Alan Alda on MASH, His New Book and Appearing at Ideacity

Alan Alda

The 81-year-old stage and screen star has a new book on the art of communication, an ideacity appearance and memories of his first ever visit to Toronto—at age two.

I was under the weather and working from home when the phone rang – “Hello Mike, this is Alan Alda” – and that unmistakably familiar voice triggered images of crowded Korean War medical tents where Alda’s wise-cracking Chief Surgeon Hawkeye Pierce kept both his audience and his patients in stitches on the groundbreaking comedy series MASH.

Pierce may have identified the source of my searing stomach pain, but Alda was on the line to discuss a different subject – communication. When not appearing on stage or screen, the actor’s spent the last two decades studying the art of communication and relating, including founding the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University’s School of Journalism in New York State eight years ago.

RELATED: Check out our Facebook Live with Alan Alda from ideacity 2017!

Legendary actor Alan Alda stopped by Ideacity to chat about his new book and MASH!

Posted by EverythingZoomer on Friday, June 16, 2017


“That really triggered thinking about this in an organised way,” he explained. “We’ve trained over 8,000 scientists and doctors. So it was a fascinating time for me and I felt we had all come some distance in understanding things about communication that ought to get written about.”

And that’s exactly what the 81-year-old did. A lifelong science buff – his longest tenure on a TV show isn’t his 11 years on MASH but, in fact, his 12 years hosting the PBS science program Scientific American Frontiers, from 1993-2005 – Alda’s most recent book, If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face?: My Adventures in the Art and Science of Relating and Communicating, offers a wealth of insight, information and tips about how we communicate, and how we could communicate better, with each other.

The book is also Alda’s jumping off point for his recent appearance at ideacity (a ZoomerMedia property) on June 16, where he did a live improvisation with the audience to help illustrate what he’s learned about communication over the years.

RELATED: Watch Alan Alda’s talk at ideacity 2017.


During our conversation, Alda and I discussed tips for opening lines of communication with loved ones as we age, the circumstances surrounding a photo of him smoking a pipe on a visit to Toronto at age two and, of course, MASH. Click through for the complete Q&A.

Your book offers some wonderful insights for better communication at a period when science is very much under attack and the art of communication has deteriorated in both in personal and political arenas. Is there anything in particular that you learned through this research that struck you?

ALAN ALDA: I knew that relating was really important, but I think I’ve learned relating is just a more specific way of saying you know your audience. You can know your audience in a very general way but to get more specific helps you to be in touch with them in a way you can’t [when] being general. The importance, for instance, of actually paying attention to the features of the other person’s face, if you’re talking to them face to face. You and I are not talking face to face but I’m listening to [you] probably more carefully than I would have a couple of years ago.

If you look back over your life do you ever think, ‘I wish I’d known about some of these communication tools when I was doing that thing, or dealing with that person’?

AA: Many times I’ve thought, ‘I really wish I knew this when I was a young man, I would have been a better actor, I would have been a better husband, a better partner at the dinner table.’ I’m really glad I wrote the book because whether or not it helps anybody else, I really found it helpful myself. But other people have told me it changed their lives. It sounds like a terrible boast, but people have actually said that to me. So it makes me happy.

Your mother struggled with schizophrenia and you and your father never discussed it. Would that have changed had you known then what you know now about communication?

AA: It might have, but maybe not because the whole culture was against speaking about mental illness. You just didn’t do it. It was considered a curse if it was in your family. Even within the family we didn’t talk about it and I don’t really know why.

It seems, with better communication, we could break down such barriers and taboos.

AA: There’s always something that is hard to talk about. I think every generation has it. I know families with a transgendered person in the family, or somebody transitioning to it, and it’s hard for them to talk about it, just as it was hard for us to talk about schizophrenia. It’s a human condition, it’s a human’s part of life.

For some, it’s having difficult discussions about life and death with parents or children as we age. What could people do to open a line of communication that might seem awkward or touchy?

AA: The hard thing about being a parent is you have all this experience and you’re talking to somebody who not only doesn’t have experience the way you do, but doesn’t value experience the way you do. And you want to give them all your experience in one gulp. At least that was true for me and it’s hard because it’s the basic problem with communication that I talk about in the book. If you have the best message in the world, but it doesn’t get into their head and get internalised and accepted, and even understood, then what’s the point of the message? The message has just died halfway between you and the other person. So that connection with the other person, the relating to them, being aware of what they’re going through, what they’re feeling and thinking as you’re speaking together, listening. There’s more listening that has to go on on the part of the person talking than on the part of the person listening because not only will you have to know what they’re going through as you talk to them, you’re in real danger of saying stuff that turns them off and turns them away.

