Film and television legend Alan Alda is most famous for his role as Capt. Benjamin Franklin "Hawkeye" Pierce on the long-running TV sitcom "M*A*S*H." But before this breakout role, he led very different civilian and military lives, complete with seemingly insurmountable obstacles of their own.
Alda, born Alphonso Joseph D'Abruzzo, was raised in a performing family. His father, Robert Alda, was working in burlesque when Alan was a boy and would bring the family along with his traveling troupe of strippers, showgirls and comedians.
The elder Alda later became a film and theater actor and even appeared in two episodes of "M*A*S*H." His mother suffered from schizophrenia, which led to a complicated childhood. Notable incidents include an episode where his mother tried to stab his father over an alleged affair.
That's not all. Alan was also diagnosed with polio as a boy, which forced him to undergo painful, recurring treatments for years, confined to a bed to overcome the affliction. When he did, he attended school like most young kids, but unlike most kids, he didn't see school the same way; he was a performer, and he saw his fellow students as a "large audience."
As his education continued, Alda still considered himself a performer. He attended Fordham University, where he studied English under a Reserve Officers’ Training Corps scholarship. His father wanted him to become a doctor, but had to settle for his son portraying one on television. Alda joined the Army Reserve after graduating and would not return for medical school.
The actor rarely discusses his military service, because during much of his early career there was heavy fighting in Korea and Vietnam, which he did not directly experience.
"I was in the Reserves," Alda told NPR in 2019. "I don't know if you call that being in the military. They put me in charge of a mess hall at one point, and we had to feed 200 people three meals a day. And I had six guys who sort of stared blankly at the wall and played with the liver. They were – I don't know how we fed those people. But I wouldn't call that being in the military."
According to the Army, Alda was an artillery officer. He spent a year at Fort Benning, Georgia, after graduating from college in 1956 and was deployed to South Korea as an artillery officer, training American soldiers how to use mortars effectively. Despite downplaying his Army service, the experience later shaped the development of the series "M*A*S*H" and his character.
"That was one of my jobs, to teach people how to kill the greatest number of people with a mortar shell. And I would keep them interested and, you know, I wanted to be a good teacher," Alda said. "But the interesting thing about it is, I understood just from doing that that when you're in a war, it's real. It's the real thing. People are going to get killed or lose their arms and legs. And when we did ‘M*A*S*H,’ I wanted to make sure that at least that understanding that I had came out – that that's what we dealt with, and that we didn't gloss over that."
Hawkeye Pierce was Alda's breakout role, one he would play for 11 years, garnering 21 Emmy nominations and winning five. He also directed, produced and wrote episodes of the show, including its famous last episode, "Goodbye, Farewell and Amen."
Alda's physical challenges continue but does not stop his acting or producing career. In 2016, he founded Alda Communication Training, a company that offers communication workshops to scientists, doctors and technologists to help them better relate to their audiences. He also continues his film and television appearances, despite a 2018 Parkinson's Disease diagnosis. He hosts a weekly interview podcast, "Clear+Vivid with Alan Alda."
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