedy, "Flirting With Disaster" (1996).

By the second half of the 1990s, Alda had become secure playing a variety of supporting roles, while allowing other younger actors to take the lead. He once again joined forces with Woody Allen to co-star in the director's musical romantic comedy, "Everyone Says I Love You" (1997). In "Murder at 1600" (1997), an ill-received political thriller involving murder at the White House, Alda played Alvin Jordan, a benevolent National Security Advisor who helps a Washington D.C. detective (Wesley Snipes) investigate the case when no one else will. As television news anchor Kevin Hollander in "Mad City" (1997), Alda aided the firing of an investigative journalist (Dustin Hoffman) from the network after an altercation. He then appeared as literary agent Sidney Miller in the Jennifer Aniston romantic comedy "The Object of My Affection" (1998), directed by Nicholas Hytner. After playing Mel Gibson's boss in the box office hit "What Women Want" (2000), he returned to television and earned more Emmy nominations - his 29th and 30th - for a recurring role as a prominent physician in the early stages of Alzheimer's disease on "ER" (NBC, 1994-2009) and as a hard-nosed talent agent in Showtime's "Club Land" (2001).

Back on the big screen, Alda shined opposite Leonard DiCaprio in "The Aviator" (2004), Martin Scorsese's epic biography about Howard Hughes (DiCaprio). Alda played Ralph Owen Brewster, the bought-and-sold chairman of a Senate committee dedicated to publicly ruining the maverick airline tycoon. Going against his nice guy persona, Alda played the corrupt Senator with typical charm and ease, earning the praise of critics and a nomination for an Academy Award. That same year, he joined the cast of "The West Wing" (NBC, 1999-2006) playing the former Republican senator of California and presidential candidate, Arnold Vinick, who ran against and lost to Democratic congressman Matt Santos (Jimmy Smits). Alda was nominated for two Emmy awards for his portrayal of the so-called maverick Republican, earning a statue for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama Series in 2006.

In a return to the stage, Alda delivered a Tony Award-caliber performance in a Broadway revival of David Mamet's "Glengarry Glen Ross," playing down-and-out salesman Shelley "The Machine" Levene. In "Resurrecting the Champ" (2007), Alda played a stubborn newspaper editor who refuses to take a struggling reporter (Josh Hartnett) off the boxing beat, then starred opposite Matthew Broderick in the independent comedy about memory loss, "Diminished Capacity" (2008). On the small screen, he earned an Emmy Award nomination for Outstanding Guest Actor in a Comedy Series for his portrayal of Jack Donaghy's (Alec Baldwin) ailing biological father in the season three finale of "30 Rock" (NBC, 2006-2013). Back in features, Alda played a scheming billionaire who becomes the target of revenge by a motley crew of apartment building employees in the caper comedy from Brett Ratner "Tower Heist" (2011). That same year, he had a widely praised guest starring role on "The Big C" (Showtime, 2010- ), playing a doctor with a new method of treatment Cathy (Laura Linney) hopes to use.