Alan Alda is uncomfortable with the word "Legacy." "It's always sounded like some kind of monument you want to leave for yourself," he says with a tinge of sarcasm.
At 77, the actor-writer-director-author and science enthusiast prefers to apply simpler terms to his efforts to leave a mark on the world. "I like to think of it more like planting a tree rather than making something that I'm remembered for. What I'd really like to do is leave something that's useful and helpful, and really changes things."
Certainly, he already has. These days, the man best known as Hawkeye Pierce on "M*A*S*H" for 11 seasons spends most of his time in the realms of academia and science, milieus that suit him well - as does his role as a visiting professor at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. As we speak, preparations are under way for this week's Stars of Stony Brook Gala, which is being held in his honor Wednesday at Chelsea Piers in New York City. Alda is being celebrated for his work as co-founder and member of the advisory board of the university's Center for Communicating Science.
The seven-time Emmy winner is on a quest to help women and men of science learn how to communicate complex concepts in an understandable way to the public, the media and fellow scientists. He leads improvisational workshops and has helped develop course work toward that end. This is Alda's focus whenever he is not tied up with assignments such as his role as Laura Linney's sharp-tongued oncologist on The Big C, which returns to Showtime for its final season April 29. "It was wonderful to do, because I love Laura Linney," he says.
His Dr. Sherman character, Linney's oncologist, is known for being quite nasty at times - not what one would expect from a doctor who deals with the dying.
"I know. There are probably reasons for that - probably communication problems," Alda says with a laugh. "It's the same thing we've been talking about. He could use a little learning about relating to other people and recognizing that there's a person on the other side of his words."
Asked whether he finds the show's focus on end of life difficult, Alda thoughtfully refers back to his own past when he was stricken with a strangulated intestine while filming a PBS series. "You know, I almost died nine years ago in Chile. There were a few minutes there when I thought about death in the most real way. When I thought I might have maybe two hours to live - and I went under anesthetic knowing, 'I might not wake up from this' - I took care of business. I said to a friend who was standing by, I want you to pass on a message to my wife and my children and grandchildren. It wasn't a moment of panic," he recalls.
"It was, 'Well, I might not wake up from this so I better take care of what I need to take care of.' Since that time, when I think about death, I don't fear it anymore. Because I already faced it. I used to not want to die in any way but in my sleep when I was a young man. I'd like to die awake now, if possible, with people around me who love me."
The bright side of his brush with death has to be the impact it has had on his way of living. Alda says life has tasted sweeter since the incident in Chile. In his whirl of busy days now, he gives his time to what really matters to him. Family time has always been a priority. He and his wife of 56 years, Arlene, have three grown children and seven grandchildren. According to him, of the seven, two are interested in acting and one is fascinated by psychology. No scientists. At least, not yet.
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