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Alan Alda Wants Us to Communicate

Our favorite TV doctor prescribes laughter as a start


En español | Alan Alda isn't letting social distancing keep him from the people he loves. Soon after Alda, 84, and Arlene, 87, his wife of 63 years, quarantined themselves at their home on Long Island, they began holding video chats with friends and family via Zoom, the popular videoconferencing app.

"The other night we had dinner, virtually, with three couples,” says Alda, who — using Zoom's virtual-background feature — put up a gorgeous travel video of Italy, during cocktails. “I'm a little bit ahead of most of my friends digitally. For years I've been fixing their computers, and I call my service Celebrity Tech Support. The slogan is ‘Why let a nobody touch your stuff?’ ”

Alda lands the joke with that winning ear-to-ear smile. I can tell because we're Zooming, too — his presence as reassuring on my laptop screen as it was all those years on the beloved TV war comedy M*A*S*H. His iconic surgeon character, Benjamin Franklin “Hawkeye” Pierce, brought intelligence, wit and sanity to a world of chaos, much as Alda himself is doing now.


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actor alan alda hosting a podcast talking into a microphone in a sound booth

Jesse Dittmar

Alan Alda recording his podcast in New York.

In the nearly four decades since M*A*S*H signed off — with what remains the most-watched episode in television history — the six-time Emmy recipient has focused on something way broader than show business. He wants us all to relate and communicate better. His podcast, Clear + Vivid With Alan Alda, which launched in 2018 and features such megawatt guests as Tom Hanks and Paul McCartney, hinges on communication. “It's just two people really listening to each other for 45 minutes,” Alda says.

If one subject stands out in these heart-to-hearts, it's science. For 11 years, Alda — who describes himself as “a walking question mark” — was the engaging host of Scientific American Frontiers, a PBS show in which he got brainy engineers, medical researchers and Nobel laureates to talk more like the rest of us. He turned the gig into a full-time mission. In 2009, he established the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University on Long Island, where he loosens up scientists using improvisational techniques he learned during 50 years of acting. Some 15,000 participants have come through Alda Communication Training, so they can better share their critical work with clarity and passion.

"People are dying because we can't communicate in ways that allow us to understand one another,” Alda explained in his 2017 book, If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face? “That sounds like an exaggeration, but I don't think it is. When patients can't relate to their doctors and don't follow their orders, when engineers can't convince a town that the dam could break, when a parent can't win the trust of a child to warn her off a lethal drug — they can all be headed for a serious ending."

Communicating science matters more than ever these days to Alda. Not only is he in the age group most at risk for COVID-19; he's also battling Parkinson's disease, another illness with no cure. Alda doesn't let that get him down. If anything, he finds inspiration in mysteries yet to be unraveled.

"We don't value our ignorance enough,” he notes in a candid, wide-ranging and frequently hilarious conversation. “Ignorance is really good to have if it's combined with curiosity, and scientists are professional curiosity machines. We should all imitate that as much as possible. Now it's clear that our lives depend on it."


alan alda sits on a metal staircase

Robbie Fimmano

What has life been like for you since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic?

I'm having a good time, under the circumstances. The other day, we were walking 6 feet apart with friends in a secluded area and I said, “What's the best thing that's happened since this began?” One friend looked at me with a kind of stupefied expression, like, What do you mean “best"? What's good? But I've found a lot of positive things. I'm very happy about some of the changes we've had to go through. For one thing, my wife, Arlene [the author of 19 books], is looking for ways to be creative during this time. So, she's gone back to painting and drawing, and she plays the piano every day, and she's experimenting with cooking. She looks into a sometimes empty refrigerator and comes up with a delicious meal. I haven't eaten this well since the last epidemic.

actor alan alda and his wife arlene smiling at a hollywood event

Michael Kovac/Getty Images

"Arlene's answer is that the secret to a long marriage is a short memory. My answer? Love."

—Alan Alda on the secret to being married 63 years

You've been advocating for years for better communication around science. Are we finally getting the message as a society?

One of the most basic things I've tried to do is give people a greater understanding of how science works — the importance of evidence, the importance of many trials, of rigorous studies, and the idea that we learn only a little bit at a time. No single study is the end-all answer for everything. Making people aware of that process helps increase appreciation and respect for science, and that helps us make informed decisions for our families and ourselves.

Unfortunately, I probably need another 25 years to help the culture achieve trust in science overall. Because there are pockets of people who still think science is just another opinion. That mindset puts us all in danger, because it can infect people across the country. So, I'm very concerned about the casual attitude many people have toward science.

There are bright spots. I think [infectious diseases expert] Anthony Fauci is doing a wonderful job. He's straddling two worlds, science and belief. It's like that silent movie shot, where someone's balanced on top of two moving trucks that are getting farther and farther apart. His legs are spreading as far as they can, but Fauci — who was on my podcast in March — comes closest to being the national figure most trusted by the rest of the country.

With information changing so quickly, it's hard to know what to believe.

Well, you have to check the source. There's a lot of fake information out there: Gargle with this; hold your breath for 10 seconds. If the only source is “my cousin who knows somebody who knows somebody in the health care field,” that's not a reliable source and can do more harm than good. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or the World Health Organization — those are the best sources, and you've got to go straight to their websites to see what they have to say. I also cross-check information at [fact-checking website] Snopes.com as often as I can. But beyond that, in a fundamental way, there's a problem we have now that we haven't had before, which is that we're operating within our own circles of kinship and friendship and information.

Any advice on getting out of our own little bubbles?

