NEW YORK (Reuters) – (The writer is a Reuters contributor. The opinions expressed are his own.)
Based on the years Alan Alda has spent in your living room, you may think the 82-year-old actor is one of your best friends.
His ability to connect with audiences – since his breakout role as Hawkeye Pierce on “M*A*S*H” in the 1970s, through countless programs like “The West Wing” and “30 Rock” – has led to a new career promoting what Alda believes the world sorely needs.
His company, Alda Communication Training, helps business executives relate to people with more authenticity, clarity and empathy.
For the latest in Reuters’ “Life Lessons” series, Alda chatted about the wisdom he has taken away from a life lived both onscreen and off.
Q: As a struggling actor, what was the money situation like in the beginning?
A: I was married when I was 21 and almost immediately had three children. It was a good nine years or so before I made any kind of living. There were times I just couldn’t afford to drink a can of beer at dinner – and the cheapest beer was only around $1 for six cans, but I still had to ration them.
To pay the rent I was a cab driver, I sold mutual funds – mainly to myself – and I was a doorman. Our first apartment was so tiny that the kitchen was actually located in a closet.
Q: Was it heartening when you finally started getting some gigs?
A: It was certainly less frustrating. But I had never really considered doing anything else. It was never about being rich and famous. I only expected to be able to do what I loved doing, and hopefully make a living at it.
Q: When M*A*S*H hit, what was it like to deal with extreme success?
A: It was a little disorienting. I had seen my father get famous when he was in his 30s, and it didn’t seem like a terrific thing to be. I was wary of being famous, because it’s really hard to adjust to. If you can be rich without being famous, I would definitely advise that.
Q: What money mistakes did you make early on?
A: I was advised to invest in a tax shelter, which turned out to be a huge mistake because it was a fraud. I got a phone call from a reporter from the New York Times while I was on set one day, and he said, “So how do you feel about being in the same boat as Walter Cronkite? You were both defrauded on an investment.”
That was the first I had even heard about it. I was so dazed that I walked outside and ran right into an iron pole. I lost pretty much everything I had, so that was a hard lesson.
Q: How has the launch gone for your communications company?
A: What you learn to do as an actor is to really connect to another person. I realized you could teach regular people to do that, too. So I started a center for communication science at Stony Brook University, and then a training company that has worked with thousands of people, mostly scientists and doctors. That work led to my book, “If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look On My Face?” and my podcast “Clear+Vivid.”
Q: Since you are so interested in science, is that where your philanthropic dollars go?
A: I work a lot with St. Jude’s, a wonderful research hospital that helps children and doesn’t charge families anything. Those efforts are led by my good friend Marlo Thomas, who has an amazing ability to get things done, raising something like $1 billion a year for them. Now there is a fantastic communicator – you have to be good to raise that much money.
Q: What lessons are you passing along to your kids and grandkids?
A: I have three daughters and eight grandkids, and a lot of us have improvised together. I love that they have an interest in it, because it certainly changed my life. Improvising is life-changing, because it makes you a different person, a better person. It puts you in touch with your creativity, and you begin to trust yourself more, and censor yourself less. Most importantly, you have to listen to the other person – it’s not just about you.