Alan Alda titled his new book “Never Have Your Dog Stuffed — and Other Things I’ve Learned.” But rest assured he didn’t write it as a guide for self-improvement. He doesn’t aim to be your guru.
“I tried to tell as good a story as I could,” he sums up. The resulting narrative, at 224 pages, is as lean as its author, and as engaging, and as flush with ideas and observations.
“There are things that were very, very difficult to put into words,” says Alda, at 69 a veteran actor who had written numerous screenplays but never a book. “That was what I had the most fun with — the things that don’t want to go into words.
“But the hardest part was how to take a life and make it one simple story, not just a bunch of anecdotes. I didn’t like the idea of writing a memoir or an autobiography. I only put in stuff that moved the story forward.”
The story: One man’s advancement toward accepting the uncertainties of life. Letting go, notes Alda, is a drawn-out process, “so you don’t just decide to do it. You have to creep up on it. Practice it. Get used to it.
“I think the guy who winds up at the end of the book would say, ‘Destiny is just what happens.”’
Alda should know. A lot has happened for that guy this year. He got an Oscar nomination for his role in Martin Scorsese’s “The Aviator,” a Tony nomination for his Broadway performance in David Mamet’s “Glengarry Glen Ross,” and an Emmy nomination for “The West Wing,” in which he plays flinty Republican presidential hopeful Arnold Vinick.
He continues this season on the NBC political drama (8 p.m. ET Sundays), and, for its Nov. 6 episode, Sen. Vinick will square off against the Democrat (Jimmy Smits) in a debate aired live.
Which candidate will succeed President Bartlet (series star Martin Sheen) by season’s end?
“I wouldn’t spoil the surprise even if I knew,” Alda replies when pressed for details about his contractual commitment to the series. But then, flashing his incandescent grin, he pledges to remain “as long as necessary to turn this great country around.”
Humor from darknessWhen he isn’t shuttling to Los Angeles to shoot the series, Alda leaves his Long Island home to hit the campaign trail for “Never Have Your Dog Stuffed,” which in recent weeks has won warm critical response as well as entry to The New York Times best-seller list.
Its first sentence establishes the book’s matter-of-fact, often darkly witty tone. “My mother didn’t try to stab my father until I was 6, but she must have shown signs of oddness before that,” Alda writes.
He was the son of a mentally ill mother and an actor father, Robert Alda, who was subject to the vagaries of show business during a career that ranged from the hardscrabble vaudeville circuit to Broadway in the original production of “Guys and Dolls.”
All in all, it was a dizzying childhood for Alan. But by 9, he had decided he would be an actor, too, setting the stage for his push-pull life of embracing make-believe while defiantly inquiring into how things really are. He is a man in love with facts and verifiable truth (his decade as the gung-ho host of “Scientific American Frontiers” makes that clear). But he has also studied what it means to yield control to forces beyond reason.
He had an early brush with that as a boy when his dog died suddenly and his dad, in a misguided attempt to console him, had the creature stuffed.
“Stuffing your dog,” Alda writes, “is more than what happens when you take a dead body and turn it into a souvenir. It’s also what happens when you hold on to any living moment longer than it wants you to.”
Of course, that experience didn’t stop him from sending away for a mail-order course in taxidermy a few years later. “There was a lot of stuff in there, and most of it was gooey,” he found before abandoning his effort to preserve an owl’s carcass.
Hard road to successAt 21, Alda wed a pretty clarinetist named Arlene, with whom he soon had three daughters (and now shares seven grandchildren they dote on). But the family’s early years were marked by false starts and dead ends in his drive to find acting success.
In his mid-30s, he struck gold as Dr. Hawkeye Pierce in the beloved CBS comedy “M*A*S*H,” whose finale after 11 seasons — airing on Feb. 28, 1983 — was seen by nearly 106 million viewers and remains the highest-rated telecast in TV history.
But rather than playing doctor two years ago, Alda was on the receiving end of emergency surgery for an intestinal obstruction while in Chile doing a segment for “Scientific American Frontiers.” It was an operation with which he was professionally acquainted, he writes — although, as Hawkeye, “all I operated on was a piece of foam rubber.”
He came through the procedure OK, and “when I woke up,” he says now, savoring the memory, “was I glad to be there! I was almost manic about being alive.
“Then I started going back over my whole life, and I began to realize how connected the whole part of my early life was to this euphoria I was feeling. I really did want to understand everything that went before, and see what I could learn from it.”
“Never Have Your Dog Stuffed” is the outcome — Alda’s learning process deftly put in story form; reflections galore, but no how-to advice. “Letting somebody else tell me what to think is a way of stuffing the dog,” he says with a laugh. “My telling somebody else what to think is the same thing.”