And Other Things I've Learned

By Alan Alda

Random House. 224 pp. $24.95

Alan Alda has been a conspicuous presence in the American cultural landscape for so long -- the first episode of "M*A*S*H" was broadcast 33 years ago -- that it's easy to assume he's been around forever, all the more so when one recalls that his father, Robert Alda, was almost as conspicuous himself. But that's not the case at all. As recounted in the pages of "Never Have Your Dog Stuffed," the younger Alda's path to stardom was long, narrow and twisted. The story of how he traveled it is a useful reminder that show business is hard, uncertain work, and that breaking away from the pack is very much the exception.

Alda was born in January 1936 in New York. His given name was Alphonso D'Abruzzo; his father was Alphonso Giuseppe Giovanni Roberto D'Abruzzo, "about three first names more than he was born with." Robert Alda "sang well, and he was a handsome man," and he made a living of sorts on the burlesque circuit, then in its last days. Alda's mother, whose given name he never mentions in this memoir, was "a beautiful woman with brown hair" but an exceedingly difficult person, a schizophrenic given to violent bursts of temper, bitter denunciations and paranoid behavior. To this day, Alda remembers her with complex emotions:

"Even when I was into my forties and fifties, she could still enrage me with an irrational accusation. It wasn't so much that I was impatient with her madness. I could understand that. What I resented her for was not being a mother. And I didn't just resent her; I hated her for it. She wasn't what I thought a mother was; I felt I never had a mother. But what more could she have been? When we laughed together, wasn't she a mother then? And when she told me I could do anything, wasn't she the source of my confidence? . . . I believed it, and I went out and did things I wasn't remotely capable of. All thanks to a few words from her. Fortunately, I accomplished these things before I realized they were the words of a madwoman."

That Alda managed to emerge from these circumstances with his own sanity intact is no small miracle, but obviously there was love in that household even if it came in strange forms. There was also the showbiz crowd in which his parents traveled. With abundant affection, Alda remembers the strippers whom, as a small boy, he watched dress and undress, and the comics who made him a special pet: "I grew up among people who didn't seem to know what children were, because they were children themselves. . . . Photographs from my childhood are snapshots of dress-up and make-believe. We were in show business, and reality was what you decided it was."

People on the outside were "civilians," and even as a boy, Alda knew he didn't want to be one of them. He loved George "Beetlepuss" Lewis and all the other comics who put on impromptu shows whenever the spirit moved them and who surely had immense influence on the comic timing that Alda brought to the role of Hawkeye Pierce in "M*A*S*H." Before he got there, though, he had to undergo a long apprenticeship that often must have seemed to be leading nowhere. With little formal training in acting, he learned as he went, and he's quick to acknowledge that the process was slow and frustrating. He favored an improvisational style (again, shades of "M*A*S*H"), but it took him a while to learn the discipline that is essential to the improviser's craft. He had to make the transition from "performing," i.e., burlesque, to "acting," i.e., the theater, and it wasn't easy.

Along the way, he held an endless succession of dead-end jobs, learned how to pick up a few bucks at the racetrack, married, had three daughters, moved to a small town in New Jersey (which the entire family loved) and took just about any role that came his way. Not until 1964, when he and Diana Sands starred in "The Owl and the Pussycat" on Broadway, did he really begin to make his way -- the play ran for a year, and Sands was nominated for a Tony Award -- and even then there were more hard times to undergo.

It was, of course, "M*A*S*H" that made him a star, and he looks back on the 11 years he spent on the series with pleasure, gratitude and love. The show was "a turning point in my life" -- to put it mildly -- and it may well have been the best series ever to have been broadcast on American commercial television. It was a truly collaborative effort by those before the cameras and those behind them:

"We made the most of everything because we knew that this was a chance we might never have again. We gave ourselves over to the work and to one another . . . and we reached that point in closeness where you become aware of the other person's imperfections as they become aware of yours, and you either stick it out with them or walk the other way. We stuck it out. And, often, we stayed in the chairs long after we had finished the shooting day to listen to one another's heartfelt, sometimes bitter, gripes and looked for compromises. But mostly we made one another laugh. And it was the laughing, even more than the compromises, that led to trust. This was good, because trust is where the gold is. It's what lets you come out of the wings and go onstage."

Strangely, Alda mentions only in passing the 1970 film by Robert Altman -- same title, but no asterisks -- that inspired the television series. Clearly, the TV scripts by Larry Gelbart and others (including Alda) were heavily influenced by Ring Lardner Jr.'s brilliant film script, and the various directors were no less heavily influenced by Altman's bravura direction. He'd worked mostly in television before then, and "MASH" was his breakthrough film. It remains his best, and it's a shame that in this otherwise generous and good-spirited book, Alda doesn't give credit as due. Without the movie, the television show almost certainly never would have come into being.

Life since "M*A*S*H" has mostly been a joyride for Alda, except for a serious intestinal blockage he had while filming a documentary in Chile. The surgery was risky and performed in less than ideal surroundings, but it worked. Alda came away from it with the feeling that anything thereafter would be a gift -- "golden time" -- and he's behaved accordingly, doing lots of movie and television work (including his role as a moderate Republican senator from California in "The West Wing") and a star turn in the recent, wildly praised Broadway revival of David Mamet's "Glengarry Glen Ross."

It all adds up to an amiable, occasionally amusing book. The man inside the actor peeks out from time to time and seems to be an agreeable sort, glad to have won a measure of fame but not entirely comfortable with it. As to the odd title, it comes from an equally odd incident in Alda's childhood from which he draws an apt and useful moral. It's one of many stories that Alda tells here, and he tells them well.