Inc. staff writer Patrick Sauer talks with Alan Alda about his starring role in the Broadway drama, Glengarry Glen Ross.
The beloved Hawkeye Pierce has a long theater career that includes Broadway stints in The Owl and the Pussycat, The Apple Tree, Art and Jake's Women. Alda, currently doing double television duties as fictional Republican presidential hopeful Senator Arnold Vinick on The West Wing and as host of Scientific American Frontiers. Alda took time out from a big day when he received an Oscar nomination for playing non-fictional Republican senator Ralph Owen Brewster of Maine in The Aviator.
Q: What is your sense of salesmen?
Alda: Sometimes all a salesman has is confidence. You have to sell yourself before the product. The problem is when you get sold on your own malarkey. I was never in an office, but I sold mutual funds out of an office in Brooklyn when I was a young out-of-work actor. I still remember the way they talked to each other and were always positioning each other. There were people who had leads and the rest of us were trying to get up on the board. I thought it was a good investment but I had trouble conquering my nervousness, telling people what do with their own money. I did sell myself. I bought my first plan for $10 a month.
Q: So many people are in sales, yet the word itself seems like it's become a pejorative.
Alda: I think it's a shame that the word salesman doesn't have as positive a connotation as it might. I think the best advice about sales I've ever read is find out what the client really needs and help getting what they need, rather than getting them to want what you're selling whether they need it or not. We need to trust one another in a transaction like buying something. We hurtle toward each other at 60 mph down a narrow strip of highway with only a white line painted on the road separating us. Trust is what we operate on it.
Q: What do you see as the similarities and differences between Willy Loman and Shelley Levene?
Alda: I think because of the times Death of A Salesman and Glengarry were written *, the cultures were very different, Arthur Miller writes in a romantic language while Mamet is more of a poetry of the street. But they both capture the anguish of a man who believes he can do something that all the evidence tells him it can't be done. There's something heartbreaking about that. Both are credible pictures of people struggling to believe their way to success that they'll never achieve.
Q: How do salespeople stack up against to the scientists you meet on PBS?
Alda: The best of the scientists don't try to sell people anything. They may believe that they have discovered, built, or theorized something and will lecture and explain on it, but they give the opportunity for other scientists to reproduce the experiment. Scientists are the first ones to attack their own ideas. If it doesn't work, they're glad to give it up. The difference is, as Mamet says, salespeople are always closing, even long after the effort is futile. Too much selling, the kind in this play, is the kind I hate having directed at me. Telling me only what I need to know to get me to hand over my money, not to make a rational decision. You hope eventually it bites them back.
Q: Do you find many redeemable qualities in Shelley and the other characters?
Alda: Redeemable is not a characteristic I would even consider. I think they are recognizable and you can feel for them, but you don't have to think they're exemplary people'Šthey are exemplary, but examples of something not that great. But like all people, they hurt, they cry out, they get wounded, but everyone in the play is a prick to somebody else. It's a picture of desperate people.
Q: How do you think Glengarry holds up after twenty years?
Alda: Rather than becoming dated, it's more to the point than it ever was. This specific image of handful of people in a small office that you've never heard of could easily stand in for the people at the giant corporations who are cooking the books. They're offering their own swampland in the form of stock in their company by inflating profits and Glengarry stands in for that. It's also a human drama about guys sharing a workplace under a tremendous amount of pressure who instead of finding a way to work together start nipping at each other's heels.