Alan Alda, ‘MAS*H’ Star, Triumphs Over Childhood Challenges, Faces Battle with Parkinson’s

Alan Alda is like a Hollywood treasure because of his role as Hawkeye Pierce on the famous TV show “MAS*H.” People love him for not just his acting but also for overcoming tough times when he was a kid to become successful.

This actor, director, and writer, who is now 86 years old, became famous worldwide for playing the clever doctor named Benjamin Franklin “Hawkeye” Pierce in the TV show.

But now, it’s sad news that he’s facing a health challenge called Parkinson’s disease. Recently, he talked about the big difficulties that come with dealing with this condition.

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The TV show “MAS*H,” a mix of wartime comedy and drama that aired from 1972 to 1983, is super popular in the U.S. It’s considered one of the best shows ever, and the last episode is one of the most-watched finales in TV history.

Alan Alda, who was part of the show, won the Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Television Series six times. Even though he came from a family in the entertainment industry, his childhood was tough. It was full of changes, challenges, and difficult experiences that started when he was very young.

Alan was born in the Bronx in 1936. When he was a kid, his parents traveled all over the United States because his dad, Robert Alda, was an actor and singer who performed in burlesque theaters. His mom, Joan Browne, took care of the family and had previously won beauty pageants.

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In his book called “Never Have Your Dog Stuffed — and Other Things I’ve Learned,” Alan shared some personal stuff. He talked about how his dad often worked late, and his mom had a hard time with her feelings. This was in the 1940s and 1950s, and back then, talking about mental health problems was not common, and there weren’t many ways to get help. So, families like Alan’s had to handle it on their own.

Alan wished they could have faced his mom’s illness together, figuring out how to deal with it as a team. But, instead, each person in the family had to handle it alone, he wrote in his book in 2005.

He remembered a tough moment from his childhood when he was just six. He stayed up with his mom while his dad was working late. When his dad got home, his mom accused him of being with another woman. The argument got really bad, and Alan’s mom tried to hurt his dad with a knife. Thankfully, Alan stepped in, took the knife, and stuck it into the table to stop anyone from getting hurt.

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Later, when Alan talked to his parents about the incident with the knife, they said they didn’t know what he was talking about, and his mom even said he had just imagined it.

The next year, when he was 7 years old, Alan got diagnosed with Polio. It’s a serious illness that can make you really sick and affect your ability to move.

He explained to AARP magazine, “I got it when I was 7. 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.”

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After spending two weeks in the hospital, Alan had to go through six months of tough therapy. In this therapy, they wrapped his arms and legs with hot towels to improve the blood flow and fight against the muscle weakness caused by Polio.

“I had really hot blankets around my arms and legs every hour,” Alan remembered. “It was tough for me. And it was even harder for my parents because they couldn’t afford to hire someone to help and had to do the tough treatment themselves. It’s always better to pay somebody to do the tough stuff to your kid.”

Luckily, the treatment worked, and Alan recovered amazingly well. You couldn’t tell he had ever had the disease.

Besides dealing with many tough things, Alan had a unique childhood. He started watching burlesque shows when he was really young, and he even made his first stage appearance as a baby.

Alan Alda and Meryl Streep in New York City, 1979 / Getty Images)

In his memoir, Alan talks about how he traveled a lot with his parents when he was little. His dad sang with a burlesque group, and Alan, as a toddler, would sometimes watch their risqué shows up to five times a day.

When he was just two, his dad wanted some publicity for the burlesque club. So, a photographer took a picture of Alan pretending to smoke a pipe, hoping the newspaper would print it for attention. Alan wore his woolen suit and looked serious holding a pipe with tobacco in it.

Even though Alan had a chaotic childhood and survived a serious illness, he did really well in school. He studied English at Fordham University in New York City. He joined a comedy group where he practiced making people laugh and sharpened his performance skills.

His official career began in 1959 when he made his first appearance on Broadway in a show called “Only in America.”

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A few years later, in 1963, Alan made his first appearance in a movie called “Gone Are the Days.” It was a film version of a play called “Purlie Victorious,” in which he had also acted. Before becoming famous as Hawkeye Pierce in “MAS*H,” he performed in many Broadway shows and movies.

After “MAS*H,” he continued to work in TV with roles in shows like “The West Wing” and “30 Rock.” People praised him for his acting in movies like “Same Time, Next Year,” and he also directed his first film, “The Four Seasons.” In 2004, Alan got nominated for an Academy Award for his great performance in “The Aviator.”

