Also the title of his most recent book, “Things I Overheard While Talking to Myself” was the title of Alan Alda’s evening appearance Oct. 1 at the Granada Theatre, marking the opening of the UCSB Arts & Lectures season.
Presented in association with the SAGE Center for the Study of the Mind, his lecture brilliantly and warmly embraced the value of humor and the life lessons that come from sometimes unexpected sources.
Best known for his wry and deeply human portrayal of Hawkeye Pierce on the groundbreaking TV series M*A*S*H, iconic actor Alda is also a New York Times bestselling author, passionate science advocate and accomplished director.
He began by relating the story of a near-death experience in Chile 10 years ago. “I used to always think, if I die I want to die in my sleep so I don’t notice.” Then he stopped himself with a comic double-take, saying, “Wait … IF?!”
The reality of “when,” not “if,” became much clearer to him through this ordeal. While on a mountaintop, he was struck with excruciating stomach pains and taken to a tiny rural hospital. The surgeon who met with him to discuss his condition recognized Alda as the actor he used to watch on M*A*S*H. When Alda knew the name of the procedure (in lay terms, “removing a section of intestine”), the surgeon expressed his amazement.
“Yes, but while I was pretending to do that on TV,” Alda told him, “you were learning how to really do it!” He described his immense gratitude to the surgeon who saved his life.
Lesson: The value of gratitude, and of enjoying every moment of life — “I email that surgeon once a year to share all the things I’ve been able to do and enjoy that year thanks to him.”
Alda painted a portrait of his childhood, in the family of a comedian who performed in traveling burlesque shows, as surprisingly healthy and wholesome, with everyone one big happy family. The chorus girls fussed over him, combing his hair and caring for him in their dressing rooms when he was little. As he got older, they made him turn away as they changed costumes. He recounted his titillation and desire to peek, but that he did not give in to this temptation, as he respected them all like family.
Lesson: The value of relating to people as people on their own merit — “A lot of society looked down on them, but they were like my uncles and aunts.”
He also spent hours watching the comedians and dancers, fascinated with their ability to think on their feet when things didn’t go the way they’d planned. He marveled at how sometimes they seemed to reach into thin air to conjure whatever they could to make their bit work.
Lesson: The value of improvisation — “Even when you think there’s nothing that can possibly help you in the moment, just reach out and take hold of whatever’s there to get you through.”
In addition to the chorus girls and strippers, Alda said that once in awhile women auditioned for the burlesque shows who could perform lines in the sketches, known as “talking women.” They didn’t take their clothes off. When a new woman joined the troupe, the comedians’ first question was always, “Can she talk?”
Lesson: The value of language skills — “Just like life in general, if you can handle language really well, you don’t have to take as many clothes off.”
He also related a heart-wrenching yet humorous story about a beloved family dog who died, and his father’s “solution,” resulting in an awkward presence in their household: a taxidermied dog with a ferocious snarl on its face.
Lesson: The value of unattachment — “You just can’t hang onto things in life. When they’re done, let them go.”
Alda also shared his passion for science and for making it accessible to all. He is the host of Scientific American Frontiers on PBS and has founded the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University in New York. His entire speaker’s fee for such lectures goes to this center.
In sitting down with scientists and getting them to explain in plain language what they do, he gets down to their humanity and relatability, unlocking their passion. Part of what he teaches them about communicating is improvisation and storytelling. “My dream,” he said, "is for communication to be taught alongside science so scientists can share what they do with the rest of the world.”
During the Q&A portion of the evening, the subject of M*A*S*H came up again. A woman shared that her father had been a surgeon in the Korean War and watching Alda as Hawkeye allowed him to talk about his experiences there for the first time and opened up communication between them in general. She was on the verge of grateful tears.
Alda responded humbly, thanking her for her story and going on to say that, amazingly, many women have related this same story to him over the years about their fathers.
In response to another question, Alda said the episodes of M*A*S*H where he wrote, starred and directed were the hardest he’s ever worked in his life.
“I remember during that time, driving through L.A. in traffic, sitting at a stoplight for a moment and seeing a few flowers growing through cracks in the sidewalk," he said. "That was a mini-vacation for me, just those moments of seeing those flowers before I had to go on to the next thing.”
Lesson: Alda is funny, warm, intelligent and passionate about helping humankind, and exactly the kind of guy you’d want as a grandpa.
— Justine Sutton is a Santa Barbara freelance writer and frequent Noozhawk reviewer. The opinions expressed are her own.