ALAN ALDA PHOTOGRAPH BY ETHAN HILL
December 23, 2005 at 05:00 AM EST

Alan Alda made our 2005 Entertainers of the Year list

Earlier this fall, Alan Alda was shooting an episode of The West Wing. Production was dragging, everyone was tired, and the actor had to cancel dinner plans. But he hung out, relaxed, and joked with his colleagues well into the evening. ”Aren’t you mad?” someone asked him. ”Hey, you don’t understand,” Alda replied, laughing. ”I was supposed to be dead.”

Two years ago, he came close. In Chile, Alda was stricken with an intestinal problem that required emergency surgery — the kind before which doctors ask if you have any message for your family, just in case. Alda knew what the operation was (Hawkeye Pierce had performed it on M*A*S*H); what he didn’t know was that surviving the surgery would allow him to feel reborn. With a vengeance. This year, Alda, who turns 70 in January, scored an Oscar nomination as an adversarial senator in The Aviator (his first), a Tony nomination as a desperate real estate salesman in David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross (his third), and an Emmy nomination as presidential candidate Arnold Vinick on The West Wing — his 31st. (That’s not a misprint. Alan Alda has been nominated for 31 Emmys.) He also found time to publish a genial, observant best-selling memoir, Never Have Your Dog Stuffed. At an age when most actors are honing their golf game and working the lifetime-achievement-award circuit, Alan Alda is suddenly the hottest new talent in showbiz.

”I happened to get handed some great opportunities,” he says of his winning streak. But it’s what he did with them that matters: Alda’s warmth and skill have turned the Republican senator he plays into a contender so engaging that he might even win over the famously liberal actor who plays him (”I think some things that [Vinick] says make sense” is as much of an endorsement as he’ll offer). His dexterity with language helped him master Mamet, and his decades of experience allowed him to seize his moment in The Aviator. ”I’m instinctively looking for ways to make the most out of being alive,” he says. ”Getting reborn can be a lucky thing.” For him, and for us.

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