Alda was born Alphonso Joseph D'Abruzzo on January 28, 1936, in the Bronx, New York City, and had a peripatetic childhood, as his parents traveled around the United States in support of his father's job as a performer in burlesque theatres. His father, Robert Alda (born Alphonso Giuseppe Giovanni Roberto D'Abruzzo), was an actor and singer, and his mother, Joan Browne, was a homemaker and former beauty-pageant winner. His father was of Italian descent and his mother was of Irish ancestry. His adopted surname, "Alda", is a portmanteau of ALphonso and D'Abruzzo.
When Alda was seven years old, he contracted polio. To combat the disease, his parents administered a painful treatment regimen developed by Sister Elizabeth Kenny, consisting of applying hot woolen blankets to his limbs and stretching his muscles. Alda attended Archbishop Stepinac High School in White Plains, New York. In 1956, he received his Bachelor of Arts degree in English from Fordham College of Fordham University in the Bronx, where he was a student staff member of its FM radio station, WFUV. Alda's half-brother, Antony Alda, born that year (1956), also became an actor.
During Alda's junior year, he studied in Paris, acted in a play in Rome, and performed with his father on television in Amsterdam. In college, he was a member of the ROTC, and after graduation, he served for a year at Fort Benning, and then six months in the United States Army Reserve on a tour of duty in Korea.
In 1956, while attending Fordham, he met Arlene Weiss, who was attending Hunter College. They bonded at a mutual friend's dinner party; when a rum cake accidentally fell onto the kitchen floor, they were the only two guests who did not hesitate to eat it. A year after his graduation, on March 15, they were married. They have three daughters: Eve, Elizabeth, and Beatrice. Two of his eight grandchildren are aspiring actors.
The Aldas have been longtime residents of Leonia, New Jersey. Alda frequented Sol & Sol Deli on Palisade Avenue in the nearby town of Englewood, New Jersey—a fact mirrored in his character's daydream about eating whitefish from the establishment, in an episode of M*A*S*H in which Hawkeye sustains a head injury.
Alda began his career in the 1950s, as a member of the Compass Players comedy revue. He joined the acting company at the Cleveland Play House during the 1958-59 season as part of a grant from the Ford Foundation, appearing in productions such as To Dorothy A Son, Heaven Come Wednesday, Monique, and Job. In the November 1964 world premiere at the ANTA Playhouse of the stage version of The Owl and The Pussycat, he played Felix the "Owl" opposite the "Pussycat" which was played by black actress/singer Diana Sands. He continued to play Felix the "Owl" for the 1964-65 Broadway season. In 1966, he starred in the musical The Apple Tree on Broadway; he was nominated for the Tony Award as Best Actor in a Musical for that role.
Although from away, Alan Alda says he became a Mainer in 1957 when he played at the Kennebunkport Playhouse.
Alda was part of the cast, along with David Frost, Henry Morgan and Buck Henry, of the American television version of That Was The Week That Was, which ran as a series from January 10, 1964 to May 1965. He made his Hollywood acting debut as a supporting player in Gone are the Days! – a film version of the highly successful Broadway play Purlie Victorious, which co-starred veteran actors Ruby Dee and her husband, Ossie Davis. Other film roles followed, such as his portrayal of author, humorist, and actor George Plimpton in the film Paper Lion (1968), as well as The Extraordinary Seaman (1969), and the occult-murder-suspense thriller The Mephisto Waltz, with actress Jacqueline Bisset. During this time, Alda frequently appeared as a panelist on the 1968 revival of What's My Line?. He also appeared as a panelist on I've Got a Secret during its 1972 syndication revival.
In early 1972, Alda auditioned for and was selected to play the role of Hawkeye Pierce in the TV adaptation of the 1970 film MASH. He was nominated for 21 Emmy Awards, and won five. He took part in writing 19 episodes, including the 1983 2½-hour series finale Goodbye, Farewell and Amen, which was also the 32nd episode he directed. It remains the single most-watched episode of any American broadcast network television series. Alda is the only series regular to appear in all 251 episodes.
Alda commuted from Los Angeles to his home in New Jersey every weekend for 11 years while starring in M*A*S*H. His wife and daughters lived in New Jersey, and he did not want to move his family to Los Angeles, especially because he did not know how long the show would last.
Alda's father, Robert Alda, and half-brother Antony Alda appeared together in an episode of M*A*S*H, "Lend a Hand", during season eight. Robert had previously appeared in "The Consultant" in season three.
