He’s the greatest comedic actor on television today. He has Oscar and Tony nominations and two Emmys to his name. And he just can’t figure out where it all went wrong.
He’s the greatest comedic actor on television today. He has Oscar and Tony nominations and two Emmys to his name. And he just can’t figure out where it all went wrong.
By Erik Hedegaard
Alec Baldwin wants you to know how much he appreciates your chuckles and laughs. As you may recall, a while back he left his daughter an angry voice mail, which found its way onto the internet and besmirched his image worldwide. In the aftermath, he thought about killing himself, but didn’t, and thought about quitting his hit NBC show 30 Rock, but didn’t. So he’s still here, among us. Most of the time, he’s either out on Long Island, where he maintains his primary residence, or tooling around Manhattan, to be nearer 30 Rock’s set in Queens. In both locales people come up to him. Sometimes they yell snarky things like, “Go call your daughter!” Increasingly, though, they’ve been favoring him with chuckles and laughs and stuff like, “That’s a funny show you’re on.” He appreciates that. It’s gratifying. It makes him hopeful.
“If people wake up and go, ‘You know something? He left that message for his daughter, and I thought he was a selfish, horrible man, but, damn, that show is funny,’ if they are in the mood to forgive — never forget, but forgive — then you move on and survive,” he says one misty day in East Hampton, with hurricane weather on the horizon, looking a little wind-beaten himself. “It means I’m funny enough for people to overlook something they don’t care for.”
And it’s true: The way he plays 30 Rock’s ego-inflated, right-wing exec Jack Donaghy opposite Tina Fey’s perpetually nonplussed TV writer Liz Lemon, he does make you want to forgive him his past transgressions. The voice mail, to begin with, but also movie choices that in toto have tended to favor the wretchedly bad (The Marrying Man, The Getaway, The Shadow, etc.) over the leading-man good (The Hunt for Red October, Miami Blues) and the supporting-actor brilliant (his scorching speech in Glengarry Glen Ross and his Oscar-nominated role in The Cooler). The jury hasn’t convened yet for his next movie — It’s Complicated, a middle-aged love-triangle rom-com co-starring Meryl Streep and Steve Martin — but early word is, it could be one of his good ones. Baldwin’s take: “The only reason I did it is because of the chance to work with Meryl. Meryl!”
Good or bad, though, It’s Complicated might be Baldwin’s last movie ever, because he says he’s had it with the whole acting deal. Hopefully, he’ll continue to occasionally host Saturday Night Live, as he’s done 14 times in the past 20 years, more than anyone other than Martin, showing off his comic brilliance in the Schweddy Balls skit, in the amorous-scoutmaster skit, and in all the rest of them, actually. But once 30 Rock’s multiple-Emmy-winning run is over in a couple of years or so, that’s pretty much it for him, he says. Finito, kaput. Even now, his bedtime reading consists of books like Tears in the Darkness, about the Bataan Death March, instead of scripts. “I don’t have any interest in acting anymore,” he says rather grandly. “Movies are a part of my past. It’s been 30 years. I’m not young, but I have time to do something else.”
Of course, he’s made noises about quitting before. But he certainly sounds serious this time, and he probably should be, given how he feels journalabout his own body of work. “I’ll say this to you, and it’s a difficult thing to say, but I believe it: I consider my entire movie career a complete failure. I’ll tell you why. The goal of moviemaking is to star in a film where your performance drives the film, and the film is either a soaring critical or commercial success, and I never had that.”
But what about The Hunt for Red October, the 1990 action flick featuring him in his first big-budget, weight-carrying role? He scoffs. “That was a huge success. But it wasn’t because of me. It was because of Tom Clancy’s book. And now, the movies I’ve been in, I never give them a moment’s thought. Every movie I’ve ever been in, I just avoid.”
He tosses his hands, whisking away 30 years of toil as easily as that, as if it’s that easy, as if he really is that cavalier.
