Alan Alda is slipping into scrubs again -- this time for a five-episode turn on "ER" that he considers one of three "near-perfect times" of his professional life. The others: "M*A*S*H," of course, and the 1998 Broadway production of "Art," which returned him to his stage roots.
Starting tomorrow, Alda will play Dr. Lawrence, Kerry Weaver's medical-school mentor and a pioneer of ER medicine. However, Weaver hires him without consulting colleague Mark Greene, who is none too happy these days, anyway.
"I'm doing it because they're so good. When they called me up and asked me to work with them, they just told me a little bit about the character and a little bit about the story. I think the phone call took about five minutes, and I said yes without reading anything because they hadn't finished writing anything yet."
Asked if the writers left the door open for a return appearance, Alda laughed and said by phone, "They left it open a crack, but you'll have to see."
Although the medical drama has stayed atop the ratings, the hiring of Alda and Rebecca DeMornay -- who is romantically involved with Noah Wyle's character -- was designed to juice the show.
"They were the No. 1 show and somebody thought they needed to do better. I don't know how you do better than that. I think they've been working hard to keep it fresh and interesting and not fall into any kind of rut, but they amaze me. I have a lot of admiration for how they always find a surprising turn, a surprising place to go, and I think they're really, really able, those people."
The 63-year-old Alda played Capt. "Hawkeye" Pierce, a rule-breaking surgeon from Crabapple Cove, Maine, on "M*A*S*H" for 11 years. But medicine and TV production have changed a great deal since the Korean War, when the series was set, and 1983, when the show concluded its run.
"I'm saying terms and doing procedures that are unfamiliar to me. I never had to do them before on 'M*A*S*H' and, in addition to that, the world has changed and now the camera looks right down into the wound. We did all our stuff out of frame. ... It was only on cable shows for doctors that you used to see surgery the way it's done on an entertainment show now."
Sometimes, it's almost a little too convincing -- even for the actors on the set of Chicago's County General Hospital.
Alda was standing over a gurney, when the direction called for him to insert a chest tube. "And I think, well, I guess I have to fake that. How do I stick in it?" Alda wondered, staring at a bare, hairy chest.
"And they say, no, stick it right in there. Cut an opening with the scalpel and stick the tube in. It turns out it's not his chest; it's a prosthesis. I thought it was his real chest. I'm three feet from him, I cut a hole in it and stuck it in his chest, and it was just revolting."
The pace of shooting on "ER" is much different than that on "M*A*S*H," due in part to the use of hospital lights that double as set lights. As a stage-trained actor, Alda says, "The hardest thing for me about making movies, and that included 'M*A*S*H' because it was made like a movie, was starting and stopping."
Acting would be punctuated by 20 or 60 minutes of delay, while the lights or cameras were changed. The waiting is now kept to a minimum. "You get a running leap at it. Once you leave the ground, you stay in the air."
Although Alda knows that TV comedy has been pronounced dead more times than an ER patient -- only to have the genre spring back to life -- he has noticed some recent trends. And they're not good ones.
"The one thing I think I've noticed about shows that are supposed to be funny on television is that they've sort of become routinized, so there's an awful lot of mannerisms and joke lines that are sort of there to trigger laughter, rather than give actors a chance to play a moment." They serve up jokes, but not necessarily humor.
"There's a style of playing that's almost like a kabuki of comedy, and they make a ritualized gesture and that's supposed to be the funny part. I watch it with sort of amazement. It doesn't make me laugh ... I watch with sort of stupefaction sometimes."
Alda, who has been honored multiple times for his acting, directing and writing, doesn't plan to join the ever-widening field of celebrities running for president.
After noting the entertainment value of Rosie for president or a Regis and Kathie Lee ticket, he says, "Look, we already did this! We did this sketch, we had a sketch in which we had an actor who was president and he thought that the things he had acted were actually real. He told us wartime stories, and it turned out they were his wartime pictures.
"So I don't really understand actually going through it again, but I don't think anyone's serious about it. I think it's just, isn't it all talk?"
And the latest way to promote something, such as a book or movie.
Alda probably wouldn't have time to campaign, even if he were so inclined. After wrapping up his "ER" shoot, he's off to Paris, Nice and Cyprus for PBS's "Scientific American Frontiers." In the spring, he will portray free-spirited physicist Richard Feynman in the world premiere of a play at the Mark Tapor Forum in Los Angeles. And then there's the feature film he's writing and hopes to someday direct.
Doesn't exactly leave a lot of time for shaking hands. Or slicing chests.