The scientists I've interviewed tell me it's a good idea to spread the information you know to be correct with those outside your circle. If there's anybody you know whom you don't ordinarily communicate with and who has his or her own circle, try to include that person, so we can extend our reach with real information, and also with encouragement. Mental health is as important as physical health. They're intertwined. I'm talking like I'm an expert, but I've only been studying this for 25 years.

You survived polio as a kid. What do you remember about that epidemic?

I got it when I was 7. I had a stuffy nose at the Warner's movie theater — honking the whole evening. I couldn't clear my nose. When I got home, I threw up, and my legs were unsteady. The next day, I had a stiff neck. I couldn't sit up in bed. My parents called the doctor. Went to the hospital, had a spinal tap. I was in the hospital for two weeks, but then I had about six months of a therapy devised by Elizabeth Kenny, the famous nurse from Australia. I had nearly scalding blankets wrapped around my limbs every hour. It was hard on me. It was harder, I think, on my parents, who couldn't afford a nurse and had to torture me themselves. It's always better to pay somebody to torture your kid.

actor alan alda sits cross legged on a couch

Robbie Fimmano

Alda revealed his Parkinson’s disease diagnosis in July 2018. For Parkinson’s resources and support, learn more at the Parkinson’s Foundation.

It doesn't appear that Parkinson's disease has slowed you down much, if at all. How did you first discover you had it?

In 2015, I read an article in the New York Times by Jane Brody, in which a couple of doctors said some of their Parkinson's patients had one particular early symptom, and it's an unusual one: People act out their dreams while they're asleep. I realized I had done just that. I had dreamed somebody was attacking me, and in the dream I threw a sack of potatoes at him. In reality, I threw a pillow at my wife. So, believing there was a good chance I had Parkinson's, I went to a neurologist and asked for a brain scan. He examined me and said, “I don't think you need a scan. You don't have any symptoms.” I said, “Well, I'd really like the scan anyway.” And he called me back and said, “Boy, you really got it.”

Wow. How did you react?

I began to exercise. A lot of people hear they have Parkinson's and get depressed and panicky and don't do anything, just hoping it'll go away. It's not going to, but you can hold off the worst symptoms. Movement helps: walking, biking, treadmills. But also specific things: I move to music a lot. I take boxing lessons from a guy trained in Parkinson's therapy. I do a full workout specifically designed for this disease. It's not the end of the world when you get this diagnosis.

You've incorporated Parkinson's into roles in the film Marriage Story and on TV's Ray Donovan. That character's tremor was more advanced than yours, right?

Whenever they did close-ups of my hand, I was supposed to be shaking a bit, so I had to fake it. My hand didn't shake that much. Now I could give them a good shake.

Alda on Alda

film still of actor alan alda in the two thousand and four film the aviator in a courtroom or congress scene

Miramax/Courtesy Everett Collection

Alda as Sen. Ralph Owen Brewster in "The Aviator."

MOVIES

• The Aviator (2004) “This one was fun — Scorsese was so supportive."

• The Seduction of Joe Tynan (1979), written by Alda. “Around that time, I was approached to actually run for office!”

• The Four Seasons (1981), directed by Alda. “It's closest to my heart; two of my daughters are in it."

the cast of the television show m a s h

20th Century Fox/Courtesy Everett Collection

The cast of "M*A*S*H."

TELEVISION

M*A*S*H final episode (1983), directed by Alda. “Even when the show got silly, we wanted to respect the reality of these people's lives."

It's been almost 40 years since M*A*S*H ended. Do you think a carousing womanizer like Hawkeye Pierce could survive on TV in today's #MeToo era?

Even in that era, I was, as you probably know, a very outspoken feminist, and I wasn't just talking about it. I was trying in every way to work from that point of view in my life. We had many discussions on M*A*S*H, even before we started shooting, to help shift the vision of the character from the male-schoolboy approach. I was able to win a lot of those discussions, but some I didn't, and I'm very sorry that I didn't. That character was a product of the time and accepted by the culture, especially by men. Not so much by women. Thank goodness it's hard to make a case now for that kind of insulting behavior. It's not acceptable ipso facto, and that's progress.

You and Arlene got married 63 years ago. What's your secret?

Arlene's answer is that the secret to a long marriage is a short memory. My answer? Love. Even when you're yelling at the person — and there will be yelling — keep in mind that this is the person you love more than anything. That changes your tone. So, you don't say, “I hate you!” You say [Alda starts singing], “I hate you-u-u."

You have three children and seven grandkids. Are you optimistic about their future?

With the world changing so rapidly, there's no point in being optimistic or pessimistic about anything. You've just got to surf uncertainty, because it's all we get. A question I ask around the dinner table with friends is, “How long do you think our species will last?” Scientists tell me the average species, when you factor in dinosaurs and fruit flies and everything, lasts about 2 million years. So, my question is: Do you think we'll be lucky enough to be average? If we're not careful, we can kill each other off. And if we're not smart enough to take care of what nature has in store for us, who knows how long we'll last?

So, what's the best thing for humans to do?

Laugh! Laughter is good. That's one of the greatest benefits of this isolation. My wife and I are laughing more than we ever have. When you laugh, you're vulnerable. You're opening yourself up. You're not protected. That's why a lot of executives don't laugh much, because they think it gives up their strength. But you gain so much through vulnerability. You let the other person in, and that brings us all closer. We can't take ourselves too seriously, even now. A good friend emailed recently and said, “Alan, how are you doing? How's everything?” I wrote back and said, “I'm still alive. If that changes, I'll let you know."

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