Adherents.com Home Page

< Return to Adherents.com's Guide to Movies
< Return to Famous Catholics

The Religious Affiliation of Actor
Alan Alda


Robert Alda is the father of Alan Alda. Although Alan Alda (famous for his role as "Hawkeye Pierce" on the acclaimed TV series M*A*S*H would become more famous than his father, Robert Alda had a long and distinguished TV and film acting career himself.

Alan Alda grew up as the only son of a successful television and film actor, and he was exposed to the theatrical world from an early age. Both of Alan Alda's parents were devout Catholics, and he was raised as such. Although he later lapsed into inactivity, Alan Alda was a devout Catholic churchgoer throughout childhood and into early adulthood, including at the time he married his wife, Arlene Weiss, to whom he has been married up until the present time.

After Alan Alda lapsed from activity in the Catholic Church, he became a zealous feminist and women's rights advocate. He frequently identifies himself as a feminist and supports feminist causes. Feminism could easily be said to be the religion he has been most active in throughout most of his adult life.

From: Raymond Strait, Alan Alda: A Biography, St. Martin's Press: New York, NY (1983), page 9:

[1929] The handsome young [Robert] Alda was undaunted by national gloom or unstable economic news. He pursued his newfound [stage acting and comedy] career with great diligence and determination, taking whatever problems he and his wife might have to mass on Sunday mornings and leaving them there. Like his parents, he was a devout Catholic with deep religious convictions.

The birth of Alan Alda, to Joan and Robert Alda, who were devout Catholics, from: Strait, pages 10-11:

On January 28, 1936... Joan Alda went into labor. After many hours, an exhausted Joan Alda finally gave birth to a son (their only child), who was given the shortened name of Alan (from Alfonso) and immediately became known to one and all as "Allie," a name that sticks with him even today.

Barely twenty-one years old himself, [Robert] Alda had very little to offer his new son [Alan Alda] other than love and a roof over his head. He continued to work in the Catskills and around New York City, but nothing sensational was happening, although he never missed a chance to better himself. He wanted more than burlesque. During the summertime when work was slow, he would play in stock--which was becoming more important on the Borscht Circuit. Looking toward Broadway, he talked with agents and pitched his best side... In 1937, he [Robert Alda] had the distinction of being one of the first performers on television.

Strait, page 28:

Catholic schools can be and often are harsh in their approach to teaching. Youngsters are supposed to attend mass daily, have great respect for God, and show tremendous humility and awe for their instructors; as for young men, they are expected to be macho in the sense that tears are a sign of weakness and not participating in athletics is akin to ungodliness. That is more or less official position--or certainly was during Alan's school years. In the locker room and boys' toilets it was even worse. All that pent-up religious atmosphere came apart and weak or lame fared poorly. Older, bigger, and stronger boys went through the pecking order. Alan, never a fighter, endured the indignities perpetrated upon him. His school days at Saint Robert Bellarmine are not among his fondest memories.

Nonetheless, he did make friends--always of his own choosing--and was very popular in spite of his difficulties.

Strait, page 37:

[1950] With the renewal of [Robert Alda's] "celebrity status," he could now afford to live wherever he pleased. But it was because of fan adulation [which he was never crazy about] that he decided it would be easier for him to commute than for his family to be subjected to the daily rigors of Manhattan and fame. He and Joan found a house in Elmsford in Westchester County and a good Catholic school for Alan. Bishop Stepinac High School in White Plains was not coed, so Alan was back in the structured parochial atmosphere that he had so intensely disliked in the San Fernando Valley. He complained very little about his school to his parents, because he did not want to hurt his devout mother.

However, at school, Alan's tendency to speak his mind kept him in hot water with school authorities. Some have said he was quite witty and unappreciated by the hierarchy of the institution. Others saw him as a smart-mouthed brat.

