Professor Alan Alda teaches scientists how to speak

In 1971 he shot a pilot for a TV show based on the movie "MASH." He figured it would probably last a year.

He said the medical jargon he used on "MASH" was hard to remember. "In fact, sometimes I'd write it on the patients' bellies while I was operating on them. I was a real play doctor."

But his passion for science was real: after "MASH," he hosted "Scientific American Frontiers" on PBS, a series he called the best thing he ever did in front of a camera.

During the filming of one episode, the value of plain-speaking suddenly hit close to home.

"Boy, did it ever! I was on a mountaintop in Chile, interviewing astronomers for the science program," he recalled. "And within a few minutes I was in the worst pain in my life 'cause I had a strangled intestine. And about a yard of it was dead. I could've died within a couple of hours.

"But there was this wonderful doctor that they brought me to who said, in the clearest possible way, 'Something's gone wrong with your intestine and we have to cut out the bad part and sew the two good ends together.' I said, 'That's great. Do it,' you know? So there are times when you least expect it where good communication can come in handy."

Smith asked if his medical students are cowed by having Hawkeye Pierce teach them. "Oh God, no."

Cowed or not, it looks like they're beating a path to Alda's classroom. But, he told Smith, he doesn't consider it his life's work.

"Oh, no. I wouldn't say this is my life's work, but I do spend a lot of time at it. But acting and writing give me enormous pleasure. I do it whenever it seems like there's a chance to do something difficult but possible, you know?"

"But this is rewarding as well," Smith said.

"Yeah, yeah," he laughed. "That's a great ending: 'Yeah, yeah.'"

For more info: