Alda’s Bridge of Spies co-star Tom Hanks presented the honor.
“A career is measured by different yard sticks. Quality being the first. There’s longevity, as well, but most important, I think perhaps, is how an actor’s choices reflect the time or the tenor of our troubled world and of our human natures,” said Hanks. “The actor we honor tonight for his life achievements is worthy then not just for his decades of work and praiseworthy credits, but for how he’s shown us all who we are and what we all can be.”
Hanks, who regularly referred to Alda by his given name, Alphonso D’Abruzzo, went on to share that the veteran actor was the first person to ever win Emmy Awards for acting, writing and directing.
“He won then for what was called by some ‘the green show,'” he said. “M*A*S*H was witty, emotional, often hilarious, just as often groundbreaking and a must-see program every week for nine years longer than the Korean War actually lasted.”
Hanks listed Alda’s other professional accomplishments, including stints on Broadway, in film and on television. “There are his passions for philosophy and for his philanthropy. There is a woman named Arlene, three kids, two memoirs, a cackle of a laugh and a quest in both his life and his work that is guided by ethos,” he continued before concluding, “You cannot be too one-sided or only half experienced. Alphonso D’Abruzzo, tonight, for decades, for a lifetime, we have been lucky to have watched the former Mr. D’Abruzzo ply his craft and tonight, we celebrate our good fortune and a life’s labor of Alan Alda.”
The audience gave Alda a standing ovation as he made his way to the stage. Once he approached the microphone, he jokingly pointed at his watch to tell the crowd to conclude the applause.
“It’s really hard to describe to you what it feels like to look out and see my fellow actors, my colleagues, my heroes. To welcome me up here like this is an extraordinary feeling,” Alda began.
“This comes at a time when I had a chance to look back at my life and to think about what it’s meant to be an actor and I see more than ever now how proud I am to be a member of our brotherhood and sisterhood of actors,” he said. “When we get a chance to act, it’s our job — at least in part — to get inside a character’s head and to search for a way to see a life from that person’s point of view. Another person’s vision of the world and then to let an audience experience that.”
Alda then said that it is an actor’s responsibility to introduce audiences to different perspectives. “It may never have been more urgent than to see the world through another person’s eyes than when a culture is divided so sharply. Actors can help, at least a little bit, just by doing what we do,” he continued. The sentiment earned a round of applause from the audience. “And the nice part is it’s fun to do it.”
“So my wish for all of us is — let’s stay playful, let’s have fun and let’s keep searching. It can’t solve everything, but it wouldn’t hurt,” he said.
Alda concluded the speech by thanking SAG-AFTRA and asking that every actor honor the union contract. “I honor our beloved [veteran agent] Toni Howard,” he added. “I share this with everybody in the room.”
Alda joins past recipients including Lily Tomlin, Carol Burnett, Debbie Reynolds, Dick Van Dyke, Mary Tyler Moore, Ernest Borgnine and Betty White.
Prior to accepting the award, Alda spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about his lasting career.
The actor opened up about his role on TV’s M*A*S*H, which remains the most-watched series finale of all time (the episode, which aired in 1983, garnered 106 million viewers). “When I got the script, I wasn’t sure I wanted to do it. I was making a movie [The Glass House] at the Utah State Prison, and I told [producers] Gene Reynolds and Larry Gelbart that I wanted to meet with them beforehand to make sure it wasn’t going to be hijinks at the front,” Alda recalled. “We met in a coffee shop until one in the morning the night before we began rehearsals. We all agreed that although it was a comedy, we wanted it to reflect the lives of real people.”
Alda also previewed his acceptance speech during the interview. He said that he planned to steer clear of politics “unless something happens that night and everybody can’t help talk about it.”
The 2019 SAG Awards, hosted by Megan Mullally, aired on TBS and TNT from the Shrine Auditorium & Expo Hall in Los Angeles.