BY PAULA SCHWARTZ –– Alan Alda, who most people still think of as Hawkeye Pierce from the television series M*A*S*H on CBS for a dozen seasons, is King of Cable this month. On Showtime, he’s Laura Linney’s oncologist in “The Big C.” On HBO tonight, he’s the narrator a new documentary called “50 Children: The Rescue Mission of Mr. and Mrs. Kraus,” a Holocaust story by first-time director Steve Pressman. It airs tonight at 8pm. Last week Alda was at the movie’s premiere at HBO’s luxurious offices in Times Square to pose for photographs and talk about the film.
The documentary, which feels like an action thriller, tells the story of Eleanor and Gilbert Kraus, an upper middle class Jewish couple with movie-star looks – Gilbert was a lawyer – who left their own children and comfortable lives in Philadelphia to rescue Jewish children in 1939 Nazi-controlled Austria and bring them back into the U.S. Eleanor’s memoirs, which are read by actress Mamie Gummer, give a first person account of the dangers the couple faced in entering Nazi-controlled Austria, where their luxury hotel room was searched every day by the authorities. They never knew if they would be arrested or even killed but they persevered in their mission.
Alda, now 77, looks and sounds great. He told me he wanted to get involved after he heard the story and thought it was really interesting. “People putting themselves in danger, this American couple, for a specific number of people,” he said. “They had to try to get them visas from this country, which at that time was not easy to do, and they had their own children they had to leave behind while they put themselves in danger. That’s an amazing kind of courage and responsibility they took, and a story like that I really think needs to be told.” He added, “There’s a lot of tension in it because you really don’t know that they’re going to make it out. The fact that they’re children givens it an extra wallop.”
In addition to acting, Alda has written five feature films, including “The Four Seasons” and “The Seduction of Joe Tynan,” along with a carton-full of television scripts. He’s passionate about science and has written his first play, which is about Marie Curie. He told me the play, entitled “Radiance: The Passion of Marie Curie,” had a “beautiful” production in Los Angeles back in Nov. 2011, which starred Anna Gunn, the wife from the cult series “Breaking Bad.” He’s still tinkering with the play he told me.
Alda also just wrapped a couple of shows with Laura Linney in the final series of “The Big C: Hereafter,” which begins airing its final four episodes on Showtime April 29. It is the show’s final season, and despite the subtitle he wouldn’t tell me if Linney’s character lives or dies. “I’m her doctor, who’s a little rough on her.” Why? “That’s just the way I am,” he laughed.
Sheila Nevins, the savvy and brilliant President of HBO Documentary films told me she met Alan Alda 40 years on a project, and she thought of him when she decided she needed a familiar and revered voice, one that was “noble” and “mature. This is an older person’s film, and I’m an older person and he’s an older person, let’s call him.” She added, “He doesn’t get involved in anything that isn’t in his heart. He didn’t need to do it. He didn’t’ need to be here. He’s not even Jewish,” she laughed.
“The great thing about being able to tell this story,” Pressman told me, “is that this is a story that has essentially been hidden for 76 years because Eleanor and Gilbert never talked about it, as shocking as this this sounds.” Pressman, who was a longtime print journalist, knew a good story when he heard one. He’s also married to Liz Perle, one of the Krauses’ four grandchildren. The reasons the story was unknown was that once the Krauses saved the children they continued with their lives as did the 50 children he told me. “If it was not for the fact that Eleanor some years later sat down and wrote out this memoir that described what she and her husband had done, and that was only really intended for the family, this story would still be hidden.”
Perle told me she knew her grandparents story because two of the rescued children lived with them. “But they never talked about it.” After Eleanor’s death Perle went through her mothers documents and found her manuscript along with a lot of the passports of the children. “When I was a kid I didn’t appreciate how fabulous this was and how courageous.”