by Laura Weinert
Actors who are constantly recognized for a single role on a long-running TV show usually become loath to discuss it. They don't want to be equated with it; they want to make sure you know just how varied are their talents, how wide-ranging their body of work. It's as if they suspect that having played one role well and interestingly for an enormous length of time will nevertheless be seen as indication of the limits of their craft rather than as a testament to their creative stamina. Even while they've moved on to films, or returned to the stage, or gone on to directing with some measure of success, that long-term TV role remains as a kind of sore spot. When you say the name Hawkeye, you expect Alan Alda to wince.
Yet Alda is not one of these actors. "In a way, the reason that people so often think I'm like Hawkeye is that I used a lot of myself when I played Hawkeye," said Alda, taking time out from rehearsals for the Mark Taper Forum's production of QED to chat over dim sum at his favorite Chinatown restaurant. "You can't not use yourself. I suppose there are people who have, as a goal, not had any of themselves in their acting, but I can't."
Indeed, you recognize Alda in his roles. He doesn't wildly deform or distort himself. He doesn't use "wigs and false noses," as he puts it. Rather he zeroes in on different parts of himself he can use in each role he plays, and he explores them and reveals them. "You have everybody in you," said Alda. "It's just usually you don't let it out."
In the 1970s, what Alda drew from himself—and was able to capitalize on—was his ability to embody a new kind of male ideal: educated, emotional, and tormented by mild neurosis. We recall him the as underdog reporter George Plimpton in Paper Lion, the well-read, expressive adulterer in Same Time, Next Year, the overly analytical lawyer Jack in The Four Seasons. Similar characteristics emerged as he brought to life Captain Benjamin Franklin "Hawkeye" Pierce, the well-meaning, sarcastic wartime doctor, fond of women, but with a soft side peeking through as he dealt with bloody patients and endless crises. Over 11 years of playing the role, Alda racked up a total of four Emmys, two for acting, and one each for writing and directing. What Alda was doing was not only using some of his own qualities to color his role but also using them to become an icon, an incarnation of the smart, sensitive man women admire.
It's strange, then, to hear Alda say that of all his stage and screen work, his sharp rendering of the sleazy, egotistical producer Lester in Woody Allen's Crimes and Misdemeanors is the one performance in which he used more of himself than ever before. "I had to, because I was doing things that I wouldn't ordinarily do," said Alda. "Certainly like hitting on all the women. Woody wants you to improvise a lot. So I really had to say to myself, I don't know how somebody would have the nerve to do that. I realized if I were really going to do that, I would probably flatter them about their intellect, so that's what I did. And I thought, Geez, this is easy!
"In the scene in which I was lecturing the writers, I really used myself. I've produced things, and I've talked to writers, and I've yelled at them. I haven't always been polite to them. One of the lectures that I give in the film—-that long, absurd thing where I say the joke is the structure of Oedipus Rex—I believe that. That's how I was able to say it. I knew it would sound funny. I know it sounds ridiculous. I just happen to believe it, and I also knew that it fit the character.
"It's true," explained Alda, with shades of Lester sweeping across his face. "Oedipus says, 'Who did this terrible thing? Oh my God! It's me!' That's a joke. It's just, if you stretch it out, it's tragic." You start to see what he means about using himself—judiciously, of course.
Art and Science
But how will that approach work in Alda's current project? With Peter Parnell's play QED, which started previews Mar. 11 at the Mark Taper Forum, the bar appears to be set higher than ever before. Alda is portraying famed theoretical physicist Richard Feynman in what is essentially a one-man show—the first one-man show Alda has done, aside from a one-night benefit at a small theatre years ago. Not only is Feynman an actual person, whose friends and Cal Tech colleagues might even be present in the Taper audience on any given night, but Feynman is, arguably, one of the most brilliant and eccentric characters ever to have lived. He is a man who rubbed elbows with Einstein and Niels Bohr, whose work on quantum electrodynamics won him a Nobel Prize, who solved the mystery of liquid helium, who could imitate any language.
He is also a man who would work on the atomic bomb by day, and by night amuse himself by figuring out how to pick the locks on secret safes at the Los Alamos National Laboratory. He performed on bongos, drew nude models, and hung out in bars for days on end, just to see if anything interesting would happen. He is a character whose life was a simultaneous study, enjoyment, and solving of absolutely everything he experienced.
One would imagine this role in particular would require Alda to submerge his various trademark Aldaisms in favor of the closest or most historically accurate portrayal of the genius. Not so, said Alda. "I don't want to make it look like Rich Little is doing Feynman. I could probably do a better impersonation of him—if I wanted to do an impersonation—than I do in the play. I want to evoke Feynman. I don't want to distract the audience from the deeper stuff that's going on with a superficial impersonation. So I sort of play the Feynman song on my own instrument."
He won't, however, give specifics as to what parts of Feynman he is deeply connecting with and finding in himself as he prepares for the role. "If you say it, if you put it into words, then you can't do it," said Alda. "It's like what Hemingway said about not telling people your story or you won't be able to write it. There's a reason why you act it. If I were going to describe it, I'd write an essay about it."
Alda did talk about tackling the play's rarefied scientific language, so that when Feynman launches into mini-lectures, the audience is interested, if not fully comprehending. It's not the first scientist type Alda has played, after all. "You have to try to understand the language in the first place," said Alda. "And it's very difficult to get, especially when you read that Feynman says that nobody understands quantum mechanics. Nobody. So that makes it difficult, but that makes it fun, too. I do a science program on public television, and part of what makes that show work is that I stay after the scientists I interview until I understand what they're telling me. Sometimes they put it in a nutshell, but I don't get it. So I keep after them until I do. Peter Parnell and I went up to visit a physicist at Cornell while working on this play, and he talked to us for eight hours straight about physics. After about an hour and a half, I actually felt I was starting to get it. Then at that point, he said, 'Now that brings us up to 1912. And of course, after that, everything changed.'"
In the Beginning…
Plans for QED actually originated with Alda some six years ago, when he presented Ralph Leighton's book on Feynman, Tuva or Bust, to the Taper's artistic director, Gordon Davidson, and they began brainstorming on how it could be made into a play. Davidson suggested Peter Parnell as a writer, and off they went. "Every time we'd talk about it, Peter would go away with ideas," said Alda, "and he'd come back, not just with those ideas, but with a whole other play. It was very hard to nail down Feynman. He was involved in so many interesting events, and no matter how you told the stories, you were still competing with the way he told his story, which was brilliant. As smart as he was about physics, he was that smart about storytelling. He knew just how to tell you what you needed to know to be delighted, intrigued, mystified. But those weren't a play. They were stories. And every time you tried to get into those stories and dramatize them, it was difficult to find where the dramatic event was, the emotional event. Finally, Peter found it."
For Alda, this seems like the role of a lifetime. Not only has he come full circle, returning to the stage to garner much praise for his performance in Yasmina Reza's Art a few years back, but now he is doing it in a way that is uniquely suited to him. When Alda talks about his early days onstage, you can spot the seeds of the actor/writer/director he has now become. When he first started working with the Cleveland Playhouse, straight out of college, he recalled, "They offered me the third murderer in Macbeth or something like that. And I thought, He doesn't even have two lines! How am I gonna learn anything from this? So I went and took the Book of Job from the Bible—it was written in play form, I think it was sung originally—and we did it as a play. It was an interesting production. It was the first time that I had put together a play. I guess that was sort of formative." BSW