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.
In 1978, Alda took advantage of an unusually lengthy production break in M*A*S*H to star in three films: California Suite, Same Time, Next Year, and The Seduction of Joe Tynan. He made his theatrical-movie directorial debut in 1981 with The Four Seasons, a semiserious exploration of modern romantic gamesmanship; it would prove to be his most successful film as a director, with subsequent efforts like Sweet Liberty (1986) and Betsy's Wedding (1989) no where close. Long associated with major political and social causes and well-known both offscreen and on as a man of heightened sensitivity, Alda has occasionally delighted in going against the grain of his carefully cultivated image with nasty, spiteful characterizations, most notably in Woody Allen'sCrimes and Misdemeanors (1989) and as death row inmate Caryl Chessman in the 1977 TV movie Kill Me if You Can. Alda later continued to make his mark on audiences with his more accustomed nice-guy portrayals in films such as Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993), Everyone Says I Love You (1996), Flirting With Disaster (1996), and The Object of My Affection (1998).
The next several years saw Alda show up in a handful of supporting roles, but in 2004, he had his biggest year in more than a decade. First, he appeared opposite Leonardo DiCaprio in Martin Scorcese's critically-acclaimed Howard Hughes biopic The Aviator. Playing Senator Ralph Owen Brewster, Alda would go on to receive a Best Supporting Actor Oscar-nomination, the first nod from the Academy in his long and impressive career. Meanwhile, on the small-screen, Alda played presidential-hopeful Arnold Vinick on NBC's political drama The West Wing, another Senator and his first regular series role since M*A*S*H. He would also enjoy recurring roles on 30 Rock and The Big C, and would continue to flex his comedy muscles in movies like Tower Heist and Wanderlust.