It was 50 years ago next month that Alan Alda attended his first Hollywood awards show but it didn’t go so great that first time. Alda was one of the runners-up in the “most promising newcomer” category (which is now long defunct) at the 26th Golden Globes in 1969 — but the future M*A*S*H icon would more than make up for that early setback over the course a gold-plated career that has included plenty of acceptance speeches.
Six Golden Globes and six Emmys have competed for the dwindling space on Alda’s mantle over the years but on Sunday he seemed genuinely dazzled by his latest prize: SAG’s Lifetime Achievement Award, which recognizes both his accomplishments on screen and stage as well as his considerable humanitarian and charity work during a career that spans six different decades.
The SAG honor arrived a day before another milestone for Alda. On Monday the actor will celebrate his 84th birthday. In July, Alda revealed that for three years he has been coping with Parkinson’s disease. During a moving speech he told his fellow actors to pursue their craft and their lives with zeal and wonder while retaining the capacity for joy.
“My wish for all of us is let’s stay playful,” Alda said. “Let’s have fun and let’s keep searching. It can’t solve everything but it wouldn’t hurt.”
Alda is best known, of course, for portraying the wisecracking Capt.Benjamin Franklin “Hawkeye” Pierce, the iconoclastic but heartfelt Army surgeon from the legendary sitcom M*A*S*H. Alda didn’t introduce the role (Donald Sutherland was there first via Robert Altman’s namesake 1970 feature film, which adapted the 1968 military novel by Richard Hooker) but after 256 episodes in surgical scrubs and army fatigues Alda and the character were forever stitched together in the public imagination.
Alda’s swan song as Hawkeye came on Feb. 28, 1983, with the emotionally wrenching, two-hour final episode of M*A*S*H, which remains the most-watched episode of any television series in American broadcast history. A staggering 130 million viewers tuned in to watch the episode titled Goodbye, Farewell and Amen. By then the CBS sitcom had been an occupying force in primetime for 11 years.
Alda has described the Hawkeye role as an opportunity, a challenge and a blessing. In his stage speech he encouraged his peerage to also view their craft as an essential viewfinder on life.
“When we get a chance to act, it’s our job, at least in part, to get inside a character’s head and to search for a way to see life from that person’s point of view — another person’s vision of the world — and to let an audience experience that,” Alda said. “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.”
Alda’s film career includes solid and significant highlight efforts, among them Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors and Bullets Over Broadway; Neil Simon’s California Suite; and Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator.
Scorsese’s Howard Hughes biopic that earned Alda his lone Oscar nomination in 2004 for portraying U.S. Sen. Owen Brewster, the tenacious congressional adversary of tycoon Hughes.
Oscar-wining actor Tom Hanks, who co-starred with Alda in Bridge of Spies (2015) presented the lifetime award to Alda with a poignant introduction that spoke to the breadth of Alda’s achievements.
“A career is measured by different yard sticks,” Hanks said. “Quality being the first. There’s longevity, as well, but most important, I think perhaps, is how an actor’s choices reflect the time or the tenor of our troubled world and of our human natures. The actor we honor tonight for his life achievements is worthy then not just for his decades of work and praiseworthy credits, but for how he’s shown us all who we are and what we all can be.”
Alda has also been nominated for a Grammy (for his spoken-word version of his memoir), as well as three Tonys.
The Lifetime Achievement Award from SAG is a prestigious honor but Alda may be tight on available mantle space at this point. The New York native won one of his Emmys in 2006 for The West Wing for supporting actor in a drama series for portraying presidential candidate Arnold Vinick. (The other five Emmys and all six of his Globes were for M*A*S*H , but some honored his writing or his directing as well as his on-camera work.)
For the son of an actor, Robert Alda, the second-generation success said he felt especially grateful for the bounty of his blessings. Watch the speech below.