Strait, page 41:

The move to New York also apparently created a strain in the relationship between Bob [Robert Alda] and his adored Joan, which in turn filtered down to the very sheltered young Alan who, throughout his life, had always been protected by the security of a solid family situation. One might wonder if at that age and time in his life he was able to cope with the disintegration that was gradually taking place in his life. Although his parents, especially Joan, avoided any hint of dissension within the family, it seems reasonably certain that a young man with Alan's inherent sensitivities would have been aware that all was not harmony. It must have been difficult for him, brought up in the Catholic faith that marriage lasts forever, to face the possibility that his parents could ever go separate ways. Surely, when the actual split came, Alan was the biggest loser in divorce court. His own marriage patterns seem to prove his intent not to repeat the mistakes of his mother and father--or maybe just his father.

Strait, pages 52-55:

[Alan Alda's] final years in college... the conductor of a symphony orchestra... invited him to come to his home in New York where he conducted chamber music concerts... At the concert he was to meet a young lady who would change the course of his future. Arlene Weiss was a no-nonsense girl whose dreams were of a career in classical music...

Arlene Weiss, three years Alan's senior, was not only firm in her convictions and beliefs, but well-primed for life, with a solid academic and cultural background. When they met, she had just returned from a Fulbright year at Cologne Conservatory of Music in West Germany... Alan may have sensed a second mother figure in Arlene. She did, after all, come from a strong Jewish background just as family-oriented as his [Alan Alda's] own had been.

[page 54] ...they knew that they would marry eventually.

Alan, a devout Catholic, never thought of leaving his faith to marry. It would have been an unconscionable act at that time and the final slap in the face of his mother, who was always important to him even though he spent more and more time with his father and Flora [Alan's father's new wife]. He [Alan] did everything he could to make his mother feel loved and needed. It was a difficult tightrope for him to walk.

Arlene understood the importance of a church wedding to Alan and did not haggle. She took instructions in the Catholic faith to accommodate him and to get their impending marriage off on the right foot. In those salad days, Alan was a devout churchgoer, embracing all the canons and sacraments of the Church.

When Alan's Italian traditions came into play, nowhere could he have found a more complementary partner than Arlene Weiss. By custom, Old World mores prevailed in the beginning of their union. Alan considered himself the breadwinner both in fact and artistically. Arlene would simply have to forget symphony orchestras and learn to play household music. Arlene, following the centuries of Jewish role-models before her, acquiesced to her husband's desires and to all practical career purposes, she put away her clarinet. In its place she took up cookery and housekeeping. All the dedication and devotion she had shown toward music now went into making this traditional marriage a happy one. Theirs might as well have been a marriage arranged in the old country.

Alan's dedication to faith has changed definition over the years. At the time of his marriage to Arlene Weiss, he based his religious commitment on faith. Not so very long ago, with hindsight vision, he said, "I've made so many moral commitments, I believe, because I was a guilty Catholic."

...Even now, as Alan expresses regret over Arlene's subjugation to his career during those early days, she has never publicly voiced any misgivings about her choice. Alan says they have talked about it quite a bit, but she has been somewhat the Sphinx in her opinions on that subject.

Strait, page 59:

It was during their years in Cleveland that Alan apparently abandoned the Catholicism he had so long embraced and from whose roots he had evolved. Whether Arlene's questioning her own Judaism influenced him away from the Church is difficult to determine, but something motivated his rejection. He has said, "After our first baby came [late 1950s], I abandoned the formalities of the Catholic church. Although I had practiced my religion meticulously as I had been taught from infancy to do, I found that I now had questions that couldn't be answered by the Church and could no longer accept concepts that I had always taken for granted simply because I was told to do so.

Perhaps, but although his daughters have since been brought up in a loosely associated "free thought" style of religion, the family nevertheless celebrates religious holidays--both Catholic and Jewish. In spite of Alda's unanswered theological questions, his children have had a religious upbringing that embodied both the Judeo and Christian ethics.

Strait, pages 61-62:

"Although we didn't discuss it at the time, we both just assumed that our relationship would be based on tradition as we knew it from our families." Both Jewish and Italian families were steeped in tradition, so the guidelines were there to help Alan and Arlene along the path toward marital stability. But tradition often proved to be a handicap. Arlene once said, "We knew more about our families and their traditions than we did about each other." It was assumed that she would play the role of nice Jewish mother and wife, filled with love for husband, children, and home, whereas Alan was expected to be the breadwinner who would staunchly march forward to protect the family hearth while providing adequate nourishment at the table and a roof over the family's abode.

