Thursday, December 9, 2010

An Interview with TV Legend Alan Alda

Ali Goldstein/NBC

Alan Alda is making his third appearance tonight on 30 Rock as the father of Alec Baldwin's Jack Donaghy. We've been fans of Alda's even before M*A*S*H, the day our dad brought home the soundtrack to The Apple Tree. Alan was nominated for a Tony for playing Adam and he sang and danced his way into our hearts. Of course, we have loved him as Hawkeye Pierce and even tuned in to The West Wing once in a while to see our childhood crush.

So imagine how excited we were to find out we could talk to Alda on a conference call prior to his next guest spot on 30 Rock. But what we would we ask. So many great roles, so little time.

He really was as funny and charming as we always imagined him to be as he talked about 30 Rock, M*A*S*H, musicals and his love of science, yes science.

Tune into 30 Rock tonight on NBC at 8:30 p.m. EST/7:30 p.m. Central.

Q: Since you've already played Milton how do you connect or relate to him now as compared to your first guest spot?

ALAN: Well what’s nice is every time a character shows up — we had this on M*A*S*H too and when I would write for the characters on M*A*S*H I would look for this — what else can you find out about the person. And sometimes [it's] very little things. He’s especially affectionate towards his son who is played by Alec Baldwin, of course. And it irritates Alec for this guy to be so affectionate toward him. But when you see little turns and twists on that, other ways he can be irritating to him, it’s fun to discover those things. So it’s really a process of seeing a little deeper each time into the person. Those things are bound to come out if you keep showing the person as long as they’re interested in doing more than just the one joke thing. And these writers are really excellent. So they are interested in that.

Q: Would you like to do another comedy series or do you want to stick to guest spots?

ALAN: I like coming in and out of 30 Rock. So the more I can do that the happier I'll be. For one thing I don't have to travel too far, just cross the river into Queens… We'll see if they get inspired to write any more stories for that character. But I love doing it and I'd be happy to do it as much as they want.

Q: You wrote and directed many episodes of M*A*S*H. Does the prospect of directing a show like 30 Rock give you a chill or would you ever want to tackle that?

ALAN: No I don't think so. It makes me very happy now when a director has to worry about where to put the camera and how to organize a shot and to get the day in before everybody has to go home. And it’s not me who has to worry about it. It’s just one of the extra pleasures in life not to have to worry about those things. It’s interesting so many people want to be directors. There’s an old joke that somebody is meeting Mother Teresa and telling her how wonderful she is. And she says, "Yeah, but you know what I really want to do is direct." And it’s because everyone wants to.

But I did that already. I did it on M*A*S*H. I did it in several movies that I wrote and directed. And for the experience itself I don't really need to do it any more. And I don't need that feeling of power. There is a wonderful feeling of power when you’re a director especially on a big movie, less so on a television show. But you can say I'd really like that building painted yellow. And the next day it’s yellow. Or you say I'd like to have it moved over there. And it’s gone. So that feels pretty good. But I don't think I need that and I'm okay without it.

So no, I'm very happy to just play on 30 Rock and in movies and that kind of thing. Doing this 30 Rock, we all had to work hard to fit it in because it just happened to come at a time when I was doing two other jobs — two movies at the same time — two features at the same time. They were overlapping. And 30 Rock fell in the middle of one of them. So everybody had to work out these schedules.

Q: How you first got involved with 30 Rock?

ALAN: They called me up and they asked me if I wanted to be Alec Baldwin’s father. And I was delighted. It’s a funny feeling to work with people who you consider your colleagues and to realize that they actually are young enough to be your children. Alec and Tina and pretty much everybody on the set… is young enough to be a child of mine. And yet there’s no sense on my part that I'm any older than them. I look at Alec and I think in some way, "Well we’re sort of the same age. We have a wealth of experience that we share." And then I think, "Wait a minute. I have daughters the same age." So it’s kind funny when I step back and reflect on it.

Q: Have you enjoyed working with Elaine Stritch?

ALAN: Oh yeah. You know, she’s remarkable. When we were shooting this episode that’s going to be on Thursday night she was coming in and shooting for a full day, which is tiring for anybody. And then she was going out at night and leaving the set and going to do a Broadway musical — A Little Night Music — which to do a musical takes a tremendous amount of energy because you have to act and sing at the same time. And everything has to be precise. Because you can't forget the lyrics because the band keeps playing, and you’re under a certain amount of pressure. And she was doing two full time jobs at the same time. And… I admired her energy very much.

Q: Obviously the writers come up with so much material, but when you were there on set working with Alec and Elaine did you start to think of some other ideas to bring to the table?

