Playing one of the most recognized and beloved characters of all-time as Captain Hawkeye Pierce on “M*A*S*H,” Alan Alda is well regarded in Hollywood as both an actor and writer. Over his distinguished career, he has garnered 34 Emmy nominations, taking home the gold statue seven times.
“M*A*S*H” ran for 11 seasons and its final episode delivered the highest rating of any TV show at the time, with more than 125 million viewers. The show has lived on in syndication for decades, and millions of people have watched episodes over and over and over. Alda credits the show’s long-lasting legacy to the writing, directing, acting and just the topic of the show overall.
“The experience we tell stories about on the show is not a made-up experience, it’s not ‘what if we get these two people with opposite personalities and force them to live in the same apartment.’ It’s people who lived under specific conditions in a war where they didn’t necessarily want to be and they have to cope with the carnage, and that I think strikes home,” Alda said. “As funny as the show was, it was an underside of the difficulty of being alive in that kind of circumstance. Plus, there was such a special bond between the actors that came out on screen.”
Of course, Alda is known for so much more than just the legendary show. He’s also received three Tony nominations, written and starred in popular films such as “The Four Seasons” and “The Seduction of Joe Tynan,” and had memorable roles in “The West Wing,” “Blacklist” and most recently, “Horace and Pete,” opposite Louis C.K.
“For me, it’s not about the part but the writing of the whole piece that I see something that I want to be a part of. If the character is someone who I’ve not done before, or else it’s not interesting,” he said about choosing roles. “‘Horace and Pete’ is one of the best things I’ve ever been in. It was really enjoyable to try and find out how to play this character.”
Fans who follow his career closely know that Alda is extremely passionate about science and he had hosted PBS’s “Scientific American Frontiers” for 14 years, interviewing scientists, physicists, neuroscientists, and academics.
Alda has been fascinated by communication for decades, and really took an interest in how scientists communicated while hosting the PBS show. In the beginning, he would do lots of research about the subjects, but found over time it was best to go in cold.
“There were two things that weren’t so good if I knew the answers they were going to give: One was it was formulaic. I would ask them a question not truly curious, because I knew the answer or at least thought I did, and [he or she] wouldn’t really answer me because they didn’t see real curiosity in my eyes and was saying something for the benefit of the camera,” he explained. “There was no real exchange between us. The other thing was I often thought I knew the answer but really didn’t know enough about the work. After all, I was interviewing people on the edge of science; at the horizon.”
Alda also realized that many of these brilliant scientists weren’t able to communicate effectively – in a way that those without a scientific background could understand – and he wanted to help foster a better connection.
“Conversation brings out the unknown,” he said. “You have to be a little more creative in a conversation because you are hearing unexpected stuff.”
To help with this, he tapped into his improv background and developed a series of exercises for scientists that made them more comfortable and opened them up more. That experience led him to develop new ways to communicate complex ideas more effectively, and he founded the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University, which over the past eight years has trained more than 7,000 science professionals to communicate more effectively with the public.
“Last year we went to 150 universities and medical schools and we’ve worked in workshops with over 8,000 doctors and scientists,” he said. “What I love to see, whether I am teaching it or one of our faculty, is these exercises that we’ve developed based on improvisation that open up people and give them the confidence to not hide behind their notes and lectures, but talk spontaneously and open to the people in front of them.”
The lessons of that experience – augmented by what he’s learned through his career as an award-winning actor, writer, and director – have been collected into a new book, “If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face? My Adventures in the Art and Science of Relating and Communicating.”
On June 8, Alda will be appearing at the George Washington University’s Lisner Auditorium to dig into his book and show what it truly means to be an empathetic communicator. Through audience exercises and recounting what he’s learned, he’ll show how to listen with the eyes, look for clues in the face and hone the innate ability to read the thoughts and feelings of others.
“I’ll talk about what I mean by the title of the book and get a few people up from the audience and have some fun with them and show them what I’m talking about,” he said. “To me, the essence of communicating is relating, and taking in the other person and finding out who they are and where they are right now.”