Alan Alda … on Celebrity and Its Discontents

GUEST: Alan Alda
VTR: 01/22/07

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind.

And my dear wife has done it again!

A psychotherapist in private practice, she attends Psychiatric Grand Rounds at New York Hospital/Cornell Medical School and often tells me about some particularly provocative presentation made there.

Well, this time it was one by my guest today: actor, writer, director Alan Alda – Hawkeye from M*A*S*H if you’re old enough, or Arnold Vinick from WEST WING, if you will.

The theme or presenting symptom of his recent Fifty Minute Hour with these psychiatric professionals was: “Celebrity and Its Discontents”.

I’ve now watched a video recording of his therapeutic session, have read Alan Alda’s charming up-to-now Random House memoir, “Never Have Your Dog Stuffed…and Other Things I’ve learned”, and have been enormously impressed as well by some of the quite compelling speeches he’s made in the higher reaches of American academic life.

But I would begin our Open Mind conversation today by pressing my guest to elaborate on the fine line leading from celebrity to the couch.

ALDA: (Laughter)

HEFFNER: Is there such a line?

ALDA: I only … I only metaphorically put myself on the couch that day because I, I … I claimed at the beginning of the talk to be suffering from these symptoms and then I realized that they were the symptoms of celebrity and its discontents.

And it … I think it’s interesting because I, I felt that … I wasn’t sure before I gave the talk … I was very nervous before I gave that talk … I mean to be giving the Grand Rounds lecture in front of a bunch of psychiatrists, it takes an enormous amount of chutzpah. Which I have. But I still get nervous while I do it.

But the thing that I wondered was … had … how much has they thought about or been presented with some of the details of celebrity on both sides of celebrity … really interested me.

I know what, what goes on on my side of it … I know what my reaction is. And I observe what happens to people on their … on their side of it … people who are not themselves celebrities.

And there’s … there are very interesting things that happen to people. They get … the lose a sense of syntax, they garble their words, they fumble things physically … they drop things. It’s … by the way when I say “they”, I also mean me … all of us … and probably you. We all, most of us, have somebody who is a celebrity of a kind that, that gets us flustered in some way. And it’s a very interesting psychological state.

HEFFNER: How do you account for it?

ALDA: I, I have no idea. I have a feeling that when, when it has to do with … and this is just a … this is just wondering really … I wonder if they … if we see them on a big screen in the dark, especially … not a small screen in the lit room … the effect is, I think, less pronounced there … but a big screen in the dark … is very … probably hits our brain in an area that we use to process our dreams. Or I’m guessing it does.

So they become a part of our dream life and if they do and if they represent … if they get tied into people who we haven’t resolved our feelings toward, we have … we have a … when we see them in real life … it’s as though the dream has popped out of our head and is facing us and is disorienting. That’s just my guess, I don’t know. Nobody … nobody … nobody answered that speculation that day.

But they, they … what was interesting was some of the … some of the psychoanalysts there said that it was interesting to them in terms of … in terms of their … the process of psychotherapy, where they represent for the patient somebody else. In transference and counter-transference problems.

Where the, the … there’s a difficulty sometimes that’s similar to the problem of the celebrity. Because the main problem with celebrity is that you can’t have a one-to-one relationship with somebody who sees you as a celebrity. And this is not useful for either one of you. I mean you have to get over that. You have to sometimes “talk the other person down” from their …

HEFFNER: Celebrity to celebrity?

ALDA: Celebrity to celebrity is a very interesting phenomenon I find. I notice backstage either at … in the theater, in a restaurant, a political event … people who are well known … politicians and, and actors and other people, well known people … when they get together they make a special effort to be simple with one another. To be every day and plain. They talk in slang … sometimes they use vulgar expressions to defuse the celebrity element, get it out of the air and just get, get it to be one on one.

I sometimes, when I see a picture of politicians in the newspaper … just before they’re going to make an announcement, and their, their heads are thrown back in abandoned laughter. It’s a very common picture that you see.

HEFFNER: A dirty joke.

ALDA: All … they probably … if not a dirty joke, they’ve said something very ordinary to one another, like “I gotta go pee”, you know. Something really silly and, and personal that, that gets rid of the …it’s a way of saying “I’m not special to you. I’m … don’t want to … I’m not putting myself over you in any way.” And, and it’s usually reciprocal.