ALAN: No. I do what they say. What’s in the script is what I do… That writing is very, very carefully worked out. And there were a lot of people working on those scripts. We did a table reading of this show that’s going to be on Thursday night. And you’re at a table and there are six or seven writers there. I don't know who all these people were. There was a roomful of about 50 people and they were all involved in creating the show. So it was like an audience. It was like you did an off-Broadway play that morning. And it was really exciting to do that because you got live reactions to the humor. And it sparked everybody into another level of energy - the actors. It was a very interesting experience. It was a table read of a kind I hadn't been to before because there were so many people involved. So I really enjoyed that.

But in answer to your question, what I find to do I find in the script. And I examine the script to try to see what veins are there to be explored. But because I write and I direct… that doesn't mean I offer suggestions in those areas when I go to work with other people. They have their own inspiration and I try to serve that.

Q: What can you tell us about the holiday 30 Rock episode and do you have any favorite scenes?

ALAN: During the show Alec Baldwin’s character who really can't stand his mother very much wants to get even with her and invites me to the same holiday dinner. We’re both his mother and father but haven't really seen each other since he was conceived. And it’s sort of revenge on her to bring me back together. And he doesn't expect what happens after that... They keep trying to one up each other with hurtful things. And then before long… both his parents are screaming at him which in 30 Rock’s twisted way is a holiday event. It’s a happy Christmas for him, for his parents to be yelling at him, because that’s the closest he’s ever been to them and that’s what he’s used to. So it’s a really backwards holiday story where instead of the family getting together and having a nice turkey together, they get together and scream at one another.

I loved the moment where I gave him a book I had written about Jimmy Carter, which of course drives him crazy. No it wasn't about Jimmy Carter. It was about a multicultural family. And I told him that I had brought it just for him. And I loved handing it to him because he gets into his character and he really resented getting this book.

Q: Do you have an idea of the impact you've had on pop culture and the legacy of M*A*S*H?

ALAN: Never think about it. I'm sort of aware of it but I don't think in any way the way you’re describing it. And I have to tell you when we were in the midst of doing it we really had no idea of the impact we were having. Because we were just working as hard as we could to do good shows. Or as Jack Benny once said he said, 'I try never to do a lousy show.' And that’s actually a pretty good standard. But in the beginning we were shocked that people would come up to us in airports and they'd whisper, 'keep up the good work' like we were part of some kind of an underground movement.

And the night that the show ended and we drove through the streets and saw that the streets were empty because everybody was home — about…half the population of the country was watching the show at the same time. And it was a shock to us. We really didn't understand until that moment what kind of an impact the program had. Which is good because otherwise you'd get a little stiff... You'd get a little self-important.

Q: What have you learned about yourself that you may not have if you weren't an actor?

ALAN: I think it’s very possible that I wouldn't have learned — well probably a number of things — but one of the things I probably wouldn't have learned was to get in touch with my emotions the way I have to because it’s my professional obligation to. And there are an awful lot of people who don't have to and don't get in touch with their emotions. And I guess those are the ones with children who grow up saying their father was cold and that kind of thing. So that’s one thing.

Another thing is I don't think I wouldn't have gotten up so early every morning because for some reason when you’re in front of a camera they start the acting day at 8:00 in the morning. If I just stayed on the stage I could've gotten up at noon because you start a lot later. But there’s also this thing of acting out on the sidewalk in the bitter cold. And the only other time I had to do that when I was a doorman before I could get very far in acting. So it’s not that different. You have some of the same benefits you have as being a doorman.

Q: What did you think of Bill Hader’s impression of you on SNL in the Back to the Future scene?

ALAN: He’s very talented. I think there’s something wrong with the way I hear my own voice. Because I've heard people do me and I've never heard the similarity. So it’s not only him, but other people. And everybody tells me I have such a distinctive voice. It doesn't sound so distinctive to me. So I can't really give you much of a comment. I don't recognize it. And yet other people say, "Oh my god that’s you." So I've always been a little hard of hearing since I was in the army when I was 21. On the firing line I lost some of my hearing. And I don't think I hear my own voice the way other people do. I actually sound more like Laurence Olivier.

Q: If you could go back in time and star in any TV show which one would it be and why?

ALAN: It probably would've been really fun to be on the Honeymooners or Lucy because they were such groundbreaking shows. Maybe even the Honeymooners more than anything because that sounded like a really risky thing to do. I know, that’s funny I've said that several times today the word risky. So you'll have to excuse me. But I remember reading that Jackie Gleason used to read the script at home. He wouldn't show up for rehearsal. And he'd come in and do the show live almost like an improvisation and usually say all of his lines. But sometimes he'd get lost and everybody would have to improvise with him.

