Alan Alda talking to himself and audience at Smith Center


The phone rings and the voice on the other end says, “Hi … this is Alan Alda.”

Not that he needs to say it. You’d know that voice anywhere.

“I’ve had telephone operators tell me that,” Alda says in the voice everybody knows. As “M*A*S*H’s” wisecracking Army surgeon Hawkeye Pierce. As the writer, director and/or star of movies from “The Four Seasons” to “The Aviator” and TV series from “The West Wing” to “Scientific American Frontiers.”

And on Tuesday, Las Vegans will have the chance to hear — and see — Alda as himself, when he visits The Smith Center’s Reynolds Hall for a talk he calls “Things I’ve Overheard While Talking to Myself.”

If the title sounds familiar, it should. It’s the same one he used for a book he wrote — after he almost died in 2003, when he developed an intestinal obstruction while in Chile filming “Scientific American Frontiers.”

That too-close brush with death left him pondering life — and its meaning.

“I was so glad to be alive, I wanted to get the most out of being alive,” Alda, now 77, says in a telephone interview from his East Coast base.

The quest “may seem odd to some people,” he acknowledges. After all, “if you’ve accomplished a lot, why would you look for meaning? But if you have a jolt like that, thinking ‘a couple of hours earlier, you could have been dead,’ ” your perspective shifts, he says.

“I have a strong preference for being alive,” Alda admits. And he’s not joking, recalling his own interview with an astronaut who once had to find his way through a smoke-filled spacecraft cabin.

“He knew he was going to die within 30, 40 seconds if he didn’t find what he needed to find” to escape the situation, says Alda, who knows the feeling. “That really wakes you up.”

Despite the harrowing catalyst for such soul-searching, however, Alda’s Tuesday talk is “mostly funny stories,” he says, “built up over time, whenever I talk about these books and my life.” (The “books” include not only “Things I’ve Overheard While Talking to Myself” but its predecessor, “Never Have Your Dog Stuffed: And Other Things I’ve Learned.”)

And while “I don’t talk about show business too much,” he says, “I do talk about a celebrity — and his discontent.”

He’s joking about that. Maybe.

After all, “it’s an interesting subject to explore” — one he’s been pondering all his life.

That’s because Alda grew up watching fans approach his famous father, stage and screen star Robert Alda, who played George Gershwin in 1945’s “Rhapsody in Blue” biopic and created the role of gambler Sky Masterson (and introduced “Luck Be a Lady”) in the 1950 Broadway classic “Guys and Dolls.”

Alda thinks his father enjoyed the recognition. And he’s not immune to the impulse, he admits, recalling a recent encounter with “Liv Ullmann — my heartthrob” (and the star of 10 movies directed by Swedish master Ingmar Bergman). “I made her feel bad — I didn’t recognize her.”

That may have been because Alda has slight “face blindness.”

Or perhaps it’s the same phenomenon he’s experienced himself, when “people look at me and see me as I was,” he says. “Some people don’t get it that I’ve aged.”

Such as the guy who told him, in the friendly confines of an airport restroom, “ ‘Jesus, you got old,’ ” Alda recalls, noting the man was about 10 years older than he was. Alda’s reply: “What, you didn’t?”

Then again, different audiences know Alda from different periods of his eclectic career. Some remember him from “M*A*S*H,” others “mostly from the movies. A lot of kids and teens only know me from the science shows.”

And he’s not done yet.

His latest project: rewriting “Radiance: The Passion of Marie Curie,” a play about the Nobel Prize-winning scientist, which was staged in Los Angeles in 2011.

“She was an amazing person,” Alda says. “I learned more about her life than the usual, because of my interest in her as a scientist.” (And certainly more than anyone would learn watching Greer Garson in 1943’s “Madame Curie,” which “ignored the most dramatic parts of her life,” he says.)

It’s all part of Alda’s determination to keep “testing myself,” he says — and avoid living life on auto-pilot.

“People know me in different ways,” he says. “It’s kind of fun” to have such a range of claims to fame.

Contact reporter Carol Cling at ccling@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0272.

 

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