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Robert Alda: Alan's Dad

Published: 2/26/2014
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Robert Alda (Photo by Ron Galella/WireImage)

Actor Robert Alda may not be as well-known as his son Alan, but he enjoyed a long, diverse career that included performances on radio, stage and television.

Alda, who would have celebrated his 100th birthday Feb. 26, was born Alfonso D'Abruzzo in New York to Italian immigrant parents. He created his stage name using the first two letters of his first and last names. His parents encouraged him to find "real" work, steering him away from show business and toward a career in architecture. He was game – until he won a talent contest and heard the stage calling.

Alda started as a vaudeville singer and dancer. He performed with a burlesque troupe, taking his wife and young son along as they toured the country by train.

Robert Alda had higher aspirations, so he headed to Hollywood.

"He emerged from burlesque, where he had portrayed drunks, derelicts and juveniles, had sung and had played straight man to Abbott and Costello, Phil Silvers and Rags Ragland. He also performed in resort hotels in upstate New York and in summer stock," his obituary in The New York Times noted after his death in 1986 at 72.

In 1937 Robert Alda was one of the first performers on television, according to Raymond Strait's 1983 biography of Alan Alda. A few years later he starred as George Gershwin in 1945's Rhapsody in Blue. The film "provided a smashing screen debut for its star, Robert Alda, who delivered a strong performance as Gershwin. Alda would go on to still greater fame as a Broadway musical star … before watching his son, Alan Alda, rise to even greater heights," according to TCM.com, the Turner Classic Movies website.

While Robert Alda did other movies, including 1959's Imitation of Life, he found he was better suited to the stage. He returned to New York, where he appeared in numerous shows. He won a Tony Award for his portrayal of smooth gambler Sky Masterson in 1950's Guys and Dolls.

Alda's first wife, Joan Browne, suffered from mental illness. Alan Alda wrote about his mother's problems in his memoir, starting the book with recollections of his mother trying to stab his father. Mental illness was considered taboo in those days, he wrote, and it took him years to recover from his anger and shame.

Robert Alda divorced Browne and appears to have done the best he could to make up for her maternal failings. In a 1981 article in The New York Times Magazine, Alan Alda described growing up with his father this way: ''I adored him,'' he said. ''Some of my earliest memories were walking in the street, holding his hand next to my cheek, just loving his presence. He was a very sweet, warm father.''

Alda and his son enjoyed performing Abbott and Costello routines, with Robert as Abbott and Alan as Costello. When Alan finished high school, the two took their show to Europe, appearing onstage in Rome and on television in Amsterdam. "It was the best year of my education," Alan Alda recalled in his father's Los Angeles Times obituary.



In 1960 Alda married Italian actress Flora Marino and moved to Rome. In Italy he "was a familiar presence in European 'sword and sandals' movies," notes MasterworksBroadway.com, referring to the historical or biblical costume dramas that dominated the Italian film industry at the time.

Alda often crossed the Atlantic to work in the United States. He guest-starred twice on "M*A*S*H," the show that made his son a household name. In the 1975 episode "The Consultant," Robert Alda played a doctor visiting the U.S. troops in Korea to give advice on new surgical techniques. The character talks Dr. Hawkeye Pierce, Alan Alda’s character, through a difficult surgery.

In 1980's "Lend a Hand," Robert Alda reprised the visiting doctor role. His character conflicts with Hawkeye for much of the episode. But when shelling begins and their expertise is needed, a medic played by Alda's second son, Antony, convinces the squabbling doctors to work together. They do so even though each has suffered a broken hand from the heavy shelling, working together as "Righty" and "Lefty."

In the 1980s Robert Alda took a job on the soap opera Days of Our Lives. His character was killed off –– but no one told him. He found out by watching the show. As he said on a 1982 talk show, "My wife and I were at home watching the show when one of the characters mentioned that I had passed away. I didn't even have the pleasure of doing a death scene."

Natalie Pompilio is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia. Her lifelong love of obituaries raised eyebrows when she was younger, but she's now able to explain that this interest goes beyond morbid curiosity. Says Pompilio, "Obituaries are mini life stories, allowing a glimpse into someone's world that we're often denied. I just wish we could share them with each other when we're alive."

 

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