HEFFNER: Look, let me ask this … you say, this phrase “I’m not special”. How can … you couldn’t mean that … you ARE special. You are special in relationship to everyone who is not involved in the celebrity process, too.

ALDA: Well, it is … look, I am in a special spot, but that doesn’t make me special. It doesn’t make me have any right to tell you how to think, or to have, have an influence over you that, that takes away your dignity, your ability to guide your own life.

HEFFNER: Sure. I, I understand that. That’s not what you’re trying to do. I’m not talking about what you impose or try to impose upon others …

ALDA: Yeah.

HEFFNER: … I’m talking about that special relationship.

ALDA: Well, here’s the problem, I think. I think with celebrity … and it’s not a … it’s not a gigantic problem, but it’s a much larger problem … celebrity is … then we usually think of it as. Because celebrity has a very big effect on our lives. And that’s …that gets to the problem of me being special … or you being special. The … when you get to be a celebrity because this phenomenon takes place, this typical interaction between you and people who are not celebrities … there comes with it a certain power that you may not have asked for … you may enjoy it, you make like having it … having this power over people … but, you’re really not entitled to it and, and you have to recognize that it’s there. You have to do something about it. You have to make it easier for other people to see you for who you really are, otherwise it’s uncomfortable for both of you.

HEFFNER: See you for who you really are? This question of self-identity means … looms very large for you, doesn’t it?

ALDA: Yeah, it does. Yeah … (laughter)

HEFFNER: I heard that during your analysis …

ALDA: (Laughter) Like Freud, who’s title I borrowed for the talk … I was … self-analysis … and probably not as good as Freud’s on himself. I think … I don’t know why … for my own personal reasons … maybe it’s in the book you have at your elbow … but I don’t really know why who I really am is important to me to find out about.

HEFFNER: But it is.

ALDA: But it is. It does seem to me to be important, yeah. You know, you know, you know the saying over the door in ancient Greece … “Know thyself” … you can’t really be too sure of what you think you do know, if you don’t know yourself pretty well because everything that you know … I think … gets filtered through a lot of layers of yourself that you better understand so that you see what’s coming through that filter and can test it and find out if it’s real.

HEFFNER: Well, you know, part of that … and I made a note to ask “the guy” and I don’t make terribly many notes … but … you used a phrase “trained in the art of being someone else.”

ALDA: MmmHmm.

HEFFNER: And I remember I spent 20 years commuting back and forth from New York and Hollywood, and I remember I felt … “Yes, how can you trust anyone who is trained in the art of being someone else?”

ALDA: MmmHmm.

HEFFNER: And I haven’t known actors or actresses …

ALDA: That you can trust? Oh. Oh, you mean at all.

HEFFNER: No. I haven’t known them. And I’ve stayed away from knowing them …

ALDA: Oh, that’s interesting.

HEFFNER: because of what I did.

ALDA: Ahaa, oh, I see.

HEFFNER: But what do you think about that?

ALDA: Whether they can be trusted? Oh, well … mmmhmm … yeah, I mean that doesn’t mean that they … they’re abandoned in the art of being someone else. Or that they, or that they don’t do it responsibly. I mean it’s possible that some of them are nuts and just can’t help being other people and you never can get to who they are.

But most of us who study it and, and do it well, do it deliberately. And, and do it for a living. And in fact, I don’t think … I don’t think you can be very good at it, if you don’t know yourself pretty well.

You have to … this is the palette you have to work with … these are the paints, these are the brushes … and they’re all inside you. And they’re also part of your physical make up. So, if you don’t really know who you are … how can you take what you have to work with and make it somebody else?

HEFFNER: But I was thinking as I watched the video of your therapeutic session … I, I shouldn’t keep calling it that …

ALDA: (Laughter) It was a talk.

HEFFNER: … it was the talk, right. I couldn’t help but wonder how many of your thespian colleagues …

ALDA: MmmHmm.

HEFFNER: … are that involved in knowing themselves.

ALDA: Oh, I think … I think it’s one of the things that you have to do. To be, to be a good actor. I mean some people …

HEFFNER: To be a good actor.

