It's been 30 years since Alan Alda last entered our homes as the charismatic Dr. Hawkeye Pierce on TV's M*A*S*H. But if the years have taken their toll, the 77-year-old actor/writer/director shows surprisingly few signs.
The jet-black hair has been replaced by gray and there's a slight stoop of the shoulders, but beneath these signs of three decades gone by soars the spirit of a much younger man -- a man who has an infectious zeal for life and knowledge and seems to want nothing more than to share it with his fans.
Speaking to a capacity audience at Southern Connecticut State University's John Lyman Center for the Performing Arts on Friday evening, Alda paced slowly around the stage and shared stories from mostly his post-M*A*S*H life.
"Let me start by telling you about the day that changed my life," he began.
The crowd was still and silent, hanging on his every word as he related a tale of being rushed to a hospital in South America while on location for his PBS program, Scientific American Frontiers.
Visiting with scientists in Chile, Alda began to feel discomfort in his stomach, which quickly became unbearable to the point where he was doubled over on a sofa, unable to move under his own power.
Upon arriving at the hospital by ambulance, the surgeon informed him that a bowel obstruction had cut off blood flow to a portion of his intestines and that he required immediate surgery to survive.
The doctor was surprised when, in the middle of the explanation of the procedure, the patient interjected, "Oh. You're going to perform and end-to-end anastomosis. Yes, I performed many of those on TV."
Alda's brush with death intensified his appreciation for life and sharpened his desire to seek out knowledge and experiences.
His lecture was short on anecdotes from the set of the TV show that made him a household name, but the audience didn’t seem to mind in the least as the actor discussed his love of science and his ongoing and much-publicized advocacy for jargon-free explanations of scientific processes and ideas.
Alda concluded his talk by taking questions from the audience, and endeavored a few more anecdotes -- this time from his early-life -- including his fond memories of acting alongside his father, the late Robert Alda, in two episode of M*A*S*H.
He drew laughs throughout the talk, but none bigger than when addressing a question about his military service.
"I see you read Wikipedia," he joked. "My Wikipedia page says I served in the military as a gunnery officer, but that's actually not true. I served briefly in the Army Reserve, and was deployed for about six months. They had designs of making me into an officer but, uh ... it didn't go so well. I was in charge of a mess tent. Some of that made it into the show."
The last two questions he fielded were perhaps the most poignant of all, perfectly bookending his career as entertainer turned educator.
"How much you is in Hawkeye?" he was asked.
"Very little," Alda admitted to the surprise of the audience. "I remember the very first scene we were ever going to shoot. I was thinking, ‘This character is a womanizer, he drinks too much ... how am I going to play this character?’ And then they yelled, 'Action' and I had to walk out and do the scene. And the very first thing I did, there was a nurse walking toward me and I grabbed her around the waist and twirled her around as she walked by and suddenly I thought, 'This isn't going to be so hard.'"
The final question of the evening came from a science teacher who wanted to know, "If you could teach one thing about science to kids, what would it be?"
Alda pondered this briefly then said, "I would love to tell them whatever it is they want to know."
Ten years removed from the day that nearly claimed his life in Chile, Alda said he writes to the surgeon who saved him each year on the anniversary of that day. He tells of all the things he did over the course of the year -- "I've probably bored the guy out of his mind," laughed Alda, "but none of it would've been possible without him."
Alda currently has a book out called "Things I Overheard While Talking to Myself."