During the first five seasons of the series, the tone of M*A*S*H was largely that of a traditional "service comedy", in the vein of shows such as McHale's Navy. However, as the original writers gradually left the series, Alda gained increasing control, and by the final seasons had become a producer and creative consultant. Under his watch, M*A*S*H retained its comedic foundation, but gradually assumed a somewhat more serious tone, openly addressing political issues. As a result, the 11 years of M*A*S*H are generally split into two eras: the Larry Gelbart/Gene Reynolds "comedy" years (1972–1979), and the Alan Alda "dramatic" years (1979–1983). Alda disagreed with this assessment. In a 2016 interview he stated, "I don't like to write political messages. I don't like plays that have political messages. I do not think I am responsible for that."
For the first three seasons, Alda and his co-stars Wayne Rogers and McLean Stevenson worked well together, but later, tensions increased, particularly as Alda's role grew in popularity. Rogers and Stevenson both left the show at the end of the third season. At the beginning of the fourth season, Alda and the producers decided to find a replacement actor to play the surrogate parent role formerly taken by Colonel Blake. They eventually found veteran actor and fan of the series, Harry Morgan, who starred as Colonel Sherman T. Potter, becoming another of the show's protagonists. Mike Farrell was also introduced as Alda's co-star BJ Hunnicutt.
In his 1981 autobiography, Jackie Cooper (who directed several early episodes) wrote that Alda concealed a lot of hostility beneath the surface, and that the two of them barely spoke to each other by the time Cooper’s directing of M*A*S*H ended.
During his M*A*S*H years, Alda made several game-show appearances, most notably in The $10,000 Pyramid and as a frequent panelist on What's My Line? and To Tell the Truth.
His favorite episodes of M*A*S*H are "Dear Sigmund" and "In Love and War".
In 1996, Alda was ranked 41st on TV Guide's "50 Greatest TV Stars of All Time".
The following is a list of M*A*S*H episodes written and/or directed by Alda.
Alda's prominence in the enormously successful M*A*S*H provided him a platform to speak out on political topics. He has been a strong and vocal supporter of women's rights and the feminist movement. He co-chaired, with former First Lady Betty Ford, the Equal Rights Amendment Countdown campaign. In 1976, The Boston Globe dubbed him "the quintessential Honorary Woman: a feminist icon" for his activism on behalf of the Equal Rights Amendment.
Alda played Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman in the play QED, which had only one other character. Although Peter Parnell wrote the play, Alda both produced and inspired it. Alda has also appeared frequently in the films of Woody Allen, and was a guest star five times on ER, playing Dr. Kerry Weaver's mentor, Gabriel Lawrence. During the later episodes, Dr. Lawrence was revealed to be suffering from the early stages of Alzheimer's disease. Alda also had a co-starring role as Dr. Robert Gallo in the 1993 TV movie And the Band Played On.
During M*A*S*H's run and continuing through the 1980s, Alda embarked on a successful career as a writer and director, with the ensemble dramedy The Four Seasons being perhaps his most notable hit. Betsy's Wedding is his last directing credit to date. After M*A*S*H, Alda took on a series of roles that either parodied or directly contradicted his "nice guy" image.
In 1993, he co-starred with Woody Allen (also the director), Diane Keaton, and Anjelica Huston in the comedy/mystery Manhattan Murder Mystery. The four play a quartet of amateur crime solvers who become entangled in a murder plot possibly perpetrated by Keaton and Allen's neighbor. Alda's character is Ted, a playwright secretly in love with Keaton's character Carol, but who eventually falls for Huston's character Marcia.
From the fall season of 1993 until the show ended in 2005, Alda was the host for Scientific American Frontiers, which began on PBS in 1990.
In 1995, he starred as the President of the United States in Michael Moore's political satire/comedy film Canadian Bacon. Around this time, rumors circulated that Alda was considering running for the United States Senate in New Jersey, but he denied this. In 1996, Alda played Henry Ford in Camping With Henry and Tom, based on the book by Mark St. Germain and appeared in the comedy film Flirting with Disaster. In 1999, Alda portrayed Dr. Gabriel Lawrence in NBC program ER for five episodes and was nominated for Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Guest Actor in a Drama Series.
Beginning in 2004, Alda was a regular cast member on the NBC program The West Wing, portraying Republican U.S. Senator and presidential candidate Arnold Vinick, until the show's conclusion in May 2006. He made his premiere in the sixth season's eighth episode, "In The Room", and was added to the opening credits with the 13th episode, "King Corn". In August 2006, Alda won an Emmy for his portrayal of Vinick in the final season of The West Wing. Alda had been a serious candidate, along with Sidney Poitier, for the role of President Josiah Bartlet before Martin Sheen was ultimately cast in the role.
