Alan Alda: The Meaning of Life A few years ago, Alan Alda was up for an Oscar, had won another Emmy, had a happy marriage, kids and grandkids. Then one night, out of the blue, he heard a little voice asking: Are you living a life of meaning? In a new book, the former M*A*S*H star attempts to answer that question.
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Alan Alda: The Meaning of Life

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Alan Alda: The Meaning of Life

Alan Alda: The Meaning of Life

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

You can probably see Alan Alda any day of the week just by flipping on the TV. Thirty-five years after the black comedy "M*A*S*H" began its long network run, everyone's favorite surgeon, Hawkeye Pierce, is still operating somewhere. The actor, Alan Alda has had a rich career in movies, on Broadway and in another long run as host of a science program on PBS.

A few years ago, he was up for an Oscar, had won another Emmy, had a happy marriage - kids, grandkids - when one night, out of the blue, he heard a little voice asking: Are you living a life of meaning?

The question stuck in his head, and to answer, he began sifting through the countless commencement speeches, keynote addresses and eulogies he'd given through the years.

Now, Alan Alda has recorded that exploration in a new book, and he joined us in our New York studio.

Good morning.

Mr. ALAN ALDA (Actor; Author, "Things I Overheard While Talking to Myself"): Good morning. Hi.

MONTAGNE: Several of these stories and chapters, they revolve around - you're giving some sort of a speech.

Mr. ALDA: Yeah.

MONTAGNE: And it's often - you're speaking to people that you yourself would sort of say you have no business speaking...

Mr. ALDA: Yes.

MONTAGNE: ...either to or about the subject. In other words, you know, graduation from medical school and they ask you...

Mr. ALDA: Yeah. Yeah. That's bad enough. I mean, you can understand how I got asked to do that because I played a doctor on television. But I didn't think I had any right to talk to doctors just because I played one. So I was scared doing that. But I finally solved that by talking to them about the one thing about medicine that I was an expert in, which was being a patient. And I said, please treat me like a human being, you know - so that sort of made sense.

But then I talked to psychiatrists, I talked in front of Monticello about Jefferson, in front of historians. The thing is when you're well-known - well-enough known, you get asked to speak places - then they don't really think about whether or not you're qualified. They just want somebody that will be a drawing card for the audience.

So it's up to you to decide whether or not it's foolish to get up and speak to these people. And I'm crazy enough to do it because I want that moment of elation when I think I actually could deliver on this, you know. It's very scary. And that, somehow, I think, how I know I'm alive. I guess, some people do that by climbing mountains, but that seems foolish to me.

MONTAGNE: One of the talks you gave to the group of psychiatrists was on a topic that you know something about - celebrity and its discontents.

Mr. ALDA: Right. The thing that interests me about celebrity is how - what a tremendous gulf there is between people who possess it and the rest of the world. Sometimes people think that if you're a celebrity you have magical powers. And it's dangerous to be a celebrity sometimes.

I was doing the science show, "Scientific American Frontiers" and we were in Pisa. And we're doing this story about the Leaning Tower, and the guy who ran the place was bringing me inside and he was telling me the tower could not just tip over at any moment, but there's so much pressure on the center of it, it could implode. There could be this, like, giant explosion happening. And we're heading up the stairs and I see a sign that says, no one permitted beyond this point. And he said...

(Soundbite of laughter)

MONTAGNE: That's celebrity.

Mr. ALDA: Yeah. I said, do you still let people up here. He said, oh, no, no, but in your case, we made an exception. I mean, you can get killed from this.

MONTAGNE: You, besides talks to people who are sort of launching into life like commencement speeches you've given and speeches to young actors or young would-be doctors, you also have included some excerpts from eulogies that you've given. Anne Bancroft, of course, the actress, Peter Jennings, Ossie Davis. And of Ossie Davis, you tell a little story about what he and his wife, the actress Ruby Dee - just a small thing that they taught you that...

Mr. ALDA: Yeah.

MONTAGNE: ...was so wonderful.

Mr. ALDA: Well, that's what I realized about when you let people go, when people die, even if they're celebrated people, the thing that I remember about them was what they meant to me, or some little moment where they touched me as a person.

When Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis and I were making a movie out of the play Ossie had written called "Purlie Victorious," I was young, I was in my 20s. And they said, now, in this scene you're eating this sweet potato pie. Now, you know that sound you make when you eat sweet potato pie? And I said, no, what sound? What sound do you make? They said you take a little bite and you go mmm, mmm, mmm. And I loved it. And I did it in the movie. And I, you know, I practiced it.

And it - that's what comes back to me when I remember Ossie is that he taught me how to eat sweet potato pie, but that - those three tones that you make are something that make the pie tastes better. And that's what my friends who left me did - they made the pie taste better.

MONTAGNE: When you've finished this book and putting these stories together, did you have an answer for that voice that was in your head at the beginning?

Mr. ALDA: Yes, I did. But our time is up and you'll have to read the book.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MONTAGNE: No, it's not.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MONTAGNE: You'll have to tell us.

Mr. ALDA: You know, I'll tell you what I did find as I was getting to the end of the book. I was - that it's really a crazy question to worry yourself over. A meaning has come to mean to me, a lasting sense of satisfaction, a feeling that when you get to the end of it that you haven't wasted your time. And for me, it's noticing it while it's happening.

Although you can drive yourself crazy with that, too, I have this wonderful capacity to do that. I got to this point where I - I mean, when I put on my shoes, do I put the sock on both feet and then the shoes on the both feet, or do I put the sock on one foot and then the shoe on that foot, will I save more time that way? Will I have more time to pay attention to the rest of my life?

And I started to count the seconds on what I was doing. I took a watch out and I actually saved 10 seconds by putting the sock on one foot and then the shoe on before I went to the other foot. And having saved those 10 seconds, I realized I could get Warren Piece in if I save 10 seconds a day. I decided that that would be unnecessarily crazy. And I now put my shoes on the old way.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ALDA: You maybe have heard more than you wanted to hear.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MONTAGNE: No. But I think this is a good time to thank you and say goodbye.

Mr. ALDA: I know. I usually reduce people to that. I'm sorry.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MONTAGNE: Alan Alda, thanks very much.

Mr. ALDA: Thank you very much.

MONTAGNE: Alan Alda is the author of "Things I Overheard While Talking to Myself."

And there's more. Alan Alda meets the Thomas Jefferson of China and contemplates the meaning of celebrity syntax at npr.org.

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

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