Honoring Alan Alda


Alan Alda is world famous for being the funny, feisty and honorable prankster and life-saving field surgeon Hawkeye Pierce on the hit TV series M*A*S*H. Alda was in all 251 episodes of the show over its entire eleven-year run, from 1972 to 1983, and wrote and directed many of the episodes. Impressive as that is, this screenwriter, actor, and director has done much more since.

His film roles include The Aviator (Academy Award nominee), Crimes and Misdemeanors, Everyone Says I Love You, and Flirting with Disaster. In all, he has been nominated for an EMMY thirty-three times and won seven of them. Those nominated performances include roles in massive hit shows The Blacklist in 2015, 30 Rock in 2009, and ER in 1999. He received an EMMY in 2006 for his role as Senator Arnold Vinick on The West Wing. He earned a Tony nomination for his role in the Broadway revival of David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross, and won the Directors Guild Award three times, the Golden Globe six times, and the People’s Choice Award seven times.

Gold is his lucky metal.

Alda took his charm and acting prowess to the world of science, acting as a translator of the complex concepts and lingo as, for eleven years, the host of the award-winning PBS series Scientific American Frontiers, which first aired in 1990—he interviewed some 700 scientists. In January 2010 he hosted the PBS three-part series The Human Spark, for which he interviewed dozens of scientists about the question: What is it that makes us human? In 2013 he hosted the PBS mini series Brains on Trial, which explored the effect of contemporary brain science on the U.S. justice system.

His curiosity is unlimited, and he was soon an expert in making science relatable. For twenty years, he’s been a voice for the communication of science. With his famous wit, he noted the unexpected perks of the role in a Tweet: “So, I’ve had a pony named after me, a new species of tarantula (Hapalopus aldanus), and now a caring rooster. Very nice.”

Alda’s fans have never left his side, even as he built a golden reputation in the world of science. His work has racked up more awards, from 1998’s Council of Scientific Society Presidents, The Sagan Award, for increasing the public appreciation of science, to 2016’s haul: National Academy of Sciences’ Public Welfare Medal, Harvard Mahoney Neuroscience Institute’s David Mahoney Prize for increasing public awareness of brain science, National Academy of Sciences Public Welfare Medal and the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Double Helix Medal.

He’s enjoyed a mind-boggling number of wins in his eighty-one years, along with unfailingly likability.

Alda delves into the mysterious, and then explains it. Proof: The Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at SUNY, for example, which provides courses, workshops and outreach. His work focuses on building a bridge between scientific work and the general public.

“About twenty-five years ago I began helping scientists to communicate with the public in a way that was clear and vivid,” he says. “At first it was on the television show Scientific American Frontiers, and then at the Alda Center for Communicating Science. The surprising thing I found was that the techniques we developed to teach scientists and doctors to communicate better were, with very little adjust, the very techniques the rest of us need—in every area of our lives—to make ourselves clear and work better with the people around us. And that’s what my book is about.”

Yes, he’s also a writer. His new book—If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face? My Adventures in the Art and Science of Relating and Communicating (Random House, June 2017)—is one of his nineteen books. His best-sellers include, “Never Have Your Dog Stuffed and Other Things I’ve Learned” and “Things I Overheard While Talking to Myself.”

Having written movies, TV episodes and books, we asked him what he has learned from writing.

“It’s an amazing experience to be told by someone that they were moved by something I wrote five, ten, even thirty years ago,” says Alda. “It’s the mystery of the ability to create emotion in someone you’ve never met just by making marks on a paper—or taps on a keyboard. It’s the wonder of libraries that contain millions of these marks on paper that have the power to move us and startle us with insight. What treasures those libraries hold. I hope my books will earn a small place in them.”

Appropriately enough, he is this year’s Booked for the Evening honoree at Westport Library. The event will be on Monday, June 5. It’s a sold-out event but you can learn more about it and the library’s mission at http://westportlibrary.org/support-wpl/booked_for_the_evening.