We talked to him about his busy life and the best-selling book, which just came out in paperback. It features his ruminations on the meaning of life, with excerpts of speeches he's made before students, actors, scientists and real doctors —- though his only qualification is playing one on TV as fictional Hawkeye Pierce on one of the biggest series of all time, "M*A*S*H."
Q: You've done hundreds of speeches. I'm sure you put your best in the book. Have you ever bombed?
A: Yes! If I've ever gotten up without really wanting to say what I had to say, those times, I have bombed. But usually, that happens when I stand up to say a few words at a dinner. I have to really want to do it.
Q: What's your favorite speech?
A: I loved the one I gave my daughter Eve at her college graduation. It makes me happy when people tell me they were moved by that. It really cheers me up. I worked very hard on all these talks. I worked even harder writing this book. I didn't want it to be just a collection of speeches. Although for all I know, it might look that way to some people.
Q: Did Eve like the fact you were addressing her directly?
A: She loved it when I gave it. Before that, she scared me by saying, 'Don't embarrass me!' Most of the people got what I was trying to do. I was really talking to all of them. But through her, it felt personal. This is a turning point in their lives. It was really hard not to say all the cliches.
Q: Which speech affected you the most personally?
A: It was the one I gave to the doctors. I have no real knowledge of medicine. But I was an expert at being a patient so I spoke from that point of view. Years later, a couple of doctors said they had kept that talk with them for a couple of years. It encouraged them to be the kind of doctor they already wanted to be. I voiced something that was felt by them.
Q: When you were in Chile a few years ago, you had that nearly fatal intestinal infection. Was it true you knew the type of surgery being done because Hawkeye had done it on "M*A*S*H"?
A: I knew how to do it. But I wouldn't try it on anybody! It was amazing that my doctor in Chile had watched "M*A*S*H" in high school.
Q: Was he nervous treating a star he grew up with?
A: That could have been bad. He told me that doctors working on famous people can get extra cautious. They don't want to get in the papers that they screwed up!
Q: He didn't, did he?
A: No. If he had taken six extra hours, I might be dead.
Q: Do you memorize your speeches?
A: I try to know enough so I can look up from the page for a time. I like to make contact with the audience. It's annoying when people just read. Why not just e-mail the speech than make us listen to you? But one time I was at the Museum of Broadcasting. Mary Tyler Moore saw me. She later said she was amazed how I had memorized it. I didn't. I was actually reading it, but I had a way of not looking down at it.
Q: It's been 25 years since the "M*A*S*H" finale, which is still the biggest-rated show of all time. How do you feel about that now? Have you seen the episode since then?
A: I don't think I've seen it. I haven't seen any of the show except a minute or two when changing channels. I really don't think much about what I had done before. I try to do what I'm doing now.
Q: In the book, you mention a Newsweek story during your "M*A*S*H" days that had the headline "Nice Guy Finishes First." Should we call this one "Nice Guy Still Finishes First?"
A: [Laughs.] That story nearly did me in! That became my nickname. Mr. Nice Guy. Thank goodness that has blown over. . . . It's funny. I was just interviewed by a guy who said he's 40 and he read that on the Internet about this nice guy thing. He said, "I never thought of you as particularly nice! Where did that come from?" He's going by what I've done in recent years. If you have a reputation, even if facts counter that, people will often ignore it. The second or third year I was on "M*A*S*H," I played a guy in a TV movie who was on death row for rape and abduction. He wasn't exactly a nice guy. I've always played a range of people.
Book readings/signings: Alan Alda
> Zaban Park at Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta
7:30 p.m. Thursday, 5342 Tilly Mill Road, Dunwoody, 678-812-4000, $35 to $50, www.atlantajcc.org
> Atlanta Press Club
Book signing at 11 a.m. Friday, luncheon at noon
> The Commerce Club
34 Broad St., 15th floor, Atlanta, $28, sold out, more information 404-577-7377, www.atlantapressclub.org