Alan Alda has had a magical career, earning seven Emmys and a raft of other awards, including six Golden Globes, plus an Oscar nomination for his role as a Republican Senator in 2004's "The Aviator." He has also written and directed such films as "The Four Seasons," "A New Life," Sweet Liberty" and "Betsy's Wedding." He's also hosted the PBS documentary series "Scientific American Frontiers," attesting to his deep interest in science.
But he is best known for his role in a series he never expected to be successful.
By CBSNews.com senior editor David Morgan
Born Alphonse D'Abruzzo in New York City, Alan Alda was always fascinated by science, but he had showbiz in his veins: His father, Robert Alda, was an actor ("Imitation of Life"); his mother, Joan Browne, was a showgirl.
After studying English at Fordham University, and doing a hitch in the service (yes, Hawkeye Pierce was once an actual Army Reserve officer), Alda turned to acting.
He performed in a comedy revue, the Compass Players, and in 1966 earned a Tony Award nomination for Best Actor in a Musical for "The Apple Tree."
Based on George Plimpton's book, "Paper Lion" (1968) starred Alan Alda as Plimpton trying out for the Detroit Lions football team. The film also featured such luminaries as Vince Lombardi, Frank Gifford, Alex Karras, Sugar Ray Robinson and Roger Brown as themselves.
Alan Alda (pictured with Melodie Johnson) played a bootlegger in the Prohibition-Era drama "The Moonshine War" (1970), based on an Elmore Leonard novel.
Alan Alda starred opposite Barbara Parkins in the Satanic thriller "The Mephisto Waltz" (1971).
TV spinoffs of successful movies were not unheard of in 1971, but successful TV spinoffs of successful movies definitely were. When Alan Alda shot a pilot for a TV show based on the movie "MASH," he figured it would probably last a year.
Instead, "MASH" ran on CBS from 1972 to 1983, and was one of the most successful comedy-drama series ever. It won Alda two Emmy Awards playing Capt. Benjamin Franklin (Hawkeye) Pierce, and two more Emmys for writing and directing.
And while the cast changed members over its several seasons Alda stayed through to the very end, in a concluding episode what was the most-watched TV series episode ever.
Harry Morgan as Col. Potter and Alan Alda as Hawkeye Pierce in "MASH."
Robert Alda guest-starred on an episode of "MASH," starring his son, Alan Alda.
Alan Alda and Jane Fonda played a divorced couple in Neil Simon's omnibus comedy "California Suite" (1978).
Ellen Burstyn and Alan Alda starred in the film version of Neil Simon's comedy about adultery, "Same Time, Next Year."
Meryl Streep and Alan Alda in "The Seduction of Joe Tynan."
Alan Alda led the ensemble cast of "The Four Season," featuring Barbara Harris, John Collum, Carol Burnett, Rita Moreno and Jack Weston.
Alan Alda played a successful TV producer in Woody Allen's 1989 drama "Crimes and Misdemeanors."
Alan Alda also appeared in Woody Allen's "Manhattan Murder Mystery" (with Diane Keaton); and "Everyone Says I Love You."
Alan Alda starred with Lily Tomlin and Glenn Fitzgerald in the 1996 comedy "Flirting With Disaster," by writer-director David O. Russell ("Silver Linings Playbook").
After playing the President of the United States in the Michael Moore comedy "Canadian Bacon," Alan Alda played the White House National Security Advisor in the thriller "Murder at 1600" (1997), opposite Wesley Snipes.
Anthony Edwards, Alan Alda and Laura Innes work the emergency room in the medical drama "ER."
Alana Alada earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor, playing a Senator who grills Howard Hughes in Martin Scorsese's "The Aviator" (2004).
Alan Alda starred Sen. Arnold Vinick, running against Jimmy Smits as Matt Santos, in "The West Wing" (2005). They faced off in an episode titled "The Debate."
Alan Alda played a Wall Street billionaire opposite Ben Stiller in the action comedy "Tower Heist."
Alan Alda hosted the PBS science series "Scientific American Frontiers."
Alan Alda also teaches scientists and students how to relate to people in ways they can actually understand. His lessons are inspired by the desire to make the facts and data or science easily assimilable to lay people -- benefiting both the messenger and their audience.
"You don't think of knowledge as a curse, but it's a curse if I think you know everything I know and I talk to you in ways [where] you can't understand me," Alda said. "So that's not only the public, that's policy makers like Congress, who have told me over and over again they cannot understand scientists who come in to talk to them."
That notion of straight-talking scientists became a mission. Alda approached New York's Stony Brook University to let him teach their science students to talk, and the idea caught on. Now, at Stony Brook's Center for Communicating Science, Alda trains the best and the brightest to talk to anyone clearly. He uses the tenets of improv comedy in his courses.
"It makes you present, It makes you alive," he explained to Tracy Smith. "You're here and now, you're talking to another actor. You're not pretending to talk to the actor, you're really talking to the actor. That changes everything about you. And it changes the other person, too, because if you're working with a salami, you're not going to react to that person."