He talks. he talks nonstop. His big meaty face reddens with the effort of speech, but that does not slow him down. He has an agenda. His agenda might not be your agenda, but that doesn’t matter. He will grease the path of his agenda, as is his custom, with as many of his bright movie-star smiles as it takes.
Right this moment, he’s shuffling into an East Hampton noshing spot, a little stooped but looking pretty solid for the age of 51. He’s still boldly handsome, too, although the cleft chin has receded into the flesh somewhat. He finds a seat, shucks off his windbreaker, rubs his hands together briskly, orders a double espresso with steamed milk on the side, and says to the waiter, his gravelly voice rising for the occasion, “Can I annoy you and ask for something a little different? I’d like some scrambled eggs with salmon scrambled in. No onion. And some of that asparagus on the side.” He follows that with a flash of those path-greasing, ultrawhite movie-star teeth.
The waiter ponders him. Then: “I expected that from you. It’s not annoying at all, sir, just typical.…”
It’s a slightly odd, slightly presumptuous thing to say, but Baldwin doesn’t even blink. He knows it’s typical, the waiter knows it’s typical, everyone within earshot knows it’s typical, Baldwin’s always been a salmon-and-asparagus-eggs kind of guy, what else is there to say? Plus, he’s got his agenda to stick to.
First up is a critical analysis of the court system as it pertains to fathers’ rights in child-custody battles, which he wrote about at length in his book A Promise to Ourselves, an examination of Parental Alienation Syndrome, as visited upon him by his ex-wife, Kim Basinger, and a lengthy exercise in trying to explain the root causes of that ill-fated phone call to daughter Ireland, now 14. His eyes blaze. “The judges have no idea what they’re doing and make it up as they go,” he thunders. “They have this idea of ‘the best interest of the child.’ Well, that’s one of the greatest, most cynical plots ever hatched on people, because they know you’ll give yourself cancer and spend your last dime and chew through a wall of concrete to get to your child. And they abuse that. These judges are the most filthy, awful cowards.”
Next up: his ex-wife’s divorce attorneys. He once called one of them a “300-pound homunculus whose face looks like a cross between a bulldog and a clenched fist.” Today he continues in like manner and concludes by saying, proudly, “My lawyer said something interesting to me. He said, ‘I’ve never seen a case where the opposing counsel hated the litigant as much as they hate you.’ It’s because I give it to them every chance I get. I think they’re horrible people. I completely urinate on them.”
Then comes a detour into 30 Rock. When he was first approached about it in 2005, he nearly turned it down. At the time, his aspirations still lay elsewhere, his main fear being that the show would bomb. “When you’re an actor who falls from the movie tree to go to TV full-time and the program doesn’t work, that can be very, very catastrophic,” he says. Producer Lorne Michaels, a friend of Baldwin’s from his SNL appearances, leaned on Baldwin, and he eventually caved. Since then, he’s won two Golden Globes, four Screen Actors Guild awards, and, just this year, a second Emmy. It seems that Baldwin has finally found the perfect home. And he does say, “Joining 30 Rock was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.” But now, if he can be taken at his word, he’s about to leave it all behind, maybe to become a politician or a talk-radio host, or perhaps just to travel, maybe take in the distant Cameroons in a fair-weather fez.
He sighs, back on his agenda. “I just feel like the kind of work I would love to have done would have been more like when Leo did The Aviator. I love Leo. I adore him and envy him. I remember being there with him and thinking that he has everything. He has youth, he has talent, he has opportunity, he has everything in the business, and I saw him, and I thought, What a great gift to have that convergence of all your abilities and the opportunity to work with Marty Scorsese, and the scripts, and the budgets, and everything.”
And what about Baldwin? Has he ever experienced a similar convergence? “If it happened, I slept through it,” he says blithely. “When they paged me in the Hollywood Hotel, I was in the bathroom having a cigarette.”
So that’s where Baldwin stands at the moment, stuck in the past but still looking to the future. And standing there, he’s constantly letting it be known that while lots of things are on his agenda, that agenda most certainly does not include introspection, self-analysis, or any similar sort of nonsense aimed at trying to get to the root of his so-called failure. The internal man will not be examined.
“Look, he’s a very good friend and a very loyal guy, and I know him to do so many quiet acts of kindness, but often you can’t beat him to getting in his own way,” says Lorne Michaels. “I mean, he is such a good guy. But he does everything he can to fool people about it. And then he’s just not comfortable talking about himself. He really does try to keep that part of himself a secret.”
And, almost up until the end, he does.
Growing up in the ’60s and ’70s, what he most wanted to be was a politician. This was in blue-collar Massapequa, New York, where his father, named Alec as well, taught high school history and coached football and riflery, and his mother, Carol, stayed at home to raise two girls and four boys who’d all grow up to be actors. Younger brother Billy once called it an “Irish-Catholic rowdy, rambunctious upbringing,” one in which Alec was considered the equalizer in any sibling disputes with neighborhood toughs. For the most part, though, Alec stayed out of trouble. “Everyone in my neighborhood would smoke pot in the woods, and then someone would say, ‘Jeff ’s parents went on vacation; let’s go rob their house,’ and I’d say, ‘I have to go home,’ ” he recalls. “I thought about nothing but the future. My family had no money, and I knew I had to make it. Other kids, their parents could get them in the fire department or on the Long Island Railroad as a conductor.” Not Alec’s.
On a third-grade report card, a teacher wrote: “Will become famous or the president of the United States — one or the other.” By the age of 10, he was gluing himself to television’s nightly Huntley-Brinkley Report, intent on deciphering France’s role in the Vietnam conflict. After Bobby Kennedy was assassinated, Alec trekked into Manhattan, to St. Patrick’s Cathedral, to attend the funeral mass. His first year in high school, at a time when he went by the nickname Xander, he ran for president of his class and won. All of this made his father very happy, and he idolized his father. The two spent countless evenings together, reading capsule movie reviews in the New York Times and watching the films on TV. Sometimes his father would talk to him about why they didn’t have much money: He wasn’t playing proper school board politics and was suffering the repercussions. Alec was the only one who took an interest. “My brothers were out in the driveway playing Wiffle Ball,” he says. “They didn’t give a shit about my father’s fortunes.”
After high school, he attended George Washington University, where everybody, including him, wanted to become a lawyer and, one day, president of the United States. His junior year, after running for president of his class and losing by three votes in an election that clearly still nags at him, he tossed his plans aside for the lark of attending New York’s famed Lee Strasberg Theatre Institute. His dad was fine with it; his mom, he says, “freaked out and screamed for days about what an idiot I was. Now she has very few complaints. Very few.”
Within a year, he was working on a New York–based soap opera called The Doctors. In 1983, he moved to Los Angeles for a short-lived TV series, which led to a recurring role on CBS’s prime-time hit Knots Landing. Movies came next; in 1988, he landed plum roles in five big ones, including Beetle Juice, Working Girl, and Married to the Mob. Pretty soon, he was being called “a young Burt Lancaster,” “a working-class Cary Grant,” and “the next Kevin Costner.” He had a leading man’s face (ruggedly handsome), body (ruggedly thick), voice (ruggedly direct), and hair (rugs of it, everywhere), and in 1989, he was given a bona fide opportunity to become a leading man in The Hunt for Red October. Grossing $200 million, the movie was a smash, as was Baldwin. But he passed on the sequel, Patriot Games, to play Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire on Broadway. Around the same time, he signed on to make Neil Simon’s The Marrying Man, got a good look at co-star Kim Basinger, started a tumultuous, hot-and-heavy relationship, and eventually married her. The movie came out in 1991. The reviews were scathing. And from there, in various ways, it all just went to hell.