ALDA: Yeah. Some people are maybe more concerned with being good, good businessmen in that field or, or businesswomen, or concerned with achieving celebrity and maintaining it. But an awful lot of us want to be good actors and, and it’s a … it’s not … you don’t do well … you don’t do as well if you’re not as smart as you can be and not as self-analytic as you can be.

HEFFNER: You see those things running parallel … as smart as you can be and as self-analytic?

ALDA: Well, for my work, anyway. I don’t know if they run parallel for, for other … for other fields. But I think in … if you …

HEFFNER: No I meant as an actor.

ALDA: To be an actor. Yeah.

HEFFNER: What are you going to do when you grow up?

ALDA: (Laughter) You know I don’t think I’ll ever grow up. I think I … that’s what I really like about … what are you going to do when you grow up? Same thing. Same question. Right. Isn’t it … isn’t it fun …

HEFFNER: No, no, no.

ALDA: I mean one of the reasons I wanted to come talk to you is because I love watching your show and I, and I love … I love people asking questions that don’t really have answers, but just trying to go as far as they can through the tunnels in the cave …to see how far they can go.

HEFFNER: You know when you talk about asking questions in this wonderful book of yours, and it is … it’s, it’s terrific.

ALDA: You said it wasn’t … I love that sentence …

HEFFNER: I’m not arguing with you …

ALDA: (Laughter)

HEFFNER: I’m not arguing with you.

ALDA: (Laughter) No. You said … “in this wonderful book, and it is” … it’s like somebody said … “are you sure about that?” (Laughter) You see, that’s one of my problems, I hear, I hear what’s being said.

HEFFNER: You write: “The difference between listening and pretending to listen I discovered is enormous. One is fluid, the other is rigid. One is alive, the other is stuffed …” and you weren’t referring to your little dog.

“Eventually I found a radical way of thinking about listening. Real listening is a willingness to let the other person change you.” I thought that was the most profound thing I’ve ever, ever read.

ALDA: Well, that’s very kind. Thank you. I … I … it really was something that I think I learned. I learned it while I was on the Board of the Rockefeller Foundation. And we, we, we developed a Board that really did listen to one another. And I found that I was making use, as I learned how better to listen to people … I was making use of the actor’s technique of listening.

And when I began as an actor I pretended to listen. I remember Mike Nichols saying to me when I was about 28 or 29, in a musical called “The Apple Tree” which is …

HEFFNER: Yeah.

ALDA: … being re-done. And I played Adam in that … and at the beginning of every show the voice of God would wake me up. So they asked me to be the voice of God in the current production. So now, now I wake up Adam.

But I would, I would be listening to Barbara Harris, who I was acting across from, and Mike would say, “You’re not, you’re not relating. Relate more.” So I’d lean in more (laughter) … as if that would mean more relating …

HEFFNER: Instead of leaning back and listening.

ALDA: I should have listened, you know. But to really … and what I found out, you know, later in my life in my fifties or sixties … I started to really understand that if you … if you listen … truly willing to let the other person change you … that’s the essence of acting and it’s the essence of social intercourse. And it should be. It would be nice if it could the essence of political life. Because if we’re going to have great debates, but know the outcome of the debate before we go into it, then we’re not listening.

If, if you have an idea that can actually add to my idea or change it around it and transform both our ideas into something bigger and better than either of us thought of, isn’t that to be desired.

And if I let myself listen to somebody no matter how dopey or crazy they sound to me and think to myself, “Somewhere in this person is my salvation”, and let myself be changed, that’s just like the acting thing … where I only say what I say because of you … because you make me say it. And if I can really hear you and let you make me say this next thing, it will come out in a way it would never have come out otherwise. It would, it would … it would have come out in a preforumulated way, this way it comes out spontaneously.

HEFFNER: Well, you make it sound like improvisation.

ALDA: Yeah, it is.

HEFFNER: But you stick by your scripts.

ALDA: Yes. Yeah, but you know something, you can say the same thing every night on the stage, stand in the same place and give an entirely different performance. Great musicians do that. I have friends who are great violinists and I ask them about this. And they say, “Oh yeah, yeah, it’s different every time.” They’re playing the same notes, they’re still playing Mozart … you know, anybody listening would know that they haven’t made up the notes.

But what, what has come to them … and they don’t make it up … the best thing is not making it up, not to deciding on a new thing … but being overtaken by a new thing, discovering … the discovering … not inventing. Discovering something that, that … a path that you’re following and you don’t know where it’s going. But there’s some part of you that’s aware that it’s all, it’s all appropriate.