In 2004, Alda portrayed conservative Maine Senator Owen Brewster in Martin Scorsese's Academy Award-winning film The Aviator, in which he co-starred with Leonardo DiCaprio.
Throughout his career, Alda has received 31 Emmy Award nominations and two Tony Award nominations, and has won seven People's Choice Awards, six Golden Globe Awards, and three Directors Guild of America awards. Alda received his first Academy Award nomination, for his role in The Aviator, in 2005.
Alda also wrote several of the stories and poems that appeared in Marlo Thomas' television show Free to Be... You and Me.
Alda starred in the original Broadway production of the play 'Art', which opened on March 1, 1998, at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre. The play won the Tony Award for best original play.
Alda also had a part in the 2000 romantic comedy What Women Want, as the CEO of the advertising firm where the main characters worked.
In early 2005, Alda starred as Shelly Levene in the Tony Award-winning Broadway revival of David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross, for which he received a Tony Award nomination for Best Featured Actor in a Play. Throughout 2009 and 2010, he appeared in three episodes of 30 Rock as Milton Greene, the biological father of Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin). In January 2010, Alda hosted The Human Spark, a three-part series originally broadcast on PBS discussing the nature of human uniqueness and recent studies on the human brain.
In 2011, Alda was scheduled to guest star on Law & Order: LA, portraying former police and naval officer John Winters, the father of the former main character Rex Winters. It is unknown whether he filmed his role before the series was redesigned and Rex Winters written off.
After the release of his movie Tower Heist, Alda was devastated when on December 7, 2011, his decades-long friend Harry Morgan from M*A*S*H died.
Alda returned to Broadway in November 2014, playing the role of Andrew Makepeace in the revival of Love Letters at the Brooks Atkinson Theater alongside Candice Bergen.
In 2016, Alda appeared in Louis C.K.'s web-based series Horace and Pete as the irascible Uncle Pete in what IndieWire critic Sam Adams described as "his best role in years" in an otherwise lukewarm review.
Alda has done extensive charity work. He helped narrate a 2005 St. Jude's Children's Hospital-produced one-hour special TV show Fighting for Life. His wife, Arlene, and he are also close friends of Marlo Thomas, who is very active in fund-raising for the hospital her father founded. The special featured Ben Bowen as one of six patients being treated for childhood cancer at Saint Jude. Alda and Marlo Thomas had also worked together in the early 1970s on a critically acclaimed children's album entitled Free to Be You and Me, which featured Alda, Thomas, and a number of other well-known character actors. This project remains one of the earliest public signs of his support of women's rights.
In 2005, Alda published his first round of memoirs, Never Have Your Dog Stuffed: and Other Things I've Learned. Among other stories, he recalls his intestines becoming strangulated while on location in La Serena, Chile, for his PBS show Scientific American Frontiers, during which he mildly surprised a young doctor with his understanding of medical procedures, which he had learned from M*A*S*H. He also talks about his mother's battle with schizophrenia. The title comes from an incident in his childhood, when Alda was distraught about his dog dying and his well-meaning father had the animal stuffed. Alda was horrified by the results, and took from this that sometimes we have to accept things as they are, rather than desperately and fruitlessly trying to change them.
In 2006, Alda contributed his voice to a part in the audio book of Max Brooks' World War Z. In this book, he voiced Arthur Sinclair, Jr., the director of the United States government's fictional Department of Strategic Resources (DeStRes).
His second memoir, Things I Overheard While Talking to Myself, weaves together advice from public speeches he has given with personal recollections about his life and beliefs.
For 14 years, he served as the host of Scientific American Frontiers, a television show that explored cutting-edge advances in science and technology. He is a visiting professor at Stony Brook University and a founder and member of the advisory board of the university's Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science and the Future of Life Institute. He serves on the board of the World Science Festival and is a judge for Math-O-Vision.
Alda also has an avid interest in cosmology, and participated in BBC coverage of the opening of the Large Hadron Collider, at CERN, Geneva, in September 2008.
After years of interviews, Alda helped inspire the creation of the Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University in 2009. He remains on the advisory board as of 2013. He was named an Honorary Fellow by the Society for Technical Communication in 2014 for his work with the Center for Communicating Science and the annual Flame Challenge. He is also on the advisory board of the Future of Life Institute. Alda would like to use his expertise in acting and communication to help scientists communicate more effectively to the public. In 2014 Alda was awarded the American Chemical Society's James T. Grady-James H. Stack Award for Interpreting Chemistry for the Public for his work in science communication.
