For most of the ’70s, Alan Alda starred as Hawkeye, the chief surgeon on the beloved series, M*A*S*H. But he’s so much more than his classic character. Also a stage actor, filmmaker, author, and activist, Alda has made a career out of forming connections with others. At the age of 85, the six-time Emmy award winner is still performing and hosting his own podcast, among other pursuits. In 2015, Alda was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease (PD). And while he didn’t publicly reveal his diagnosis until three years later, he’s since talked openly about his experiences with the disease and how he keeps moving forward despite it. He also shared the early sign that led to his diagnosis and how it involved his wife of 64 years, Arlene Alda. To hear more about the actor’s history with Parkinson’s and how it’s affecting him today, read on.
Alda went to a doctor after he acted out one of his dreams in his sleep.
Six years ago, when Alda was 79, he read a New York Times (NYT) article by personal health columnist Jane E. Brody that explained that acting out dreams can be an early sign of Parkinson’s, a disease of the progressive nervous system that causes damage in the brain and impacts movement. It struck a chord with Alda, who remembered recently doing so.
“I had dreamed somebody was attacking me, and in the dream I threw a sack of potatoes at him,” he told AARP in May 2020. “In reality, I threw a pillow at my wife.” This encouraged Alda to go to a neurologist for a brain scan and to not take no for an answer.
“[The neurologist] examined me and said, ‘I don’t think you need a scan. You don’t have any symptoms,'” Alda explained to AARP. “I said, ‘Well, I’d really like the scan anyway.’ And he called me back and said, ‘Boy, you really got it.'”
REM sleep behavior disorder, which is the tendency to act out dreams while asleep, is one pre-diagnostic symptom of Parkinson’s. Melissa J. Nirenberg, MD, PhD, Parkinson’s specialist at New York University Medical Center told the NYT that “up to 80 percent of people with the sleep disorder get Parkinson’s or a similar neurodegenerative disease.” The Parkinson’s Foundation notes that trouble sleeping is a common symptom of Parkinson’s, along with tremors, difficulty walking, changes in handwriting, and loss of smell.
Alda immediately began fighting back.
Alda told AARP that he learned that movement could help prevent the worst symptoms of Parkinson’s from occurring, so he began exercising more right away.
“I move to music a lot,” he said. “I take boxing lessons from a guy trained in Parkinson’s therapy. I do a full workout specifically designed for this disease. It’s not the end of the world when you get this diagnosis.”
The Parkinson’s Foundation says that “exercise and physical activity can improve many PD symptoms.” They specifically recommend biking, running, and pilates.
He has said that he lives a “full life” with his disease.
When Alda publicly announced that he had Parkinson’s on CBS This Morning in July 2018, he said that he didn’t experience any other symptoms until a few months after his diagnosis. When promoting his podcast, Clear + Vivid, he began to notice a frequent twitch in his thumb, which encouraged him to speak out about his medical condition.
“I thought, ‘It’s probably only a matter of time before somebody does a story about this from a sad turn point of view,’ but that’s not where I am,” he said on the morning show.
Continuing to work while managing his Parkinson’s inspired him to open up, as well. “The reason I want to talk about it in public is that I was diagnosed three and a half years ago and I’ve had a full life since then,” he added.
Along with his interview podcast, which is about connection and communication, Alda stayed busy in other ways after his diagnosis. He said on CBS This Morning that he was still giving talks at the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science, which was established in 2009 at Stony Brook University and uses improvisational theater to help scientists, doctors, and other professionals communicate. In 2017, Alda published his third autobiography, If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face? My Adventures in the Art and Science of Relating and Communicating. And he’s also continued acting. He played recurring roles in the shows Ray Donovan and The Good Fight and also appeared as a gentle divorce lawyer in 2019’s Marriage Story.
While he has not let his disease keep him from working, Alda noted during the CBS This Morning interview that he was lucky not to be experiencing any intense Parkinson’s symptoms. “There are people who have really severe symptoms they have to face, and that’s difficult,” he explained. “It’s not so difficult to say, ‘Oh look I’ve got a little bit of a shake.'”
He let his tremor show in some of his roles.
Rather than hide his symptoms on camera, Alda has incorporated his Parkinson’s disease into some of his characters. When he was asked by a Wall Street Journal (WSJ) reporter why he let his tremor be seen in Marriage Story, Alda said that he left it up to the director, Noah Baumbach, to make the call.
“‘I have this tremor. You can handle it any way you want,'” Alda recalled telling Baumbach. “It’s not part of the script so I didn’t want it to be distracting if Noah thought it would be distracting.”
This wasn’t the actor’s first time letting his symptoms show on screen. Because of Alda’s condition, his Ray Donovan character, psychiatrist Dr. Arthur Aminot, was re-conceptualized to have Parkinson’s as well. The actor told the show’s creators that they could cut out his tremor if they wanted, just like he told Baumbach. They decided to do otherwise.
“They said it would be interesting if the character had Parkinson’s, so I said ‘OK,'” Alda told WSJ. “The way they wrote the character, his tremors are worse than mine, so I have to fake it a little bit.”
He hopes to “remove some of the stigma” around the disease.
Alda told WSJ that he’s not in “the business of pretending [he’s] not sick.” And he believes that being candid about his Parkinson’s can help others.
“One of the reasons I talk in public about it was it helped remove some of the stigma, because I know people who have recently been diagnosed who feel that their lives are over, and they’re shocked and dismayed,” he explained. “It’s a common reaction to get depressed, and it’s really not necessary. I mean, it can get really bad, but your life isn’t over. You don’t die from it, you die with it.”
Although there are many ways to manage Parkinson’s, depression and other mental health issues can come with the disease. The Parkinson’s Foundation explains that nearly “50 percent of those diagnosed with PD will experience some form of depression,” and that it can impact a person’s motivation, sleep, and energy levels. The organization notes that treatments can include, but are not limited to, “antidepressant medication, counseling, exercise, and social support.”