Born in The Bronx, New York, on Jan. 28, 1936, Alan Alda had a “very unusual” childhood, he told PEOPLE. His dad, Robert (left), who was a vaudeville performer, “was a little controlling, but he was very gentle.” His mother, Joan, battled mental illness, and his parents divorced when he was in his 20s.
After attending Fordham University and a brief stint in the Army Reserve, Alda married Arlene Weiss when he was 21.
“I would work occasionally as an actor, but I was a cab driver and a doorman and tried to sell mutual funds,” he said.
Together, the longtime couple has three daughters — Eve, Elizabeth and Beatrice — and several grandchildren. “If I had to go through another generation of adolescence …” he joked of parenthood.
“I just kept plodding along,” said the actor of his pre-M*A*S*H gigs, including the 1968 football movie Paper Lion with costar Lauren Hutton, in which he played a sportswriter turned quarterback.
In 1972, he read the script for M*A*S*H, and for more than 250 episodes the actor embodied womanizing Korean War surgeon Hawkeye Pierce even as he commuted weekly from L.A. to his modest house with Arlene and their three daughters back in Leonia, New Jersey. The CBS series ended in 1983; the finale was watched by a record 121 million viewers. Alda won six Golden Globes and two Emmys for the role, plus an Emmy for writing and one for directing.
The surviving cast members of M*A*S*H (including Gary Burghoff, left, in 1976) reunited for Alda’s podcast Clear+Vivid in 2019.
The actor starred with Joanna Gleason in Woody Allen’s 1989 film Crimes & Misdemeanors.
For his role in 1993’s And the Band Played On (opposite Matthew Modine), Alda scored yet another Emmy nomination, for outstanding supporting actor in a miniseries or special.
On ER in 1999, Alda played a doctor forced to resign from County General after it’s revealed he’s in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease. For his part, he was — you guessed it — nominated for another Emmy, for outstanding guest actor in a drama series.
Alda joined forces with Goldie Hawn for 1996’s Everyone Says I Love You, a Woody Allen musical that featured a star-studded cast including Julia Roberts, Edward Norton, Drew Barrymore and Natalie Portman.
Alda’s sole Oscar nod was a Best Supporting Actor nomination for his role as Senator Brewster in 2004’s The Aviator with Leonardo DiCaprio.
The actor (with costars Jimmy Smits and Martin Sheen in 2006) received his only non M*A*S*H-related Emmy for his portrayal of a senator vying for the presidency in NBC’s hit series The West Wing.
Alda joined the faculty of Stony Brook University in 2009 as a visiting professor. He also cofounded the university’s Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science.
“I started teaching scientists and engineers improvisation to see if it would help them relate better, and it did,” he shared.
Another outstanding guest actor in a comedy series Emmy nomination came Alda’s way following his turn as Jack Donaghy’s biological father, Professor Milton Greene, on a 2009 episode of 30 Rock.
Again returning to his roots as a TV doctor, Alda joined the cast of The Big C for a few episodes as Dr. Atticus Sherman, an oncologist running a clinical trial.
Alda’s most recent outstanding guest actor in a drama series Emmy nomination came for his part as Assistant Director of National Intelligence Alan Fitch on The Blacklist.
Most recently, Alda appeared on Ray Donovan as Donovan’s psychiatrist Dr. Arthur Amiot. He appeared in the series’ 2022 movie, too.
“We’ve both gone through changes, but we’re still the same people. Arlene says the secret of a long marriage is a short memory,” he joked of his nearly 65 years with wife Arlene. “It’s kind of surprising, but we still experience a kind of puppy love.”
In 2015, Alda was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease; he shared the news publicly in July 2018. Though he admitted it was “scary” at first, Alda learned that an exercise regimen could help stave off progression and he embraced boxing, a version of Tai Chi and — in a workout you’re not likely to see every day — marching to the boisterous compositions of John Philip Sousa.
“My life hasn’t changed much,” said the actor, who first noticed a twitch in his thumb. “I just applied my curiosity to it. I’m constantly reading and trying to figure out the best approaches. So far it’s really interesting — I think it’s helped me understand a little better that everybody has something that they’re coping with.”
In 2019, Tom Hanks presented Alda with the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Screen Actors Guild Awards.
“You know, it’s really hard to describe to you what it feels like to look out and see my fellow actors, my colleagues, my heroes, to welcome me up there like this. It’s an extraordinary feeling,” he said. “The thing is this comes at a time where I’ve had a chance to look back at my life and to think about what it’s meant to be an actor. I see more than ever now how proud I am to be a member of our brotherhood and sisterhood of actors.”
Though the actor, like many, has remained out of the public eye since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, he’s kept busy on his podcast, and even posted his vaccine selfie in February 2021.