Alan Alda discusses M*A*S*H, Paul McCartney, Madame Curie, his podcast

In the first two parts of this interview series with Alan Alda, we covered the actor’s fascination with Nobel Prize winner Richard Feynman – including Alda’s 2001 Broadway play about the physicist, QED – Dr. Edward Teller, fame, curiosity, fear and more.

Here, in Part 3, we discuss Alda’s hit TV series M*A*S*H, his play about the discoverer of the element radium, Madame Curie, and some of the more interesting guests he’s had on his podcast Clear+Vivid , including Paul McCartney and more. Below are edited excerpts from a longer Zoom call.

Jim Clash: We need to talk about your participation in the TV series M*A*S*H. What did you enjoy most about doing the show?

Alan Alda: The most fun was learning to be better at what we all did. I became better as an actor, writer and director. It was exciting to push those movements forward. There are few things more fun than doing what you do well. The only thing better is learning how to do it better.

Clash: Are there any favorite episodes that come to mind?

Alda: There are a number of them, usually in which the story was told in an unconventional way. I particularly liked one of them and I wrote it about the dreams of the people on the ground, unity. But they weren’t just dreams, they were mostly nightmares they were having. I thought it was an effective episode. As it turns out, I found out on the internet that it was some people’s favorite and most hated show because I guess it wasn’t that funny. Don’t know.

I thought we had an agreement with the audience that we could tell stories in an unconventional way, sometimes maybe not so funny. But the next week we came back with more of what they expected. So we worked in a lot of different styles, and that was part of the fun of making the show. I haven’t looked at it much since we did it, though.

Clash: You also produced “Radiance: The Passion Of Marie Curie.” Why a play about the discovery of the element Radium?

Alda: One thing I was interested in was that women in science have never had it easy. There have been studies where the same resume was submitted for work in a laboratory, both identical except that one had a woman’s name on it and the other had a man’s name on it. When questioned, lab directors said the woman was not as interested in science as the man. That interested me in Curie.

But the story she experienced was also very dramatic. She suffered from being a woman at a time when women were not expected to work in the same way as men. She was very depressed after her husband died in a horse-drawn carriage accident. She was comforted by another scientist. Eventually they had an affair because he was unhappily married. When this became known, around the time of her second Nobel Prize, people in Sweden told her not to come and pick up the prize because of the scandal.

The first time she won the award, the committee only wanted to nominate her husband Pierre, because the two had worked together. Because he was the man, he thought he really did the work. But he said they had to give her half the credit or he wouldn’t accept the award. When they got there, he was told that he would be giving the acceptance speech, not them. It was unfair.

Clash: Let’s discuss your current podcast, Clear+Vivid.

Alda: Because I’m interested in science, I’m interested in how scientists communicate. I try to make every show a communication model. If I don’t get it, don’t understand it, I’ll keep chasing the guy until I do understand it. The hope is that at least some of the podcast listeners will be on the same quest for understanding, finding themselves somewhere they haven’t been before.

By the way, it’s not just scientists. They are just a small part of who I have. I was talking to a guy who used to be a skinhead and realized when he beat up a Jew one time that he was actually hurting a real person, and decided not to do it anymore. He now spends his time helping other skinheads get out of that movement. Another guest was one of the FBI’s top hostage negotiators. So there are many different types of communicators: actors, musicians, politicians. Sometimes the link to communication is not so clear at first.

Clash: How do you choose guests?

Alda: There are three of us: executive producer, Graham Chedd, associate producer Sarah Chase, and me. Publishers send us requests because they have a book coming out, or maybe we see an interesting interview with someone interesting on YouTube. It is important that these people not only have something interesting to say, but can also come to life, that they can actually make contact with the audience.

A lot of it is about what you and I are doing right now. You can bring someone out or take him out. Sometimes well-intentioned people who want to bring someone forward flatten their voices because they don’t show genuine interest in the guest. I don’t mean to flatter you, but from the beginning you were in touch with me, which made it much easier for me to talk to you.

Clash: Who is one of the most interesting guests you’ve had so far?

Alda: I had a really nice time with Paul McCartney. When he came into the studio, everyone was so excited. There was a piano in the room and three guitars leaned against the wall under a spotlight. So when he comes in he asks me, “What’s all that?” I said I had nothing to do with it. We were happy you came, so the staff turned it off to get you in the mood.

As soon as Paul and I started our conversation, we did some voice exercises together, just joking. Four out of five minutes later I said, ‘You have the most memorable melodies in the world. How do you think of them, find them?” He says, “Oh, I’m just playing some weird chords on the piano.” So I asked him what an oobly chord was. He says, “You have a piano there, let me show you what I mean.” So going from “what is that” to playing the piano and finding melodies was a lot of fun. He’s a really good guy.

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