You don’t expect the guy who played antiestablishment icon Hawkeye Pierce on M*A*S*H for 11 seasons to be a natural as a Republican senator. But Alan Alda recently pulled off that type-defying trick two times: He’s the odious Ralph Owen Brewster in the Howard Hughes biopic The Aviator, and on TV’s The West Wing, he’s Republican presidential candidate Arnold Vinick. We caught up for a chat on all things Aviator.
Martin Scorsese felt you’d make a perfect villain, but Leonardo DiCaprio didn’t. He thought you were too nicey-nicey.
I know, I’ve heard Leo say that. More than half the characters I’ve played have been either bad guys or seriously flawed people. [Yet] every time I do [a villain], somebody says, ”You’ve never done that before.” That’s good, in a way, because it gives people a chance to be surprised.
What was Leo like on set?
He has a tremendous capacity to work hard. He seems to like hard work. You could see him thinking all the time, trying things.
He comes in and tells you how great it is after the take. And really seems to mean it. Then he keeps talking. He talks in a big circle, and by the time he says, ”Let’s go again,” you realize he wants you to do it another way. But you don’t think the way you did it was bad. It just seems like an interesting new thing to try.
Had you met Scorsese before?
I was shooting Betsy’s Wedding  and needed somebody to play my Italian mother. He called me and said, ”I wish you’d take a look at my mother.” [Catherine, who died in 1997, often appeared in her son’s films, including GoodFellas.] She’s wonderful in his movies. But he let her improvise whatever she wanted to say. I needed her to say what was in the script. [The part went to Saturday Night Fever‘s Julie Bovasso.]
Did Marty know all the Hollywood and European films your dad, actor Robert Alda, ever made?
Marty knows every movie everybody was ever in. I don’t know how he keeps it all in his head.