In Things I Overheard While Talking to Myself, Alda describes how as a teen he was raised as a Roman Catholic and eventually he realized he had begun thinking like an agnostic or atheist:
For a while in my teens, I was sure I had it. It was about getting to heaven. If heaven existed and lasted forever, then a mere lifetime spent scrupulously following orders was a small investment for an infinite payoff. One day, though, I realized I was no longer a believer, and realizing that, I couldn’t go back. Not that I lost the urge to pray. Occasionally, even after I stopped believing, I might send off a quick memo to the Master of the Universe, usually on a matter needing urgent attention, like Oh, God, don’t let us crash. These were automatic expulsions of words, brief SOS messages from the base of my brain. They were similar to the short prayers that were admired by the church in my Catholic boyhood, which they called "ejaculations." I always liked the idea that you could shorten your time in purgatory with each ejaculation; what boy wouldn’t find that a comforting idea? But my effort to keep the plane in the air by talking to God didn’t mean I suddenly was overcome with belief, only that I was scared. Whether I’d wake up in heaven someday or not, whatever meaning I found would have to occur first on this end of eternity.
Speaking further on agnosticism, Alda goes on to say:
I still don't like the word agnostic. It's too fancy. I'm simply not a believer. But, as simple as this notion is, it confuses some people. Someone wrote a Wikipedia entry about me, identifying me as an atheist because I'd said in a book I wrote that I wasn't a believer. I guess in a world uncomfortable with uncertainty, an unbeliever must be an atheist, and possibly an infidel. This gets us back to that most pressing of human questions: why do people worry so much about other people's holding beliefs other than their own?
Alda made these comments in an interview for the 2008 question section of the Edge Foundation website.Emmy Award for "Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama Series" in 2006, for his portrayal of Senator and Presidential candidate Arnold Vinick in The West Wing
Emmy Award for "Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series" in 1980 for M*A*S*H
Emmy Award for "Outstanding Writing in a Comedy or Comedy-Variety or Music Series" in 1979 for M*A*S*H: "Inga"
Emmy Award for "Outstanding Directing for a Comedy Series" in 1977 for M*A*S*H: "Dear Sigmund"
Emmy Award for Actor of the Year – Series in 1974 for M*A*S*H
Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series in 1974 for M*A*S*H
Golden Globe Award for Best Performance by an Actor in a TV-Series – Musical/Comedy in 1983 for M*A*S*H
Golden Globe Award for Best Performance by an Actor in a TV-Series – Musical/Comedy in 1982 for M*A*S*H
Golden Globe Award for Best Performance by an Actor in a TV-Series – Musical/Comedy in 1981 for M*A*S*H
Golden Globe Award for Best TV Actor – Musical/Comedy in 1980 for M*A*S*H
Golden Globe Award for Best TV Actor – Musical/Comedy" in 1976 for M*A*S*H
Golden Globe Award for Best TV Actor – Musical/Comedy in 1975 for M*A*S*H
Directors Guild of America Award for Outstanding Directorial – Comedy Series in 1983 for M*A*S*H "Where There's a Will, There's a War"
Directors Guild of America Award for Outstanding Directorial – Comedy Series in 1982 for M*A*S*H: "The Life You Save"
Directors Guild of America Award for Outstanding Directorial – Comedy Series in 1977 for M*A*S*H: "Dear Sigmund"
Induction into the Television Hall of Fame in 1994
Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Ensemble Performance in 2005 for Glengarry Glen Ross
Became Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2006
Honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degree from Carnegie Mellon University in 2015
In 1998 the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSICOP) episode "Beyond Science" hosted by Alda was singled out by the Council for Media Integrity concerned with the "balanced portrayal of science"... and to "reward sound science television programming".
Grammy Award: 2008 Best Spoken Word Album (audiobook version of Things I Overheard While Talking To Myself)
Tony Award: 1967 Best Actor in a Musical (The Apple Tree); 1992 Best Actor in a Play (Jake's Women); 2005 Best Actor in a Featured Role in a Play (Glengarry Glen Ross)
Academy Award (Best Supporting Actor) for his role as Senator Ralph Owen Brewster in Martin Scorsese's film The Aviator.
Alan Alda has been awarded several honorary degrees in recognition of his acting career and promotion of educational initiatives, These Include