The Middlebrow

Alan Alda

Hawkeye Pierce’s second act.

Illustration by Charlie Powell.
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On television, there is a great deal of excitement whenever a good-guy actor starts playing a heavy. More so when the guy is Alan Alda. Since the 1970s, Alda has been Hollywood’s liberal-humanist champion. He spoke gravely of the horrors of war in M*A*S*H while stumping for the Equal Rights Amendment. In movies like Sweet Liberty (1986), Alda oozed new-age sensitivity—an act that has usually played better with the women’s magazines than with film critics. After suffering through an hour and a half of Alda’s enormous decency, Pauline Kael wrote in the New Yorker, “The only thing that can save Alan Alda now is to play bastards or weirdos, preferably in a heavy disguise.” Consider Alda’s salvation complete.

Alda’s rebirth began with him playing two memorable bastards, who, by coincidence, happen to be Republican members of the Senate. Alda has propped up NBC’s floundering West Wing with his role as Arnold Vinick, a slick GOP pol with his eyes on the presidency. His opponent—try to maintain a straight face—is Jimmy Smits, playing Matthew Santos, the first Hispanic presidential candidate. On Sunday night’s episode, Vinick was up to dirty tricks. He zinged Santos by pledging devotion to guest-worker visas, border security, and free-trade agreements—the so-called Hispanic issues. Vinick, who is pro-choice, also confided to religious conservatives that he would appoint a slate of pro-life judges. (When confronted with this apostasy, Vinick shrugged his shoulders and said, “I lied.”) USA Today has described Vinick as a manifestation of the Democrats’ worst nightmare: “a Republican who can win blue states.”

Alda’s second senatorial villain was Ralph Owen Brewster, the chief antagonist in Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator. Compared with Vinick’s hot-dogging, Brewster offered a more demure menace. Hidden beneath enormous pinstripes, he seemed like the sartorial embodiment of a political hack—literally, an empty suit. During his scenes opposite Howard Hughes (Leonardo DiCaprio), Alda would furrow his brow and speak in tones of resigned cronyism: “It’s not me, Howard. It’s the United States government. We just beat Germany and Japan. Who the hell are you?” If you took Claude Rains’ crooked senator in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and drained him of his ambition and charm, you’d have something close to Alda’s Brewster.

What brought  about Alda’s second act? His new autobiography, Never Have Your Dog Stuffed *, offers a few clues.Alda was born Alphonso D’Abruzzoin New York in 1936. His father, Robert Alda, was a “tit singer” whose job it was to warble during the striptease portion of a burlesque show. He would graduate to vaudeville and later played George Gershwin in the movie Rhapsody in Blue (1945).Robert Alda watched over his son with a comedian’s insecure eyes; when young Allie suggested that his father alter a line-reading during rehearsal, Robert shot back, “Are you directing me?” Alda barely hints at a political awakening, and it makes you wonder if such a thing ever really occurred. He seems to have sailed through Fordham University without brushing up against the 1960s, and he recounts his advocacy for the Equal Rights Amendment as farce—a quest that succeeded only in getting him shouted down in various statehouses.

A sweetheart in life, Alda was determined to play one on-screen. He told M*A*S*H producer Larry Gelbart that Hawkeye Pierce should mix hijinks with armchair philosophizing. Thus, M*A*S*H became a two-front comedy: half Gelbart and Alda’s wit, half deep thoughts about Korea. Alda’s Sweet Liberty (which he wrote and directed) was pitted as a clash between Hollywood actors and civilians, with Alda lining up proudly with the latter camp. Only after entering his golden years—”the point in my life where I was getting more attention by getting sick than by acting”—has Alda allowed himself to stretch, a sign that ambition may finally have outstripped his campaign for sainthood. In the last year, he has been rewarded with nominations for an Oscar, an Emmy, and a Tony award.

There’s another reason for Alda’s awakening. Squishy liberal humanism isn’t much of a draw these days. It’s squishy conservative humanism that’s in vogue. The West Wing began in 1999 as a dreamlike vision of the Clinton presidency, a harbor for disillusioned liberals to watch Martin Sheen and Rob Lowe scratch their chins. The West Wing has moved steadily rightward, and now, with a crumbling audience (it ranked 34th among prime-time shows last season), the show, like the country, is a bifurcated realm. When Smits isn’t on screen, Alda presides as the show’s tortured Republican conscience. He’s for minimum-wage increases, against religion in politics, and votes opposite of his party on abortion. The war on terror looms as a specter in the background. In M*A*S*H, the liberal Alda searched for his humanity in the midst of a war; in The West Wing, the conservative Alda searches for a war in the midst of his humanity.

Since Alda is an actor whose life is irretrievably linked with his on-screen persona, it comes as no surprise that his conversion has panicked his hard-core fans. Alda tells the Associated Press of depressed liberals who approach him and ask him, “Why?” “I was never asked that when I played a murderer,” Alda cracks. This is true but deeply unfair. The murderer Alda played (in 1972’s The Glass House) was a mensch.

Correction, Oct. 13, 2005: An earlier version of this piece incorrectly referred to the title of Alan Alda’s book as Never Stuff Your Dog. ( Return to corrected sentence.)