In the M*A*S*H episode “Lend a Hand,” Hawkeye butts heads with an older surgeon named Dr. Anthony Borelli. Borelli had shown up in the series a few seasons earlier, and Hawkeye doesn’t find him any easier to stomach with his constant advice on everything from how he should be doing surgery to how he should be drinking his scotch.
However, by the end of the episode, they find that they’re able to pull together when it matters — like when they both have wrist injuries and successfully treat patients together by each using their one good hand.
Borelli is played by Alan Alda’s father, Robert Alda (his half-brother, Antony Alda, also makes a small appearance in this episode.) Robert Alda had a long and rich show business career long before appearing on M*A*S*H with his son, starting in vaudeville and burlesque and winning a Tony Award for his role as the original Sky Masterson in Guys and Dolls. You may have even seen him on Svengoolie in the 1946 movie with Peter Lorre, The Beast with Five Fingers!
It was Robert who first got Alan into show business — at just six months old. “I brought him onstage in his high chair in a revue we were doing at one of the Catskill resort hotels,” Robert Alda told the Los Angeles Times Syndicate. “This was in the ’30s when Major Bowes Amateur Hour was the hit of radio. Remember Bowes and the gong that he used to end a bad act?”
“Joey Adams and I were starring in this revue which we called ‘Schooldays’ — we wore knickers, the chorus girls were in short gingham dresses.” Little Alan was hooked on performing from the very start. “We put some things on Alan’s tray to play with in case he got bored, including a bell like a desk clerk uses. Alan didn’t need them. He seemed engrossed in the show… until the finale when Joey Adams had his big number.”
At this point, Alan got the spotlight for the very first time. “As Joey began to sing, he hadn’t sung eight bars when Alan began to bang that bell with all his might. The audience roared. It was like Major Bowes’ gong. It was the first laugh Alan ever got.”
Nearly 45 years later, father and son would make the world laugh again as they argued on M*A*S*H about buttoning coats and drinking scotch on the rocks.