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MASH Star Alan Alda Overcame Childhood Struggles, Now Battles Incurable Disease

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MASH Star Alan Alda Overcame Childhood Struggles, Now Battles Incurable Disease

Alan Alda is revered not only for his role as Hawkeye Pierce on the iconic TV series “MAS*H,” but also for his ability to triumph against adversity throughout his life.

With his role as the witty Dr. Benjamin Franklin “Hawkeye” Pierce on the long-running TV show, the now-86-year-old actor, director, and writer became a household name throughout the world.

Unfortunately, he now has to deal with Parkinson’s disease, and he has lately spoken out about some of the main difficulties associated with it.

The final episode of the military comedy and drama MAS*H, which aired from 1972 to 1983, is still one of the most-watched finales in television history.

The role of Alan Alda on the hit show earned him six Golden Globe Awards as Best Actor in a Television Series.

Even though he came from a famous family in the entertainment industry, the famous actor had a difficult and traumatic childhood.

Alan Alda

Alan, who was born in the Bronx in 1936, spent his early years on the road with his family as his father pursued a career as a burlesque performer. His mother, Joan Browne, was a beauty pageant winner and homemaker; his father, Robert Alda (born Alfonso Giuseppe Giovanni Roberto D’Abruzzo), was an actor and singer.

It was stated in Alan’s autobiography, “Never Have Your Dog Stuffed — and Other Things I’ve Learned,” that his father spent many nights away from home working and that his mother had mental health issues.

Many families were left to cope alone with mental illness since it was a taboo subject and there were few resources available in the 1940s and 1950s.

“How much easier it could have been for my father and me to face her illness together; to compare notes, to figure out strategies. Instead, each of us was on [our] own,” he wrote in his 2005 memoir.

As his father worked late, he and his mother would remain up together, and he remembered a terrifying event from when he was six years old.

Robert’s wife had already made up her mind that he had been cheating on her when he returned home. When Alan’s parents got into a disagreement, Alan’s mother became angry and tried to stab his dad in the back with a paring knife. Alan took the knife from his parents and slammed it into the table, bending the point before anyone was hurt.

When he brought it up to his parents a few weeks later, he admits they had no idea what he was talking about and his mother told him he was imagining things.

Polio is a crippling and perhaps fatal condition that was identified with Alan the next year.

“I got it when I was 7,” he said to AARP magazine. “I had a stuffy nose at Warner’s movie theater—honking the whole evening. I couldn’t clear my nose. When I got home, I threw up, and my legs were unsteady. The next day, I had a stiff neck. I couldn’t sit up in bed.”

Outstanding comeback

For six months, Alan endured agonizing therapy that included two weeks in the hospital and required wrapping his arms and legs in hot towels to boost blood flow and counteract the possible muscle weakening induced by the condition.

“I had nearly scalding blankets wrapped around my limbs every hour,” Alan recalled. “It was hard on me. It was harder, I think, on my parents, who couldn’t afford a nurse and had to torture me themselves. It’s always better to pay somebody to torture your kid.”

Thankfully, Alan responded well to treatment, and he has achieved a miraculous recovery, showing no symptoms of the condition at all.

Alan had a very nontraditional upbringing; he saw burlesque acts as a toddler and even had his theatrical debut at the tender age of one.

In his autobiography, he describes how he and his family frequently relocated so that his father could perform with a burlesque troupe, and how he and his mother would sit through risqué shows multiple times a day as a toddler.

As Alan revealed in his autobiography, when he was only two years old, his father posed him smoking a tobacco pipe for a newspaper in order to promote the burlesque club where he worked.

“A photographer from the Toronto Daily Star came backstage, and my father got the idea that if he posed me in a way that made me look as if I were smoking a pipe, the paper would be sure to print the picture and the burlesque company would get some unusual publicity. They dressed me up in my woolen suit and posed me gravely holding a pipe with tobacco in it,” he wrote.

Alan had a tumultuous upbringing but managed to succeed academically, go to Fordham University in the Bronx, New York City, and study English before joining an improv comedy company where he refined his performing talents and comedic timing.

In 1959, with the Broadway production of “Only in America,” he launched his career.

Marriage to Arelene

A few years later, in 1963’s “Gone Are the Days,” a film adaptation of the stage drama “Purlie Victorious,” in which he had also acted, he made his film debut. He continued to make appearances on Broadway and in films until he was cast as Hawkeye Pierce in “M*A*S*H.”

He has since been on shows like “The West Wing” and “30 Rock” in reoccurring roles. His acting in Same Time, Next Year and his directing debut, The Four Seasons, both garnered positive reviews. Alan received an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor in 2004 for his performance in The Aviator.