You’re coming to ideacity to discuss communication, but most people probably know you best from your role as Hawkeye Pierce on the show MASH. That show was ground-breaking but many of the social and political issues it touched on still apply 45 years later. Would MASH fit in to today’s television landscape if it came along in 2017?

AA: It’s hard to say. It probably wouldn’t be on network television; it would probably be on cable or Netflix or one of those channels. But it wouldn’t be the same. It would probably be grittier and the language would be rougher and more people would be dying. As ground-breaking as it was, it still was a family show. And that’s fine, I’m proud of it. But what’s amazing is in this culture, a show we began 45 years ago is still being watched.

You must be so proud to be associated with such a cultural achievement.

AA: I’m proud of it but I almost never think of it until somebody else brings it up. I don’t think about the past much. But those of us who acted on the show and directed the show, and produced it, we’re all still friends so we remember our happy times together when we get together for a dinner. There’s a lot of laughing and making fun of each other that we used to do in the old days that we pick right up without a hitch.

You’ve written this book and you’re touring and still acting. At 81, what inspires you to pursue new goals and remain so active?

AA: I find myself led by my nose all the time. I don’t have a master plan and I really am trying to cut down on how busy I am. I think it’s just a product of my interest, my curiosity, the pleasure I get at accomplishing little things that keep me writing and acting, going on the road. But that’s one of the disadvantages of being led by your nose – everything seems interesting and you take everything on. Dogs who are led by their nose, they find everything interesting. [Laughs] I would have just as much fun cleaning out my closet, which I haven’t cleaned out in 20 years, because I have all these other things to do. I have that on my list.

Are there roles – a type of character or a specific character – that you’ve never played but always wanted to try?

AA: For a while I thought it would be fun to play Hamlet and now I’m too old to play Hamlet’s father. [Laughs] But I can’t remember a part I’ve wanted to play seriously. I’m too comfortable with uncertainty. I like to see what comes out of the blue and see what I can make of it. I find that no matter how many plans I make, something else happens.

You’re coming to Toronto to give a talk at ideacity, but you actually first came here in 1938, when you were two-years-old, with your father who performed in burlesque shows. Back then a promotional photo for the show appeared in the Toronto Daily Star with you, at age two, smoking a pipe.

AA: I forget the name of the theatre we were playing, but my father thought it would be a way to get publicity for the show by asking a newspaper if they wanted to take a picture of his two-year-old who smoked a pipe, which I didn’t do. I just held the pipe for the picture but they made up stories for that. [Laughs] It’s amazing. They said, ‘Oh we asked a doctor if it’s okay if he smokes and he says it’s alright as long as he smokes in moderation.’ And they printed it.

Do you have any memories of that?

AA: I actually do remember having my picture taken. And I remember pulling into train yards but it could have been Baltimore or Philadelphia or Toronto. Mainly I remember standing in the [stage] wings. I remember that really clearly, and going up to the chorus girls’ dressing room where they were very motherly to me, and I remember the theatre. But I guess I’ve made all the theatres into one in my memory. But when I go into an old theatre now, there’s some particular smell of backstage in America, Great Britain and Canada as well. They all smell the same. It’s maybe some microbe that grows in the backstage area. I don’t know what it is but it’s a very distinctive smell and it brings me back to my childhood.

And speaking of theatres, your appearance at ideacity takes place at Koerner Hall. What can we look forward to from you at the event?

AA: I’ll try to share some of the basic ideas about what I’ve discovered about communication and I’ll even ask a couple of people to come up on stage and I’ll put them through [improv] exercises so they get a feel for it. And I think it’ll be fun. So between now and then they can be frightened that they might be called on. [Laughs] Most people are afraid of it and they find it’s just fun. I was improvising with a troupe of actors a couple of years ago and one actress who had 30 years experience on the stage told me later that she was so scared about improvising that she was thinking of faking a heart attack to get out of it. And she turned out to be the one with the biggest breakthrough. I find that often the people who resist it the most get the most out of it.

If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face?: My Adventures in the Art and Science of Relating and Communicating is available in stores and online June 6.