Alda brought a book about Feynman--Tuva or Bust! by Ralph Leighton--to director Gordon Davidson, our colleague who runs the venerable Center Theater Group in Los Angles. Davidson, who himself studied electrical engineering before moving onto a life in the theater, embraced Alda's idea and commissioned a script from Peter Parnell (whose early plays Andre Bishop produced during his years at Playwrights Horizons).
After many drafts, the play grew beyond the scope of Leighton's book, as Parnell was inspired by Feynman's own writing. The result was "QED" a captivating theatrical evening that played at LA's Mark Taper Forum and was then reprised the following season at the Beaumont.
The title of the play, by the way, is short for both the Latin phrase 'quod erat demonstrandum' (meaning 'that proves it') and for the field of physics Feynman spent much of his life exploring: quantum electrodynamics. But this wasn't an evening of inscrutable science talk. Feynman spent his career making science matters intelligible to the public at large and this play honors Feynman's accessible style.
At "QED"'s premiere, The Los Angeles Times declared: "The world's ideal of a really fun science guy died in 1988. Now he has returned for one more office-hours chat, with Alan Alda having a ball as Feynman. Parnell's play throws a fair amount of physics at the audience, but in a don't-worry-be-happy way. It's not crucial to catch it all. It's the man behind the theories that got Alda, Parnell and Davidson thinking about Feynman's stage possibilities.
"Alda is easy company and an enthusiastic presence throughout. His audience rapport is formidable," the Times review concluded. "He tells story after story, many of them funny, some moving. The most affecting material relates to Feynman's involvement with the Manhattan Project, coinciding with the death of his first wife."
"For somebody I never met, Feynman comes closer for me to being a hero than anybody," Alda said in an interview. "He feels better not knowing something than believing something that's not true." In "QED", we see Feynman in his office at Caltech, as he is preparing a lecture and wrestling with some important personal matters. "He's got to make a life-and-death decision about his own life and it's fascinating to watch his mind work," Alda explained. "It's an emotionally-charged situation he's in and who he is really comes out."
This kind of complex character is just what you'd expect from Alda, whose multifaceted career spans film, television and the Broadway stage. His many movie credits include Everyone Says I Love You, Manhattan Murder Mystery, Crimes and Misdemeanors, Same Time Next Year, The Seduction of Joe Tynan (which he wrote), and "The Four Seasons" (which he wrote and directed).
On TV, he is known the world over as Hawkeye Pierce on "M*A*S*H," for which he also wrote and directed many episodes. He received five Emmys for the show and, to date, a total of 29 Emmy nominations for his work on television. For his stage appearances, Alda has been nominated for the Tony Award for Neil Simon's Jake's Women and the musical The Apple Tree. He starred most recently on Broadway in the Tony-winning play Art.
Richard Feynman and Ralph Leighton
D Martyn Bookwalter