The movie is Netflix’ Marriage Story. The scene, about one hour in, is a cluttered law office in LA’s unassuming Beverly Grove neighborhood. An old, flat-faced cat purrs contentedly on the floor as rumpled attorney Bert Spitz fills a tumbler with amber liquid and downs an unidentified pill.
As the scene unfolds and Bert enlightens his client on the intricacies of California divorce law, his hands tremble slightly. For some actors, it would be a mannerism crafted to convey Bert’s shaky health.
But for Alan Alda, the tremor was genuine. In 2018, the entertainment industry’s elder statesman made the decision to go public with the Parkinson’s disease he’s been managing for the past four years.
He did it to prevent speculation about why his thumb had been twitching during some televised interviews. But for those who’ve followed his nearly six-decade career, the revelation wasn’t nearly as scary as it might have been.
When Alan Alda speaks, it’s clear that his mind’s as sharp as the scalpels he wielded as Army surgeon Hawkeye Pierce. His beloved antiwar comedy M.A.S.H. aired from 1972 to 1983 and its finale drew 106 million viewers — still the record for a scripted television series episode.
For another performer, that might have been a hard act to follow. But this year – on the day before his 83rd birthday and nearly 36 years after Hawkeye bid farewell to the 4077th – Alan accepted the Screen Actors’ Guild Lifetime Achievement Award.
And these words from his acceptance speech moved many in his audience to tears:
“When we get a chance to act, it’s our job, at least in part, to get inside a character’s head… to see life from that person’s point of view… and to let an audience experience that. It may never have been more urgent to see the world through another person’s eyes than when a culture is divided so sharply. Actors can help, just a little, by just doing what we do.”
In other words, for Alan Alda, great acting is about communication – about portraying someone else’s world view without judgment. Even if it’s foreign to the performer’s way of seeing things.
And it’s that’s attitude, he told Indie Wire, that’s made him grateful to have been involved with Marriage Story:
“I’ve seen this movie three times, not to watch myself, but to watch the movie. It really was done in such an even-handed way. Each time I see one character’s point of view better than the other.”
When he hasn’t been acting over the past 10 years, Alan has been promoting his faith in the importance of good communications skills at Stony Brook University’s Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science.
To help support the Center, in 2014 he began hosting his Clear+Vivid podcasts. They’re designed to pick the brains of experts across a range of fields for ways we can all become better communicators.
One guest, he told Vanity Fair, was an FBI hostage negotiator who stressed that he never argues with hostage takers. He simply listens impartially to their complaints and then gives feedback so they know he understands what they are saying.
At this stage of his career, Alan is all about giving his audiences,”… an experience where they learn how to listen better – and get the pleasure of listening better.”
And we don’t need him to tell us that a truly good listener is hard to find. So why not join his efforts to change that?
What, in your mind, makes a good listener? And how often have you felt really listened to? When you’ve tried nonjudgmental listening, what was the reaction? Please share your thoughts!