Strait, pages 246-248:

"I used to be a Catholic," Alan told Ms. magazine. He left the Church, he says, "because I object to conversion by concussion. If you don't agree with what they teach, you get clobbered over the head until you do. All that does is change the shape of the head."

He doesn't like the way the Church handles its house, but admits if anyone tried to change the way he runs his own they would be run out...

His marriage is based on friendship. Sex, he says, doesn't break up marriages. A man can fall in love with someone besides his wife, Alan argues, but if he continues to consider his mate's feelings, friendship will see the marriage through. Sex in the marriage bed, he contends, is the same as it is anyplace else. We are all the same in bed," he contends...

If Alan [Alda] is not a man who is committed to any one religion, he presents a person with deep religious convictions. Addressing the Entertainment Industries Division of the National Conference of Christians and Jews, where he was awarded their eighteenth annual Humanitarian Award in 1981, he told the crowded assemblage of industry and civic leaders who had paid $175 a plate to honor him, "My wife is Jewish, and I was raised a Catholic. Our whole marriage has been a conference of Christians and Jews." His future mother-in-law had been horribly persecuted, along with her family in Russia, by the Christian Cossacks. "Now a Christian wanted to marry her daughter. I don't know what she felt. I know what I felt from her. I felt . . . warmth. She loved me openly and freely . . . I feel very grateful for the acceptance I received from her, for her letting me come into her life."

Strait, page 24:

Alan also recalls that "My mother was very very warm, very affectionate." It was during those months while Joan unselfishly devoted her every waking hour to Allie [Alan Alda, stricken with polio] that the seeds of feminism took root in his fertile young mind. He says, "I didn't become a feminist because it was 'this year's cause.' I became one because of the incredible waste of half the talent in the world. The chauvinistic treatment by men in the medical profession of Sister Kenny [the nurse who took care of him for so long during his childhood] showed me that sexism was not merely impolite--it could be lethal."

Strait, pages 99-100:

Chauvinistic, macho, or feminist--it is difficult to label Alda. He is like a crawfish. Just when you think you have him in your hands, with one quick swoosh he is gone. He has practiced elusiveness with the tenacity of Howard Hughes...

During all those years in the sixties, when he was making one bomb after another in Hollywood, he kept his wife and children completely away from the glittering life of a Hollywood celebrity. Alone and loose in a town where beautiful girls abound and more than outnumber males, his opportunities to womanize were abundant. Yet there was never the slightest hint that Alan partook or was even tempted. Outside his family, his pursuits always seemed to be toward his work. That is a traditional and admirable trait in a man--one not often found in famous people and certainly not among today's celebrities, for whom bed-hopping is as popular as reading the daily Hollywood trade journals.

Strait, pages 108-111:

On February 4, 1972, The New CBS Friday Night Movies did something quite different from what had ever been done before on television. With the full cooperation of the Utah Department of Corrections they had shot a feature-length film on location at the Utah State Prison, The Glass House, based on Truman Capote's scathing attack on the American system of prisons and their treatment of their charges. The lucky stars of this unusually frank and dynamic film were Vie Morrow, Billy Dee Williams, [devout Latter-day Saint actor] Dean Jagger, and Alan Alda. Dean Jagger did not need any boost to his long career, but Morrow, Williams, and Alda owe much to their appearance in The Glass House.

The film, several years before our youngsters were shocked into reality by Scared Straight, let the American television viewer see what prisons are really like--the brutal killings, beatings by guards, snitches, interracial friction, and homosexuality. It was a rare view from the comfortable living rooms across the country. Alan played Jonathan Paige, an otherwise solid citizen who is convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to prison. What we really see is the "modern" prison through the eyes of this

good citizen, who is trapped by our archaic methods of dealing with the products of a society who find themselves behind locked gates and bars of a state penitentiary.