The only part about that I don't like is not showing up for rehearsal because… it’s not like respectful to the other actors I don't think. But I suppose he felt he did his best that way. So I don't know if I would have liked to be on the Honeymooners come to think of it. I'm glad you brought that up because if I get an offer to be on the Honeymooners I'm going to turn it down.

Q: Excluding Jack Donaghy which character currently on TV today do you actually enjoy watching the most?

ALAN: I love what’s his name on Curb Your Enthusiasm.

Q: Larry David?

ALAN: Yeah, yeah. I think he’s really created a moldier character that’s so risky. It’s amazing that you can enjoy watching that schmuck... week in and week out. But he’s so offbeat and off base that it’s delicious to see the mistakes he makes. It’s a little bit like Archie Bunker was where he gave voice to attitudes and a temperament that you never saw before on television and said many regrettable things. But it’s even a slyer version of that I think. As I've never been on that set but as I understand it he writes an outline and they improve most of it.

Q: Is that something that you would do one day?

ALAN: Oh I would love it. I love to improvise. And I started out as an improviser. And I was always suggesting on the M*A*S*H set that we do a little bit of improvising. We never did. A lot of people asked us did we improvise much. We didn't improvise a smidgen. Every word was as written. But we did one episode that was improvised. And it was one of our special ones which was the interview show - one of the black and white interview shows where we improvised a lot of the — most of the speeches that were then organized and punched up by Larry Gelbart. And then there were moments that were improvised on the spot where the interviewer was just asking us questions on camera that we had never heard before and we'd answer in character. So that was really a lot of fun.

I see movies now where improvisation is used much more than it ever has been before. And those movies tend to be really interesting in terms of the performances because they’re much more spontaneous.

Q: Do you have a favorite episode of M*A*S*H?

ALAN: No I don't. I tried to figure it out once. And I think there were about 15 or 20 shows at the top of my list but no single favorite. I liked the most the ones where we told the story in a different way — like the dreams episode or the black and white interview episode or where the camera was the eyes of the patient, the point of view of the patient. And it’s those shows that were very different stick out in my head because we took a risk and we shook up the format. And it always reminds me that the audience was generous with us and let us play around like that. But we had a feeling that they'd let us come back the following week even if they didn't go for the shift as much as we'd hoped they would. But as it turned out I think that was one of the pleasure of watching the show was to see what we were going to try to do next.

Q: Or is there anything you consciously do to step aside form the roe of Hawkeye? Because you've never been type cast.

ALAN: Well, you know, I think you’re right. I don't think I have been type cast. I think maybe one of the reasons why is that while I was doing M*A*S*H I was able to play other characters in movies. And so I registered as an actor and not as that character. But I don't consciously try to be different. I just try to play the character. Every character is a little different. And it doesn't bother me if a character is a little like another character I played as long as I can try sincerely to be fully who that person is.

Q: Would you get behind a remake of M*A*S*H?

ALAN: No. We did the best we could and our time has passed and… I think what we did ought to be left as it is. Yeah. I mean, it represents what we did at the time and I would hate to see it raked over again… Would you want to see the Honeymooners again? I wouldn't. I want to see Jackie Gleason... I'm not comparing M*A*S*H to the Wizard of Oz because they’re two completely different things that had completely different impacts — but somebody said that they’re thinking about doing the Wizard of Oz again. That’s nuts. You want to see Judy Garland. You don't want to see somebody new doing it.

Q: Do you have any plans to do any more musicals?

ALAN: I don't have any plans. Musicals are hard for me because I got thrown out of the glee club in high school because I couldn't sing in tune at the time. I can sing in tune now but I have to work really hard on it to make sure that I don't exercise one of my great talents which is the ability to sing in three keys at the same time. When I work on it I can do it, but it’s a little scary. But then I like to do scary things. So eventually I may do it. But I'm not so sure I want to show up eight times a week. That’s why I admire Elaine Stritch so much that she really digs in and gives her all to it. But you know how politicians are always saying they want to spend more time with their family? Well I actually do.

Q: You're a big science buff. Have been following the new life form they've discovered recently and what you think about it?

ALAN: Actually I discovered it first in my shoe. It is fascinating isn't it that you could get these little guys to eat arsenic like that and then incorporate it into their DNA. I'm really curious to read more about it because there were still traces of phosphorous so maybe they were just getting by on the arsenic somehow. I wonder if that’s really a building block… I was interested in it. But I'm really interested in to see where it goes from here and what conclusions they'll draw. I wonder if they'll be able to actually look for more kinds of life not only on other planets but on our own planet. Maybe this will give them a chance to discover kinds of life that we didn’t even know existed here… Actually they might find intelligent life somewhere here.

