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Alan Alda: No more Mr Nice.

ALAN Alda has played senators and television stars, killers and professors, even a Korean War surgeon, but he may have done his best work as a clown. This was back in the days before M.A.S.H. (1972-1983) made Alda a star.

The son of Broadway star Robert Alda, he was determined to make an acting career of his own, so he was working the audition circuit and keeping body and soul together with day jobs as a cab driver, a doorman and, yes, a clown. Not in the circus, mind you. Nothing so glamorous.

His job was to stand in front of a gas station in full clown regalia and "act crazy" to draw a crowd. "I was a great clown," the 75-year-old actor says proudly during a telephone interview. "I gave it everything in me. I would dance in the hot sun, jump high in the air and spin around. Yeah, I twisted my ankle one day in the rain from that little dance, but still kept going. Honestly, I didn't even know how to dance, but I did it." It was years before Alda decided that he wouldn't end up back on that street corner, capering for passing cars.

"Even after M.A.S.H., he admits, "I said, 'I might have to go back to driving a cab someday and, if so, I'm still emotionally ready.' I just never wanted to lay asphalt." That, apparently, is a job that intimidates even Alda. "Laying asphalt is just too hard," he says. "I don't have it in me, even now. I drive around and pass those guys doing that job and feel such admiration for them. That's hard work." Almost 30 years after M.A.S.H. went off the air, however, Alda is still in demand as an actor, so manual labor isn't likely in his future.

His current film is Tower Heist, opening nationwide on November 4. It's a caper comedy with a powerhouse cast that also includes Matthew Broderick, Eddie Murphy and Ben Stiller.

They play operations and maintenance workers at a Manhattan luxury high-rise who are furious when they find out that their pension fund has been wiped out by a Ponzi scheme run by a wealthy businessman (Alda) who lives - and is under house arrest - in the same building where they work. They decide to use their inside knowledge about the building to rob his apartment and seize the millions of dollars supposedly hidden there. Alda's character, more than a little reminiscent of convicted swindler Bernard Madoff, is a far cry from the actor's usual good-guy persona - which is fine with him. "America still has to get over this whole 'nice guy' thing about me," he says with a laugh. "I love to play other types of roles, because one of the best elements in acting is to surprise people. I want to say to people, 'Yes, I'm nice in real life, but I'm also an actor!' "Actually I did kill a guy on Death Row once in a project," Alda says, referring to Kill Me If You Can (1977), a television movie in which he played Caryl Chessman, a real-life Californian who spent 12 years on Death Row before being executed.

"He was convicted of kidnapping and rape. I did this at the same time I was on M.A.S.H.,' and people were shocked. "But they still thought I was a nice guy," he says, sounding somewhat disappointed. "They saw M.A.S.H. every week and read my interviews." His movie career continues to flourish, having brought him an Oscar nomination as Best Supporting Actor for The Aviator (2004), and he's also had high-profile recurring roles on ER (1999), The West Wing (2004-2006), 30 Rock (2009-2010) and The Big C (2011).

For all of this, Alda says, he's truly grateful. "Let's face it," he says. "I'm at an age where a lot of people slow down and go to the farm. Not me. I love playing these characters now who are true characters. They're not perfect people and often I can say, 'Wow, I've never done something like this before."' Alda still gets asked about something he has done before: his 11 years as Capt. Benjamin Franklin Hawkeye Pierce on M.A.S.H. "There are people who come up to me who weren't even born when the show was on the air the first time in prime time," he says, "and they're loyally watching it now in reruns." The show has a new relevance, he says, in the age of America's wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

"The show started when we were at war," Alda says. "Now that we're at war again, I've heard that people don't want to see war on TV or at the movies. I think M.A.S.H. is different, because it was never about the fighting, but the cleanup after the fighting. It's about saving lives and a different side of war.

That's what touches all those hearts." The millions of people watching M.A.S.H. reruns don't include Alda, who was the only actor to appear in every episode of the long-running series. "Never," he says with a laugh. "If I come across it, I change channels after just one second. I have never watched my own stuff." He almost turned down the chance to play Hawkeye, a role created by Donald Sutherland in Robert Altman's 1970 film. "What few people know is that the powers behind the show didn't officially even have anyone for the part of Hawkeye until 2 a.m.

the night before the first rehearsal for the show," Alda says. "The show was being shot in California, and I lived in New Jersey with my wife and kids. I was so conflicted. How could I sustain my family and do a show shot across the country? "I was willing to turn it down," he continues, "but then my wife said, 'If the show is that good, maybe we could fix it with you traveling up and back.' So I flew up and back from L.A.

to our home in New Jersey for weekends for 11 years. "It proves that you can really do anything - and especially when you have such a supportive partner in your life who helps you do anything." He was lucky to grow up with a father who helped foster his son's talents."My father was an actor," Alda says, "and he took me to Hollywood canteens to entertain with him when I was 9.

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Publication:Qatar Tribune (Doha, Qatar)
Date:Nov 1, 2011
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