HEFFNER: But you know when I read that first I thought “how …” not counter-intuitive, because it’s very intuitive, but counter what we all do today because we’re all trying not to listen and be communicated with …

ALDA: Yeah.

HEFFNER: … but to prove something, to change somebody, to …

ALDA: Yeah.

HEFFNER: … to move someone in our direction.

ALDA: Yeah.

HEFFNER: That’s not listening.

ALDA: No. I don’t think it is. I don’t think it is and I don’t think it’s … I don’t think it’s productive. I, I … I, I remember when I would listen just for the cue for me to talk, not just on the stage, but in conversation … you know, “Ah, ah mumble, mumble …” and I’m pulling up answers to, you know, rebuttals. Instead of letting the other … other person’s words in and let them land on them and let me say for a moment … “oh my god, maybe that is the truth. Maybe that’s, that’s a really interesting perspective.”

HEFFNER: You know people don’t appreciate it when I tell them when the Open Mind began … before you were born … or …

ALDA: Not quite. (Laughter)

HEFFNER: Oh, okay …

ALDA: (Laughter) No, no. I got married around the time that the Open Mind went on.

HEFFNER: We used to have three or four guests at this table.

ALDA: Yeah.

HEFFNER: And if the director were doing what she or he should do … you’d see “man thinking”, or “woman thinking” because you’d get on someone … Alan Alda listening and sort of saying to himself, “Mmm, yeah, there’s something to that.” And changing, and then as people began to realize what power this medium has …

ALDA: MmmHmm.

HEFFNER: … and that you can reach people and push them in your own direction …

ALDA: Yeah. Yeah.

HEFFNER: … that stopped. People came on the program, they had their personal agendas, they wanted to change somebody’s mind.

ALDA: Yeah.

HEFFNER: And I began to figure …what the hell, why do that? Why not have one guest …

ALDA: Right.

HEFFNER: … and have a conversation.

ALDA: Right.

HEFFNER: And that’s, that’s where change …

ALDA: It’s very interesting, so you, you actually … you could see …

HEFFNER: You could see it …

ALDA: You could see the culture shifting.

HEFFNER: Absolutely.

ALDA: But now … was it purely because they didn’t understand the, the power of television?

HEFFNER: I think so.

ALDA: That’s interesting.

HEFFNER: Wouldn’t you assume, when you get back …

ALDA: Yeah, well I …

HEFFNER: …to prime causes, it’s usually power?

ALDA: Yes. Yeah, it often is, isn’t it?

HEFFNER: Are you still as much involved in politics as you were?

ALDA: Only … only in private. I don’t, I don’t talk in public about politics. I, I feel like “I gave at the office.” And I, and I’m not … also, you know, I worked for ten years to get the Equal Rights Amendment passed, which, which we failed at getting it passed, all of us who worked on it. But did, in the process, make some contribution to the culture, I think you could say. Because the people who were opposed to it then, now take for granted … many of the basic points that were trying to be made, although it’s still not … still doesn’t guarantee equality under the law.

HEFFNER: What state legislature was that, that you write about in, in the book where you made the mistake of pushing the question of equal rights?

ALDA: Oh, yeah (laughter). They had already voted on something that was favorable to the Equal Rights Amendment … I forget what the issue was and I, and I was in the state to campaign for the Amendment and somebody asked me if I wanted to get up and talk … it was in Michigan. And, and so I … and they said, “Don’t make a speech” and I said, “No, I won’t make a speech.” I just said, “Thank you for your vote.” And I (laughter) … and they started yelling at me. I didn’t think that was a speech. But I …somebody had to like pull me … the, the person who was with me on the tour … started pulling my pants’ legs and said, “Let’s get out of here”, you know, because we were going to get attacked by the Assembly people.

HEFFNER: The reputation … how do you deal with this? You know I sound like a star struck, star gazer … and I am. How do you deal with different personalities that people attribute to you? The good guy …

ALDA: Oh. Oh.

HEFFNER: And the bad guy.

ALDA: Yeah. Well, pretty much people don’t attribute the bad guy to me.

HEFFNER: But you have been a bad guy.