Q: What are some advances in science you see coming out in the near future and which one are you the most excited about?

ALAN: Well I'm really interested in scientists trying to figure out how the universe works or the many universes that there might be the multiverse. And I'm hoping that the new super collider in Cern in Switzerland will be able to throw some light on string theory. And maybe they'll be able to prove some of the ideas that have been postulated in string theory and maybe we'll understand more about how the universe works. So I'm looking forward to that as they increase their voltage there.

Q: Have you always had this interest in science?

ALAN: Yeah I always have and it’s always been one of the pleasures of my life just to track what these really smart people are doing. And I'm just a consumer of science but I'm an avid consumer of it. And as a matter of fact for about a dozen years I've done PBS series on science where I must've interviewed 600 or 700 scientists during that time. But I guess it’s a hobby. It’s an interest. It’s a passion actually, to help scientists be more spontaneous and be better communicators of science.

And I've helped start a center for communicating science at Stony Brook University. And it’s really starting to cook. And little by little it'll spread around to other universities. There are several universities that want to partner up with us and give scientists training all through their science education — training in communication skills both in writing and in personal presentations. And it’s working. And the scientists are very eager to take this instruction. And at Stony Brook they’re getting credit in their science curriculum — credit for studying communication. So I think it’s going to be a very important thing for science as this idea spreads. We’re not the only people interested. But I think this is the first time a university is working so pointedly on making sure that the scientists get communication skills.

Yeah I'm really dedicated to it. On Friday we were down in Washington D.C. and we did an hour and a half presentation to 600 deans of graduate schools. And many of them signed up to get more information about how they could train scientists in communication. And it’s really beginning to spread now. I'm very excited about it.

Q: Can you talk about The Four Seasons that you wrote, directed and starred in with Carol Burnett. Was that a good experience for you?

ALAN: It was. It was one of the very happy experiences I have in my memory because I loved working with those people. It was a script that came out of experiences in my life. And my family was involved. And my wife was taking pictures and writing a book about what it was like to be on the set. And I used her photographs. She did a whole special series of photographs for the movie because one of the characters was a photographer. And two of our daughters were in the movie. So it was a very happy time. And I think it turned out probably better than any other picture that I wrote and directed. So I had a great time doing it. And I have nice memories of it.

Q: You’re obviously a really good multi-tasker since you've acted, written and directed often at the same time. What’s your secret to having such creative bursts of energy and being able to multi-task like that?

ALAN: While I was doing M*A*S*H I did two or three pilots plus We'll Get By. And then right after M*A*S*H I did a short series based on The Four Seasons. And I was doing a lot of this stuff at the same time. In fact while I was doing the series for Four Seasons both my parents were dying. And I would be writing the show while I was being driven in cars back and forth to hospitals. And that was an example of pressure you really don't know you’re going to get. This pressure just comes at you sometimes and you can't prepare against it.

But the only way I could deal with it was to do what I was doing when I was doing it and not think about the other deadlines that were still hanging over my head from all the other things I was doing. So if I was going to spend 15 minutes on one of those tasks whether it was being at my mother’s bedside or acting a scene when I knew I had to come up with a written scene two hours after that I wouldn't think about anything but what I was doing at the time. And that’s kind of a good training for the rest of your life even if you’re not having to multi-task because whatever you’re doing deserves the attention you have. That’s why it drives me nuts when I'm with somebody who — usually it’s a very young person — who’s supposed to be having a conversation but is texting while they’re talking. If you’re talking, talk. If you’re texting, text.

Multi-tasking I don't think is possible. You can't really do two things at once. You have to do one thing at a time and really do it. Otherwise you don't even know you’re living. You don't even know you’re alive. At least that’s the way I look at it… Yeah actually I hope I said that right because I'm playing chess on the computer while we’re talking.

Q: What advice would you give to actors maybe just starting out?

ALAN: Make sure it’s the only thing in your life that you can do. Make sure you have plenty of other interests so that when you’re waiting to get work your life will be satisfying. And if you never get work you'll have something else to go to that you have a passion for. Make sure you have a spouse or a partner who shares your values because that may be the only person you'll ever meet who shares your values. And I would say study improvising because that gets to the heart of acting, which is connecting with the other people.

For other 30 Rock stories check out:
30 Rock Goes Live from New York—Twice
Kevin “Dot Com” Brown Names His Favorite TV Sidekick

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