It would prove to be Alan's greatest moment on film and would guarantee him the instant recognition all around the country that he had been unable to secure previously, in spite of much critical acclaim on Broadway. The Glass House had its share of production problems, not the least of which was in the writing of the teleplay. The producers. Bob Christiansen and Rick Rosenberg, along with director Tom Gries, had originally signed Truman Capote to write the screenplay from his own story. Problems quickly ensued. Capote was replaced by a young screenwriter at the last minute. The assignment was turned over to Tracy Keenan Wynn (great-grandson of matinee idol Frank Keenan, grandson of famed comedian Ed Wynn, and the son of Hollywood stalwart Keenan Wynn), who had recently won an Emmy for his first screenplay, Tribes.

Wynn took one look at Capote's screenplay and tossed it in the wastebasket. "I didn't think Capote's screenplay was a good one, so I started right from scratch," he said. "I finished a new first draft in less than two weeks." His final script was completed on location at the Utah State Prison in Salt Lake City while Gries was already shooting the film.

Wynn and Alda had great rapport. Both were concerned about social issues and both wanted an iron curtain drawn between their private and public lives. Wynn remembers that the convicts confined to the Utah State Prison were of immense help in writing the script. "I had as a technical director an ex-con who spent twelve years in San Quentin for murder. I also circulated about the prison talking with the convicts, often right in their cells, the coffee room, and wherever I might run into them." He circulated the completed script among the three hundred or so inmates who were interested in reading it for accuracy.

"Many of them came in with comments and criticisms," Wynn says, "which was of tremendous help in creating the realism we were interested in putting on the screen."

At night, back in their hotel, Wynn discussed his day's writing with the actors, who were always in conversation with the prisoners, trying to emulate on the screen the lives of men they hoped never to duplicate away from the cameras.

Alan considered Utah State Prison one of the more liberal penal institutions in the country but found it depressing to see institutional confinement firsthand. He was appalled that the state's charges were given no opportunity to learn a meaningful trade and that there was no therapy available for them. "Their so-called rehabilitation program is useless and they're desperate for help." He would like to have seen the average American citizen spend some time there so that people on the outside would see how their money was being wasted on ineffective programs.

Wynn said, "By the time we finished up there, I'd lost my sense of humor."

Alda was storing away data in his mental files of social injustice. He was very much in agreement with Tracy Wynn, who wrote that "The Glass House is as much a documentary as it is fabricated drama. . . . Paradoxically, both the inmates and the guards must deal with the same issues simultaneously, since inside the walls of a prison everyone is equally a prisoner."

Many television executives frowned on such bare-knuckled prison life being brought into America's living rooms, which had been for so long saturated with inane sit-coms, but did not move to overly censor what had been shot at the prison before it reached the television screen.

If Alan had immediate rapport with Wynn, that was not always the case in his relationship with the director, Tom Gries, whose practical jokes were sometimes aimed at his star. Alda's discomfiture was evidenced by the coldness between the two men. Professionals, however, they brought off the production to perfection.

During the filming of The Glass House, Alan's agent sent him a script that would eventually change his life dramatically and bring a welcome relief to a public starving for comedy that did not insult the viewer's intelligence. Larry Gelbart and Gene Reynolds were preparing a new series pilot for Twentieth Century-Fox Films television division, a comedy about surgeons in the Korean War. "M*A*S*H," the projected series, would be based on the highly successful motion picture of the same name, which had starred Donald Sutherland as Hawkeye Pierce (the role being offered Alda in the series).

Alan Alda offered his opinions on the death penalty and the execution of Gary Gilmore, who was executed in Utah for having murdered two Latter-day Saint men. (Gilmore himself had an LDS mother, but was not raised in an active LDS home). Alda expressed strong opposition to the death penalty. Interestingly, enough, one person who disagreed with Alda's opinion was Gilmore himself, who had strenuously lobbied for his right to be executed for his crimes. Strait, pages 184-185:

You won't find Alan Alda's name on any of [Chicago Tribune TV-radio critic Gary] Deeb's obnoxious lists. He refers to Alan as "a rare performer who truly cares about the world he lives in, who can articulate his feelings with compassion and humility, and who generates absolutely no pretension."