One thing to know about Baldwin is that the Baldwin you get today may not be the Baldwin you get tomorrow. He’s changeable like that. One minute he’s furious at you for suggesting a meeting at a restaurant he considers subpar, going so far as to say he might not meet you at all; the next, he hardly knows it was you who did the suggesting. Similarly, one day he says he has no desire to ever enter politics. A week or two later, it seems like it’s the only thing he wants to do. Over time, however, a few immutables do slip out, evolving a more complete picture of the man.
He’s got such a way with insults that he could probably teach an upper-level college course on them. One example. Of the National Enquirer’s Mike Walker, who seems to have it in for Baldwin: “That guy is a goat-footed queen and a wheezing whore!” He’s got a million more.
In his spare time, Baldwin sometimes relaxes by boating — he has a 25-foot speedboat moored at the East Hampton Marina — and sometimes by showing up for East Hampton’s annual Artists Vs. Writers Charity Softball Game, where he is a frequent whiffer and says things like, “Acting doesn’t help with softball. Acting is all about bullshitting people into believing something, and out here that’s impossible.” He likes to play tennis, toss a football, ski. In the evening, he enjoys takeout, especially Mexican. If it’s a Sunday, he might watch 60 Minutes. He might smoke a cigar, but probably not. Afterward, he’ll attempt to go to sleep. Sometimes it takes a while. “I have terrible insomnia,” he says. “Horrible.”
A practicing Catholic, he goes to church every week and twice a year shows up for confession, or, as they call it now, reconciliation, though his stays are brief, because, as he says, “I really don’t have that much bad to confess.”
After his dad died of cancer in 1983, Baldwin drank a lot, drugged a lot, played a lot of the video game Galaga, and just in general, he says, “partied my brains out.” He was in his mid-20s. He stopped after two years, just before he turned 27, and he kicked his addictions for good.
He used to put down Hollywood all the time. He once said, “There’s a lot more money to be made on Wall Street. If you want real power, go to Washington. If you want sex, go into the fashion business. But if you want the whole poison cocktail in one glass, then go to Hollywood.” Now he says, “What I’ve learned is, nobody wants to hear you saying, ‘This place sucks, and you’re all phonies.’ That’s not the way to go.” In other words, he still puts down Hollywood all the time.
In an ideal world, how often would he have sex?
He barks, happily, “Every morning!”
“Every morning. At the end of the day, I’m exhausted and want to lay comatose, watch The Rachel Maddow Show, and read a book. But in the morning, it helps you get your mind right. You just blow out all your synapses and no matter what happens the rest of the day, nothing bothers you.”
On the other hand, he does not have a girlfriend at the moment, having split with New York attorney Nicole Seidel, his companion of seven years, a few months back. He misses her. “Since 2002, I have loved one woman and only one woman.” They reportedly broke up over Baldwin’s preoccupation with his divorce from Basinger, to whom he was married for nine years, and the custody fight. All he will say is, “Whatever things I’ve had that have been intrusions on that relationship, as well as other parts of my life, that’s unfortunate.” So now he spends his nights alone, usually in bed by 10:30, reading about the Bataan Death March. “It’s okay,” he says. “I don’t mind. I’d rather be lonely than wrong.”
Well, there are other ways to deal with sexual urges, right?
“Or not,” he says huskily. “Or not.”
When was the last time he had a one-night stand?
He barks again, laughing: “There’s always tomorrow!”
And so on, turning charmingly hard to pin down once more, well into the day and far, far beyond.
“Yeah, but it’s hard to talk about yourself and be decisive and knowledgeable and authoritative,” he says later on. It’s a curious thing to hear him say — at once weaselly, nonsensical, and accurate, at least in the Baldwinian sense of being typical. It’s just how he is.
