February/March 2014 | view this story as a .pdf
Alan Alda was Mainer Hawkeye Pierce on M*A*S*H for 11 years. He was nominated for an Oscar playing Maine Senator Ralph Owen Brewster in The Aviator. What is it about Alda and Maine?
Interview by Diane Russell
Although from away–Alan Alda was born in New York–“I became a Mainer in 1957 when I played at the Kennebunkport Playhouse,” he says. “It was beautiful there. I was just married, and my wife and I were busy exploring all the nooks and crannies.”
But does he talk like a Mainer? “Do people from Maine speak with an accent? I don’t think so. If they have an accent, how come Meryl Streep never played anyone from Maine?”
While he’s played two characters from Maine, Hawkeye is pure fiction and Senator Brewster was an historical figure. Are there other differences?
“There’s a great similarity in that they’re both played by me and therefore bear a remarkable resemblance to one another. Otherwise, they’re as different as night and meatloaf,” says Alda, 69. “Pierce took no guff and Brewster took no prisoners.”
Oh, “and one of them was a lot older than the other.”
The real-life Sen. Brewster was governor of Maine for five years before entering Congress in 1935 and then the Senate in 1941. It was in the U.S. Senate that he launched a controversial investigation of Howard Hughes, an eccentric, reclusive millionaire. The investigation and Senator Brewster’s role in it are highlighted in The Aviator, the 2004 Martin Scorcese film starring Leonardo DiCaprio as Hughes.
“I saw film of Senator Brewster. He seemed like a really nice fellow,” says Alda. “I say that in case there are any relatives still around with access to a lawyer.”
Senator Brewster’s antithesis was fellow Republican Senator Margaret Chase Smith of Skowhegan, who spoke out against Senator Joseph McCarthy in her Declaration of Conscience in 1950.
“McCarthy, you know, was on Brewster’s committee when he held hearings in an attempt to destroy Hughes,” Alda says.
“Then, after he got popular, McCarthy tried to destroy Drew Pearson, the columnist who’d sided with Hughes. Politics is a great contact sport.”
With Hawkeye and Brewster in his repertoire, Alda believes Maine can transcend geography and become a state of mind. “Maine has the allure of the exotic–a place we’ve all been to in our dreams, where romance comes like a breath of spring after the hard winter of our daily lives,” says Alda. “It’s where all Americans long to be now that we’ve started hating France.”
Alda recently joined the cast of The West Wing as another–albeit fictional–Republican senator, Arnold Vinick. With a combined history of playing characters from Maine and Republican senators, does Alda have any plans to portray any other GOP Maine senators anytime soon?
“It’s funny, I’m planning a one-man show as Margaret Thatcher. But it’s not too late to change it to Margaret Chase Smith. I could use the same handbag.”
Postcript: This interview is a legend at Portland Magazine because it was written by an editorial intern on her first day. Today, Rep. Diane Russell, D-Portland, is serving her third term in the Maine House of Representatives. She serves on joint standing committees for Veteran and Legal Affairs and for Energy, Utilities, and Technology, and she’s known for her advocacy for the statewide legalization of marijuana.
Alan Alda has been seen most recently on the big screen in the Jennifer Anniston comedy Wanderlust (2012) and in episodes of The Big C and The Blacklist on TV.