ALDA: Well, I played it. But … yeah …but they’re so apparently overwhelmed by, by (laughter) this good guy image that they … almost every time I play a bad guy, they say “Boy, you’ve never done that before.”

Most of the parts I’ve played have been either tough guys or bad guys in one way or another. But I think … I’m … when I play those parts, I’m in competition with my own persona that I present when I talk on television. But I … you know what, I spent some time worrying about that and I really, I don’t think I spend any time worrying how I come off or what people think of me. I, I can’t control it. And mostly, it’s positive, and it doesn’t get in the way of my work, really. I, I get cast as an actor, as much as a tough guy … a certain kind of tough guy, I can’t be … it’s not in my range to play certain kinds of tough guys.

But I just did a movie that I … yesterday I was in Sundance at the Festival looking at it, and it’s a nice movie and I play a tough sports editor. Now you, you wouldn’t think of me as a sports editor, but I … but it’s fine. I play somebody that’s different from me and it’s very nice.

HEFFNER: And it doesn’t bother you to be someone else? Because that’s your profession?

ALDA: You mean for me to play someone else?

HEFFNER: Yeah.

ALDA: Oh, no … on the contrary. It’s very … it’s very enjoyable to try to be someone else. It’s requires a lot of effort, a lot of study to figure out what is in the psychology of this other person, that you can match with something in your own psychology, so that you can, without … without lying … without faking, without pretending … you can transform, in a way, into that person. That’s … that’s fascinating because … it’s like dance. I mean we don’t naturally move the way people do when they can dance well. And it’s almost an optical illusion some of the things they can do. Especially some of the
hip-hop people, now … they do … it’s almost like mime, you know old fashioned mine. It’s wonderful to be to do an optical illusion like that. To, to create an illusion with your mind and with your body …

HEFFNER: It must …

ALDA: … is, is great.

HEFFNER: It must mean then that you really have come to know yourself and have enough sense of your self …

ALDA: Oh, well … you have to talk to my wife about that. I … I don’t think I’m finished with that … at all. I’m just beginning. You know, it’s like the end of, of the … of Portnoy’s Complaint … when he goes through this whole long litany to tzoris and finally the doctor says, “Und naw ve vill begin”.

HEFFNER: (Laughter) Well, now we can’t begin because we have just two minutes left, but … I want to go back to that question that you bypassed …

ALDA: MmmHmm.

HEFFNER: What are you going to do when you grow up?

ALDA: Yeah.

HEFFNER: What’s next?

ALDA: Well, I’m writing another book. And, and it’s, it’s a … it’s very interesting … it’s harder to write then the first one was and it’s a little memoir-ish, but not totally.

And, and I just look for things to do that interest me. I try … one of the things that interests me is … I’m, I’m going … for 11 years I did a science program …

HEFFNER: I know.

ALDA: … on public television … “Scientific American Frontiers” and I loved how the scientists were themselves. We just had a conversation … just the same way that, that what you do. The real person of the scientist came out because it was a conversation in which his job was to make me understand what he or she did. I want to see scientists get trained in the skills of communication all through their science education. And then I think science will be more powerful in our culture because it will have a human face.

HEFFNER: But the question that our friend, Dr. Nurse …

ALDA: Yes.

HEFFNER: … raises … has to do, and I’m fascinated by this and hope I can do some thing along these lines in this program … has to do with scientists … not just being able to communicate to the community about what they, the scientists know … but the scientists’ willingness to know what the public …

ALDA: Yeah, I think it’s a very important point.

HEFFNER: … thinks about them.

ALDA: Yeah. It’s very important. He, he says what we’ve been talking about earlier today … to listen … science needs to listen to the public. And I think it’s a very important element in the communication of science. You know when … it’s not just a question of scientists’ telling the public what they do and what they ought to know about what they do … if you are really aware of what the other person is thinking while you’re talking to them … then … then it becomes a two-way communication. And you then can say it in ways that register on that person, but you have to be aware of what the person is thinking. How they’re thinking. How they’re taking in the information. Any good teacher does that.

HEFFNER: And I know what my director is thinking … say “Good bye, Mr. Alda …

ALDA: Say “Good bye” right …

HEFFNER: … thank you so much.”

ALDA: Good for the director.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time, and if you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send $4.00 in check or money order to The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150.

Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.

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