In 1957, he married musician, photographer, and writer Arlene Wiess, and their private lives flourished as well. They have been married for 65 years and are still very much in love with each other.

Alan found the lady he would spend the rest of his life with, and he knew it the moment he laid eyes on her.

The rum cake incident

It was at a party in Manhattan that the two met for the first time; this was long before Alan became renowned as the legendary Hawkeye.

Attending Hunter College in New York City, Arelene left quite an effect on Alan, especially when she played some Mozart on the clarinet at a party.

A mutual friend set up their second encounter a few weeks later at a restaurant. Alan and Arelene, who were seated across from each other, seemed to be enjoying themselves. A rum cake that had been sitting on top of the refrigerator suddenly tumbled to the ground. Bang!

As the fridge shook, its contents spilled out in front of Alan and Arelene. They were the only ones to take a piece of the cake, and they did it by sitting on the floor and eating it. After all that excitement, they realized they were a good fit for one another.

They were able to joke around with one another and have a good time.

“My wife says the secret of a long marriage is a short memory,” Alan told Closer Weekly at the New York Film Festival premiere of Marriage Story, adding that it “seems to work!”

“I don’t think we spoil each other, we just love each other,” he added. “Without her, I wouldn’t do an awful lot because every time I’m leaving the house to do some work, she says, ‘You’re going to be great.’ And I say the same thing to her. She’s a writer and a photographer, busy all the time, and I’m very proud of her.”

Arlene, however, gave up a promising music career so that she could devote more time to her spouse; she has been a rock for Alan ever since he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2015.

Alan Alda children

The couple has three daughters: Elizabeth is a special education teacher, Beatrice is a director, and Beatrice and Elizabeth share a common background as former performers.

“Elizabeth decided she didn’t really care for acting. She became a teacher of the deaf and a special education teacher in general,” Alan told Closer Weekly.

Eve, Alan’s eldest daughter, chose to avoid the limelight. Eve, whose Facebook page reveals her to be a psychologist with a current address in Winchester, MA, attended Connecticut College. Her biography mentions that she attended the Simmons College of Social Work in Boston.

Alan reveals he had the most fun making the 1981 movie The Four Seasons “because I wrote it and directed it, two of my daughters were in it [and] my wife photographed it.”

Parkinson’s disease

Parkinson’s disease is a degenerative brain ailment, and in 2015 it was confirmed that Alan Alda suffered from it. It all started with an article he read in The New York Times in which doctors discussed some unusual Parkinson’s symptoms they had seen in their patients.

Doctors observed that their patients frequently enacted bodily scenes from their dreams while still asleep. REM sleep behavior disorder is another name for this problem. Alan realized what was happening and made plans to see a doctor for a brain scan.

”I had dreamed somebody was attacking me, and in the dream I threw a sack of potatoes at him. In reality, I threw a pillow at my wife. So, believing there was a good chance I had Parkinson’s,” he told AARP Magazine in 2020.

But the doctor was unsure that Alan actually had the illness. After hearing the list of symptoms, he was skeptical that the Oscar-winning actor actually suffered from Parkinson’s disease.

Nevertheless, bad news arrived after a few scans.

”He called me back and said, ‘Boy, you really got it,” the actor recalled.

Nonetheless, Alan decided soon after his diagnosis that he would not let his illness control him. Initially, he preferred not to be the focus of a “sad” tale and instead share the news in his own words.

“I’ve had a full life since then,” he said.

After his diagnosis, he has noticed some little twitching but has instead taken up boxing as a kind of therapy.

“I’m taking boxing lessons three times a week. I do singles tennis a couple of times a week. I march to Sousa music because marching to music is good for Parkinson’s,” he said.

The adored actor claimed in 2020 that it would be pointless to have any sort of hope or pessimism about the future.

”You’ve just got to surf uncertainty, because it’s all we get,” he explained to AARP.

”The silver lining is that I keep getting more confident that I can always find a workaround,” he later told People. ”I’m more convinced than ever that life is adapting, adjusting, and revising.”

Since realizing he has Parkinson’s, Alan has been making every effort to halt its development. Aside from his own podcast, “Clear+Vivid with Alan Alda,” he keeps busy by working out, playing chess with his wife, and walking their dog. Yet, the condition is having an effect on him and making normal living difficult for him.

The biggest challenge

”Tying shoelaces can be a challenge with stiff fingers. Think of playing the violin while wearing mittens,” he told People.

In spite of popular belief, Alda says that a Parkinson’s diagnosis is not a death sentence. Patients with Parkinson’s rarely pass away as a direct result of the disease.

”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,” he told Wall Street Journal.

This inspiring star has managed to juggle fatherhood, a severe sickness, a happy marriage, and a successful career in Hollywood.

Please share this story with all the Alan Alda fans you know.

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