Book Review by MICHAEL ARRUDA
I recently started re-watching the TV series M*A*S*H on Netflix Streaming. I was never a faithful fan of this classic show during its eleven year run. I watched an episode here and there, but that was it.
Watching— and enjoying— M*A*S*H on Netflix got me in the mood to read one of Alan Alda’s memoirs, and I selected his first one, Never Have Your Dog Stuffed And Other Things I’ve Learned, written in 2005. He would follow this up with Things I Overheard While Talking to Myself in 2007. Both of these books became New York Times bestsellers.
In Never Have Your Dog Stuffed And Other Things I’ve Learned, Alda, who played Hawkeye on M*A*S*H, recounts his early years in great detail and spends considerable time on his upbringing, on times well spent with his actor dad, and on the difficult years with his schizophrenic mother. His childhood was a complicated one. Alda adored both parents, but because of his mother’s mental illness, the times spent with her were tumultuous. Needless to say, his childhood was more colorful than most. Indeed, the first line of the book reads “My mother didn’t try to stab my father until I was six.” Alda describes dark moments in his childhood, yet he never deviates from his sharp wit which makes these sad events easier to digest.
Growing up around the stage was a hoot for Alda. His father was a successful stage actor and bought young Alan Alda with him during the productions. Alda shares lots of fun stories from this period in his life, and they provide a nice slice of life of what it was like for a child to grow up around stage performers and comedians. Alda loved it and said early on, by the age of nine, he knew he wanted to become an actor. In contrast, the years spent with his schizophrenic mother were difficult and painful.
Alda’s road to becoming a successful actor is full of interesting stories and anecdotes, like the time he agreed to star in a movie filmed inside the Utah State Prison using real inmates as extras. Alda recalls the scary ordeal when two of the prisoners took him hostage in order to escape the prison. It turns out it was joke, as they were put up to do it by the film’s director, only Alda didn’t know it was a joke, nor did a prison guard, and for a brief time, things grew incredibly tense.
Alda would meet his future wife, Arlene, a clarinetist at the time, and now a photographer and children’s book author, while he was working in Paris. The two would be together throughout Alda’s career.
Alda almost said no to M*A*S*H. He loved the script from the beginning, but he hesitated because he lived with his wife and daughters in New Jersey, and to do a weekly series in Hollywood would mean either moving or an awfully long commute, but his wife Arlene encouraged him to go. In fact, Alda did commute, travelling back and forth from Hollywood to New Jersey during his years on M*A*S*H.
Alda also worried that the script might become too silly and make the war seem fun, which was something he didn’t want to do, but he decided to trust the producers and he signed on. The M*A*S*H years are glossed over quickly in the book, filling just one chapter.
The book goes on to tell poignant stories of how he dealt with the deaths of both his parents, probably the most emotional sections in the memoir. He also chronicles his year on the PBS science show SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN FRONTIERS, and he finishes with the harrowing tale where he nearly lost his life in Chile, South America when he had to have emergency intestinal surgery and nearly died.
Never Have Your Dog Stuffed And Other Things I’ve Learned is filled with neat moments and memorable lines. Early on, when writing about his dad working on the stage, Alda shared an insight into his dad’s philosophy that struck a chord for me and is relevant to those of us toiling in the entertainment industry. Whether we’re acting or writing, we want the same thing: for our work to be noticed. Or, as Alda wrote of his dad’s belief, “And if you could capture attention, that was an accomplishment. It was the accomplishment.”
I reflected on that thought for a time and realized that’s the key to an author’s success as well as an actor’s. We just want to capture people’s attention. We want our work to be noticed. That’s what it’s all about.
Alda shares a humorous story of when he was acting in a movie being shot on an island in the Bahamas. The director encouraged the actors to ad lib from the script to give the film a flavor of spontaneity. To keep in the mood, one night, Alda recalls how he and another actor were in a bar, with folks who didn’t understand English, and so they decided to improvise and put on an entire show in gibberish. It was a smashing success until they went too far and found themselves fleeing the bar for their safety. Sounds like a scene from M*A*S*H!
Alda describes what it was like to be nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his role in Martin Scorsese’s THE AVIATAR (2004). He writes how he was showered with gifts, things like a cell phone designed specifically for nominees, a watch designed specifically for nominees, and even a trip to China.
And the title of the memoir, Never Have Your Dog Stuffed, comes from a story told early on from Alda’s childhood where his beloved pet dog died, and because he was so sad, his parents decided to have it stuffed for him, but unfortunately, the taxidermist did a terrible job, and Alda’s loving pet came back looking like murderous rabid beast, and frightened everyone who looked at it.
Never Have Your Dog Stuffed And Other Things I’ve Learned By Alan Alda is a lighthearted witty look at both happy and dark moments in the life of a successful actor, writer, and entertainer, and like M*A*S*H, the iconic TV series Alda is famous for, it balances the light and dark with ease and makes for a captivating read.