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Behind the scenes, his personal life was also a triumph; he married musician, photographer, and writer Arlene Wiess in 1957. And 65 years later, they are still happily married.

Alan met the woman of his dreams, and when he first met her, the actor knew that she was the woman he would spend the rest of his life with.

The couple first laid eye on each other at a party in Manhattan – long before Alan would become widely known as the iconic Hawkeye.

Arelene was studying at New York City’s Hunter College and made quite an impression on Alan, especially when she picked up the clarinet at the party and started playing Mozart.

They met again a couple of weeks later when a mutual friend invited them for dinner. Alan and Arelene were sitting opposite each other and were having a good time. But all of a sudden, a rum cake placed on the top of the fridge fell on the floor. Bang!

Due to the refrigerator shaking, it landed in front of Alan and Arelene. They were the only ones who decided to grab a bite of the cake, eating it from the floor. After that drama, they knew that they matched.

They shared the same humor and could laugh together – and at each other.

“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!”

Alan shared, “We don’t spoil each other, we just love each other. Without her, I wouldn’t do a lot because every time I leave the house for work, she says, ‘You’re going to be great.’ And I say the same to her. She’s a writer and a photographer, always busy, and I’m really proud of her.”

Arlene, Alan’s wife, made a sacrifice by giving up her music career to have more time for their marriage. She’s been incredibly supportive, especially since Alan was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2015. She’s always there for him.

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The couple has three daughters; Elizabeth and Beatrice, both started as actresses, but over time, their careers have followed different paths with Elizabeth becoming a special education teacher and Beatrice becoming a director.

“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.

Alan Alda, wife Arlene and daughters circa 1981 in New York City / Getty Images

Alan’s oldest daughter, Eve, chose to stay away from the public eye. She studied psychology at Connecticut College and currently lives in Winchester, Massachusetts. Her Facebook page also mentions that she studied at the Simmons School of Social Work in Boston.

In 1981, Alan had a lot of fun making the movie “The Four Seasons.” He wrote it, directed it, and even had two of his daughters in it. His wife also took photographs for the movie.

In 2015, Alan found out he had Parkinson’s disease, which is a disorder that affects the nervous system. It all started when he read an article in The New York Times about some unusual symptoms in Parkinson’s patients. These symptoms involved acting out dreams physically while still asleep, known as REM sleep behavior disorder. Alan recognized these symptoms and decided to see a neurologist 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 shared with AARP Magazine in 2020.


When Alan went to the doctor, the doctor wasn’t certain if he had Parkinson’s. The symptoms seemed unclear, and there wasn’t enough evidence to say for sure.

After some scans, the news was not good. The doctor called Alan back and said, “Boy, you really got it,” confirming that he had Parkinson’s.

Even though it was tough news, as soon as Alan knew about it, he decided not to let the disease control his life. His first step was to share the news himself, instead of having others tell a “sad” story about him.

Alan Alda attends the SAG-AFTRA Foundation conversations: Alan Alda Career Retrospective at The Robin Williams Center on November 19, 2019 in New York City. (Photo by Dominik Bindl/Getty Images)

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

Since he was diagnosed, he said he’d notice a few twitches here and there but had taken up boxing.

“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.


In 2020, Alan Alda, the beloved actor, shared his perspective on optimism and pessimism. He said there’s no use in being either optimistic or pessimistic about things.

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

“The good part is that I keep getting more confident that I can always find a way around problems,” he later shared with People. “I’m more convinced than ever that life is about adapting, adjusting, and revising.”

To slow down the progress of his Parkinson’s, Alan stays active. He exercises, plays chess with his wife, and even has his own podcast called “Clear+Vivid with Alan Alda.” However, the disease does bring challenges to his everyday life.

“Tying shoelaces can be tricky with stiff fingers. It’s like playing the violin while wearing mittens,” he explained to People.

Many people might think that a Parkinson’s diagnosis means the end, but Alan says that’s far from true. Parkinson’s doesn’t directly cause death.

“It’s common for people to feel down, but it’s not necessary. Yes, it can be tough, but your life isn’t over. You don’t die from it; you live with it,” he shared with Wall Street Journal.

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Balancing being a dad, dealing with a tough disease, keeping a happy marriage, and having a career in Hollywood is no simple task. But this inspiring star has handled it all.

Please pass on this story to all the ‘MAS*H’ fans you know.