Alan Alda had a good year in 2005, perhaps his best since “MASH” folded its TV tent in 1983. He was nominated for an Oscar for his turn as a sleazy senator in “The Aviator,” a Tony for his razor-sharp way with David Mamet’s nasty words in “Glengarry Glen Ross” and an Emmy for his perf as a presidential candidate in “The West Wing.” Granted, he didn’t win any of them, but he declares in his smart, funny memoir that as he approaches 70 he feels “no pressure to succeed.” After surviving a life-threatening ailment a few years ago, Alda writes, he primarily relishes “the chance to have another day and to have some kind of fun with it.”
The kind of fun he had as a preschooler would horrify today’s child psychologists. Dad was in burlesque, and Alda’s atmospheric portrait of that vanished milieu depicts his 3-year-old self being dandled by half-naked chorus girls and watching comics gamble and drink between shows. Not until Robert Alda got a movie contract in 1943 and the family settled in Hollywood did his son encounter regular schooling and “civilians.”
At first rather dubious about “these mirthless people who always kept their clothes on and couldn’t do a spit take,” Alda discovered “a world of ideas” at Fordham U., graduating with the ambition to be a writer as well as an actor.
His account of those formative years reminds you that Alda became a star as Hawkeye and solidified his status in such films as “The Seduction of Joe Tynan” by projecting the intriguing persona of an unabashed intellectual earthily at ease with the pleasures of the flesh. He’s gone beyond that persona in recent roles, but it remains a bedrock component of his charm.
Intelligent material delivered with a light touch distinguishes this memoir, including the alternately horrifying and hilarious tale of a dead pet that gives the book its title.
The sections on his apprenticeship — which included dabbling in systematic racetrack betting as well as Broadway and films — show him aspiring to become a serious actor while retaining his admiration for burlesque performers’ more instinctive style. A touching description of his father’s guest appearance on “MASH” reminds us that these different approaches to acting can work together to great effect.
Alda doesn’t get to the TV show until relatively late in his text, and the chapter on it is brief. However, he does offer some interesting tidbits about the easy give-and-take that develops on a long-running series: “Relating, really listening, was at the heart of what made us an ensemble,” he concludes.
Alda also is fond of listening to his own voice, but fortunately that voice is self-deprecating rather than self-important, and he retains his “compulsion to amuse” even when dealing with grim subjects like his mother’s lifelong mental illness or the intestinal blockage that nearly killed him. He cracked a joke to the surgeon about to operate on him, Alda confides, adding, “Apparently you can offer to disembowel me, but I’ll still see if I can make you laugh.” “Never Have Your Dog Stuffed” provides plenty of laughs and thoughtful observations as well.