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Alan Alda reveals a valuable lesson learned from legendary director Mike Nichols

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Alan Alda, photographed in New York City on October 25, 2018. Alan Alda, photographed in New York City on October 25, 2018. (Photo by Matt Licari/Invision/AP)

We know Alan Alda best as wisecracking peacenik Hawkeye Pierce from the long running CBS comedy “M*A*S*H,” as well as shows like “The West Wing” and “30 Rock” and movies like “The Aviator,” “Crimes & Misdemeanors” and “Same Time, Next Year.”

At 85, Alda says in some ways he feels like he’s just getting started, thanks to his interview podcast show “Clear+Vivid with Alan Alda,” where he goes deep with a different guest and subject each week. The show features his substantive, often surprising and humorous conversations with influencers in science, medicine, entertainment, business, literature and education. The discussions are wide-ranging and unpredictable, but at the heart of Alda’s show is the art of clear communication in practice.

(A personal note: I’ve been a huge fan of Alda’s since childhood. When I first had the opportunity to interview him for radio and The Maine Edge a year ago, I’d planned to ask a few questions related to his years on the show M*A*S*H but we ran out of time before I could bring them up.)

When I was recently approached about speaking with Alda again recently, I pulled out those earlier “M*A*S*H” questions with the idea of better managing the 10 minutes I would have with him one-on-one. Once we got started, I became so engrossed in what he was telling me … that I completely forgot about them. Again. Hopefully, I’ll be forgiven once you read what he had to say.

The Maine Edge: We live in an era where most of our communications are limited to texts or comments on social media. Are we becoming bad communicators?

Alan Alda: I think we’re trying to do the best we can with the media we have now which are extraordinary. In a way, people are communicating more than they did before. You know, don’t forget to bring home the bacon or the bread. But I think we realize that we need that personal connection and emotional context, otherwise some things we say that we think are fun sound sarcastic like a putdown. That’s why I think we stick in a smiley face to try to defuse the possible insult. What’s lacking is the real face that gives context to everything we say. That’s one of the things I continue to learn from some of the amazing people who come on the “Clear + Vivid” show. They put themselves out there and let the other person in.

The Maine Edge: On a recent episode of “Clear + Vivid,” you sat down with a physician who cares for patients with memory loss. What did you learn from Dr. Scott Small?

Alan Alda: That forgetting can be a positive thing under certain circumstances. We all wish we could remember everything that ever happened to us. But he says if we didn’t have a natural process of forgetting the things that are not important to us right now, we’d get so clogged up we wouldn’t be able to make any decisions. We wouldn’t be able to accomplish the normal things in our life that are necessary. He even said that one of the reasons we sleep is to sweep out the unnecessary memories or to maybe store them somewhere in the back of the mind for another time.

The Maine Edge: I had never considered that. So we might send some memories to a sort of database in the brain that we might pull out in the future?

Alan Alda: I’m not sure about that because we’re always surprised at the things that come up when we need them. But the idea of cleaning out the memory bank so you can start fresh is an interesting idea. He said of course there are people with pathological memory loss that need to be tended to, but normal forgetting is a plus rather than a minus.

The Maine Edge: I read very recently that doctors think they could be very close to determining the cause of Alzheimer’s disease and that a cure may not be far behind. Did he tell you anything about that?

Alan Alda: Yeah, he did. He said up until now amyloid plaques forming in the brain were the main problem, but he compared that to fire and smoke. He feels that there are proteins that cause the amyloid plaque, the proteins being the fire and the plaque being the smoke. He thinks the plaque is an indication that something further upstream is causing the problem. If your house is on fire, you want to stop the fire and that will stop the smoke. We could see a treatment for Alzheimer’s before too long.

The Maine Edge: You have a knack for making people feel comfortable and you can hear that on your show. Do you think that sometimes leads to people opening up to you in ways they might not otherwise do with a different person?

Alan Alda: I do, and I think it’s not just a knack but it’s something that I drew from my experience as an actor. I was once in a play directed by Mike Nichols.

(Nichols directed, among others, “The Graduate” and “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” In 1966, Nichols cast the 31-year-old Alda in the Broadway musical “The Apple Tree”)

Mike Nichols addressed the cast and said “You kids are not relating very well, you think relating is the icing on the cake, it isn’t. Relating to each other is the cake!” I realized he wasn’t just talking to the kids, he was talking to me. I didn’t really know what relating was, I thought it was putting my face closer to the face of the other person and bending over like a telephone pole (laughing). You can relate to somebody with your back to them as long as you let them effect you.

The Maine Edge: One of the hallmark segments to listen for on the “Clear + Vivid” podcast is called “7 quick questions for 7 quick answers.” Those often lead to very funny or surprising responses and you have a lot of fun with it.

Alan Alda: I do, I’m always surprised by what they come up with. We develop the questions over time and they’re meant to get the person to reflect on something they don’t often think about, like the first question: What do you wish you really understood? People sometimes reveal what they are personally in search of, or sometimes professionally. I hear them reflecting before they answer and that moment of reflection is really lovely because you realize they are looking inward and searching for who they are and what they’re after.

(“Clear + Vivid with Alan Alda” is available free from Apple, Stitcher, Spotify and most other digital platforms.)

Last modified on Tuesday, 16 November 2021 08:18

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