After Baldwin cranked out stinker after stinker in the ’90s, he started to become a kind of public nuisance. Of his early years, he once said, “I was Mr. Telephone Thrower. The holes where I put my fist in the wall dictated where we hung pictures. I was a total madman.… My whole life was agony.” But the same could also be said of his middle years, as well as some of his most recent. He punches out a paparazzo on his front lawn on the day he and Basinger bring newborn Ireland home from the hospital. An active PETA supporter, he challenges a Manhattan horse-carriage driver to a fistfight. He quips that Clinton foe Henry Hyde and family should be “stoned to death.” Some of it is harmless and hardly worth mentioning; some of it is otherwise.
But here’s the thing about Baldwin: Did he not once have the chance to be a leading man in the movies, and did he not, of his own accord, turn away from that opportunity? Has he not delivered solid, even remarkable, performances in major films? Has he not demonstrated time and again that he has comic chops galore? But then he goes ahead and feels compelled to call his entire movie career a complete failure, setting up the pronouncement with various dramatic pauses and introductory clauses, selling his failure with gobs of actorly relish and mustard, when it’s quite clear to one and all that he’s no failure.
A favorite reason for this lack of hugeness is: “I am not a good actor.” He trots that one out all the time, patently false though it is.
One afternoon on the Queens set of 30 Rock, though, Baldwin is in his dressing room, lounging about on a comfy chair, feet up on a coffee table, a pillow clutched to his chest. He is at his leisure here, with pals nearby — Tina Fey, Tracy Morgan, and the rest of them. He couldn’t be more at home or in less likely a place to open up about himself. But then he does, albeit almost accidentally.
“There’s a cliché that studio executives and agents have that actors need to fail, that actors self-sabotage themselves, and there’s a type that the more talented they are, the more self-sabotaging they are. It’s a very, very complicated form of narcissism. You want to be in control, and you want things to run according to your script, not anyone else’s. So you end things on your own terms, quit before they can fire you, that type of thing. Literally.” He pauses. Then he says, “I might have been capable of that. I could say I was guilty of that to a degree early on.”
And that, right there, is about as close as he is willing to come to a more insightful explanation for his so-called failure as a movie star. The more talented they are, the more self-sabotaging they are. He doesn’t stay there long, however. Twenty words later he’s back into the usual litany of complaints about show business being “a lot of guys in a room talking about what shade of brown your hair should be in the movie, and you want to talk about the script, and they say, ‘Yeah, yeah, hold on a second, do you like the carnelian-colored tie or the maroon tie?’ ” That’s fine, though. It’s understandable — and, in Baldwin’s case, probably even necessary. Defenses not shored are no defense at all.
He’s been up against this kind of thing before. After the voice mail to his daughter went viral, he thought seriously about committing suicide. “I had not made any preparations, but I thought how I would do it. I was going to put the hose in the most noxious of the cars I own, a Jeep, take some sleeping pills, and take a nice nap in the front seat of my car in the garage.” But then he thought better of it, shored up those defenses, worked out his rationales, and wrote a book about it. (Of the voice mail itself, he says today, tenderly: “I feel the consequences of that every day. It’s in the reverberations of how I feel and how I wish things had been.”) Since then, he has carried on nicely, to a gratifyingly growing amount of chuckles and laughs and public forgiveness.
“There are other people who have done what I’ve done. There’s not one thing I’ve done that other people haven’t done. I mean, I didn’t hit somebody in the face with a baseball bat in road rage. I didn’t boil a cauldron full of dogs.”
Then again, as Baldwin sometimes says, there’s always tomorrow, and you really never do know what he’s going to do next. That’s one of the things that makes him such a compelling figure. He might not be as loose a cannon as he once was. He did have to attend 12 anger-management classes as part of the custody battle. But he’s still loose.
What is the one thing he thinks that every man should know how to do?
“Start a fire,” he says promptly. “With anything. Two sticks, even. You’ve got to be able to start a fire.” He beams. “I’m a great fire starter.” And about that, of course, he could not be more right.
This article originally appeared in the December 2009/January 2010 issue of Men’s Journal.