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Alan Alda to open Heinz Hall lecture series with personal show

| Tuesday, Sept. 30, 2014, 9:07 p.m.
Alan Alda
Pittsburgh Speakers Series
Alan Alda

Alan Alda's debut in the Pittsburgh Speakers Series will be “a little bit like a performance, a little bit like me doing a show,” he says.

The award-winning actor, director, best-selling author and science advocate, Academy-Award nominee and seven-time Emmy recipient whose “M*A*S*H” became an American television institution, will open the programming on Oct. 8 at Heinz Hall.

It is the first of seven lectures through April 29 presented by Robert Morris University and Trib Total Media.

“I love getting up on stage, communicating with people and telling these very personal stories about my life,” he says.

Alda plans to begin with a story that transformed his life 11 years ago when he almost died on top of a mountain in Chile from an intestinal blockage while filming a segment for PBS' “Scientific American Frontiers,” which he hosted from 1993 to 2005.

He was taken to a small town that amazingly had a surgeon who was an expert in intestinal surgery. Knowing that he might not wake up after the operation, he first dictated a few words to his wife, children and grandchildren.

He even found time to joke with his doctor, who was surprised that Alda knew the name of the procedure he was about to perform on him. “I did many of them on ‘M*A*S*H,'” joked Alda, who portrayed surgeon Hawkeye Pierce. The role earned him five Emmys for acting, writing and directing, the only actor in history to win in each category for a single series.

“When I woke up from surgery, I was so glad to be alive, I wanted to figure out how to keep that feeling going,” he says.

“I began doing more of the things I care about and caring more about whatever things I did. My sense of taste for everything had been heightened,” he later wrote.

At 78, he remains driven and motivated by “just trying to get better at what I know how to do, and see if I can transfer some of what I learned in a helpful way to other people,” he says.

In 2009, following his longtime passion for science, he founded the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University, part of the State University of New York, where he is a visiting professor. He helps to develop innovative programs that enable scientists to be better understood by the public, sharing lessons from his life and profession on what he learned about communicating.

“One of the things I'm able to do is teach them to relate to audiences better by teaching them improvisation,” he says.

The Council of Scientific Society Presidents awarded him the Sagan Award for increasing the public appreciation of science.

He never considered going into science professionally.

“I knew my place was in the arts. I do really regret that the arts and sciences were so separated in those days that you had to choose one or the other,” he says.

Alda says everything has been a surprise to him in his career. Uncertainty and the unexpected is a reality “you better get used to in show business,” he says. “I find it kind of exhilarating.”

Sometimes, opportunities still come faster than he anticipates.

“I have a small part in a Spielberg movie (‘St. James Place'), and I love the chance to watch him direct and playing with Tom Hanks,” he says. “I'm onstage with ‘Love Letters' on Broadway, and I'm doing another episode of ‘The Blacklist,' all in the space of a couple months. I love working with James Spader.”

A project needs to interest him in some way, whether it is the writing or the people, for him to say yes.

Named one of TV Guide's “50 Greatest Television Stars of All Time,” he doesn't equate fame with his definition of success.

“It is a sense of being able to love the people you think you love, being there for them, and have them love you back. That gives you a greater sense of success than anything else. I take it very personally. Success has to have a personal element.”

Regarding the success of “M*A*S*H,” Alda says something that is not talked about much is that it was dealing with real stories about people who were under real pressure.

“Even though we were light-hearted about it, the reason they acted so crazy was because they were under the stress of war,” he says. “I think we always tried to respect that real people lived through the experiences. We didn't ignore that pain.”

Many women have approached Alda through the years, telling him how they bonded with their fathers through the program.

“For the first time, their fathers, sometimes in tears, opened up about their experiences in the wars they had been in,” Alda says. “It was interesting how ‘M*A*S*H' brought them together. It made me realize, to some extent, it probably couldn't have happened if, beyond the hijinks, we didn't take seriously the pressure people were under.”

Rex Rutkoski is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-226-4664 or rrutkoski@tribweb.com

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