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