The son of actor Robert Alda, Alan Alda grew up around vaudeville and burlesque comedians, soaking up as many jokes and routines as was humanly possible. Robert Alda hoped that his son would become a doctor, but the boy's urge to perform won out. After graduating from Fordham University, Alda first acted at the Cleveland Playhouse, and then put his computer-like retention of comedy bits to good use as an improvisational performer with Chicago's Second City and an ensemble player on the satirical TV weekly That Was the Week That Was. Alda's first film was Gone Are the Days in 1963, adapted from the Ossie Davis play in which Alda had appeared on Broadway. (Among the actor's many subsequent stage credits were the original productions of The Apple Tree and The Owl and the Pussycat.)
Most of Alda's films were critical successes but financial disappointments. He portrayed George Plimpton in the 1968 adaptation of the writer's bestseller Paper Lion and was a crazed Vietnam vet in the 1972 movie To Kill a Clown. Alda's signature role was the wisecracking Army surgeon Benjamin Franklin "Hawkeye" Pierce in the TV series M*A*S*H, which ran from 1972 through 1983. Intensely pacifistic, the series adhered to Alda's own attitudes towards warfare. (He'd once been an ROTC member in college, but became physically ill at the notion of learning how to kill.) During his M*A*S*H years, Alda also began auxiliary careers as a director and scriptwriter, winning numerous Emmy awards in the process. He also developed a separate sitcom, 1974's We'll Get By.