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That nice Capt. Pierce? See him now

Versatile Alan Alda on burlesque, 'M*A*S*H' and 'Aviator'

By Stephanie Snipes

Alan Alda plays Sen. Ralph Owen Brewster in "The Aviator."
Alan Alda
Martin Scorsese

(CNN) -- At an age when many toddlers are confined to playpens drinking from sippy cups, Alan Alda was hanging out with comedians and strippers backstage in a burlesque theater.

It was around 1938 that the actor, who stars in "The Aviator," got his first introduction to the world of theater and, yes, nudity.

"The show would always be a combination of comedy and nakedness. There were a lot great performers in burlesque and I got a lot of my early training from watching them. Also my early libido," joked Alda in a recent phone interview with CNN.

It was his father, veteran actor Robert Alda, who introduced the world of the stage to his son. In those days, says the younger Alda, burlesque was just another form of entertainment, and almost every city had a theater devoted to it.

After a brief stint as an amateur inventor at age 10 (his most impressive invention was a Lazy Susan for the refrigerator that made grabbing ketchup from the back an easy task, although, Alda admitted, too fast a turn would send it flying across the kitchen), Alda earned a degree in English at Fordham University, then returned to theater, this time as a featured actor on Broadway.

From there, he started to gain notice with roles in the films "Paper Lion" and "The Glass House." But, it was his role as the wisecracking, sensitive surgeon Benjamin Franklin "Hawkeye" Pierce on "M*A*S*H" that made Alan Alda a household name.

Keeping it real

When "M*A*S*H" premiered on CBS in 1972, no one expected the show to be a success. In fact, Alda, not wanting to uproot his family if the show was cancelled, commuted back and forth from Los Angeles to New Jersey every weekend.

The show lasted 11 years. Its final episode, which aired in 1983, is still the single highest-rated TV program of all time.

"We were all really lucky that we were all thrown together in this project. ... If they cast the wrong mix of people, which would be one or two too worried about what the networks thought would be popular, then we would have concentrated on the comedy and let the tragedy of the war completely disappear," said Alda.

Alda's biggest concern about accepting the part was that the show would turn war into nothing more than a joke.

"I was afraid that it would be like 'McHale's Navy,' which was a traditional service comedy in the sense that the army is a funny place to be," said Alda. "Well, sometimes the army is a funny place to be, but not when they're shooting at you, or your arm comes off."

Alda, who has returned to prime time with a recurring guest spot on "The West Wing," won five Emmys for his work on "M*A*S*H," and to date is the only person who has won Emmys for writing, directing and acting.

Alda's latest project is "The Aviator," director Martin Scorsese's ("Goodfellas," "Raging Bull") film starring Leonardo DiCaprio ("Catch Me If You Can") as the obsessive-compulsive tycoon, pilot and TWA honcho -- and sometime Hollywood producer -- Howard Hughes.

Alda plays Sen. Ralph Owen Brewster, a real-life politician who deviously attempted to destroy Hughes and his airline empire in the 1940s.

"I just was so delighted that they asked me to do it because it's a terrific picture to be in. I just loved being with all of them. Scorsese is one of the great masters of filmmaking, so it was a terrific chance to watch him work and to work with him," said Alda.

To transform himself into the role, Alda studied old newsreels and watched tape of the Senate War Investigating Committee hearings in which Hughes was called to answer questions.

Although critics are raving about his performance (the Los Angeles Times describes his role as "delicious," New York Newsday calls him "terrific"), Alda said, in his opinion, learning something new, and not reviews, is most important.

"The interesting thing is that I've been so successful, and I've been accepted, I've gotten money and all the marks of success, including awards, and I actually can tell you that from my point of view none of that feels as good as getting better," said Alda. "Because you're a kid again, you're working hard to see if you can accomplish something. There's nothing that makes you feel more alive than that."

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