Alan Alda became one of America's most recognized and beloved actors as the wisecracking surgeon, Hawkeye Pierce, on the hit television series M*A*S*H*. And since that iconic role some 30 years ago, Alda has continued to win fans and critical praise in roles on stage and screen.
Now, Alda is stepping out of character and sharing stories of his private life in a new memoir, "Never Have Your Dog Stuffed." It's a strange title for a book, but Alda says it captures one of the key lessons he's learned in his life. Don't get stuck in the past. Keep moving forward. And that's exactly what he's been doing.
The 69-year-old earned a sort of triple crown of acting nominations this past year, garnering an Oscar nomination for "The Aviator," an Emmy nomination for "The West Wing" and a Tony nomination for his role in the David Mamet's play "Glengarry Glen Ross."
For Alda, the accolades are thrilling. It's more than an affirmation of his skills. "It's better than that. It's -- I really mean this -- it's encouragement. It means I'm making progress. That's what it meant to me," he told "20/20's" Martin Bashir.
But in his most recent endeavor, Alda isn't acting. He has written a riveting, candid -- and witty -- account of his career, his marriage and his surprisingly sorrowful childhood.
As a kid, Alda's life was all about the theater. His father, Robert Alda, was an actor, working in vaudeville and burlesque.
And his childhood memories of life backstage are quite colorful. "My earliest memories are standing in the wings watching my father singing while the chorus girls danced half-naked. And then the chorus girls would take me up to their dressing rooms and they sort of made me their mascot," he said.
He even recalls some intimate dressing room scenes with the dancing girls. "They'd say okay, Allie, we're going to, we're going to change our clothes now, turn your back. You know, and I'd turn my back, and I'd stand with my face in--right in the silk costumes that they had worn. And I could smell the perfume and the sweat and I can hear them changing their clothes behind me. And I'm 2-and-a-half, 3-years-old. And you might think this doesn't make an impression on a kid that age. It does. It does. It doesn't go over your head," he said.
Alda acknowledges a dancing girls' dressing room isn't the most appropriate place for a young boy, but explained, "My parents came from a time and from families that didn't look under the surface too much."
But Alan's life would take a much darker turn when he was 7 years old. He was diagnosed with polio and the treatment was excruciating. "My parents had to wrap these scorchingly hot blankets around me and hear me scream and beat the bed with my fists," he said. Because of painful physical therapy he received as part of his treatment, he said he still associates massages with pain. "I know everybody thinks that they're great but I think it's some kind of torture," he said.
Unlike many others at the time, Alda survived the polio without lasting effects. But it was another disease that would leave an indelible impression on Alan Alda's life -- his mother was a paranoid schizophrenic.
"She thought people were trying to kill her. She thought I was trying to kill her. She thought I was trying to kill her very often," Alda said.