That was just the lead-in to a rave critique of alan's performance in the role of Caryl Chessman, a California rapist who was executed in the San Quentin gas chamber after a record twelve years on death row. The movie made for television, Kill Me if You Can, brought praise for Alan equal to that he received for his brilliant performance in Truman Capote's The Glass House [which was filmed in Utah].

During his interview with Deeb, Alan covered as many topics as possible. Opposed to the death penalty, Alan expressed his anguish over the Utah execution of Gary Gilmore by firing squad the day before. "Our society," he said, "through capital punishment is encouraging more people to murder." He theorized that the state was actually telling people it is okay to "snuff" a person out if you hate them enough. The only good thing about the death penalty, he said, is the feeling of revenge we get once the deed is done. "Capital punishment isn't a deterrent to crime," he declared, "but actually an inducement to murder."

Strait, page 226:

Where has Alan [Alda] scored and erred?

When he made the television movie The Glass House, he accepted a role that was antiestablishment. The script was designed to show that criminals were unfairly treated. Their victims were not considered. In the Caryl Chessman story, Kill Me if You Can, his role emphasized cruel and inhuman punishment because the state allowed Chessman to remain on death row for twelve years while he extended his date of execution through the appeals system. Those responsible for protecting society from the criminal element felt that Chessman, whose brutal rape of one young girl put her into a mental institution, had been treated fairly--and even given preferential treatment, with little focus on the victims of his crimes.

Alda was reported to have "anguished" over the execution of Gary Gilmore by firing squad at the Utah State penitentiary, in spite of the trail of murder and cruelty left in the wake of Gilmore's homicidal rampages.

More than any other cause, Alda has espoused the ERA and "rights of women." He will probably be remembered for his zealot's drive for women's rights rather than as a superstar in one of television's longest running weekly series. It has also been the failure of ERA to pass that Alan will remember as the most disappointing event in his forty-seven years.

Strait, page 211:

A master of promotion, Alan Alda has never worked so hard at anything as he did selling the public The Four Seasons, the motion picture he wrote, directed, and starred in. He seems determined to outdo what has already been done. One might call him the middle-aged Warren Beatty, although he has never come close to Beatty's success as an actor, producer, director, or writer. Beatty makes films that excite and stimulate; Alda preaches until you start remembering sitting in an old country church on Sunday morning, bored to death with long-winded sermons about hellfire and damnation. Alda's films send more messages than Western Union, most of which should be marked "Address Unknown--Return to Sender." He moralizes at the same level as Jerry Falwell, Billy Graham, and Oral Roberts, without the fire and adrenaline-hyping electrification of a good evangelist.

Nowhere has he sermonized more than with his explanations of the "message" of The Four Seasons...

Strait, pages 233-234:

Next to "M*A*S*H," Alan's pitch for women's rights has made him more famous than acting, writing, or directing combined. One columnist prayed, "Please, God, don't let Alan Alda get divorced." The women's movement, she said, would survive Billie Jean King's confessions of lesbianism, but it was doubtful it could overcome the decline and fall of "the perfect new man."

Because of Alan, a few other men have come forward to state the case for women. Not many have been as fervent as Alda. Women have trusted him with their torch and would rather not hear anything bad about him. He is their knight in shining armor. He found it difficult to accept when he discovered that a male friend had been cheating on his wife. "Temporarily," he somberly whispered, "I found it hard to relate to him."

It is easy, some men have pointed out, for Alan to be a feminist. He has his own security and a traditional wife who stayed home and brought up the children. After all, didn't she give up her career so he could have one? Times change. He and Arlene were married nearly three decades ago when it was more fashionable for women to stay home in the traditional manner of Old World Jewish and Italian families.

Search Adherents.com

Custom Search
comments powered by Disqus

Webpage created 24 July 2005. Last modified 20 September 2005.
We are always striving to increase the accuracy and usefulness of our website. We are happy to hear from you. Please submit questions, suggestions, comments, corrections, etc. to: webmaster@adherents.com.