Alec Baldwin is the world’s most adorable selfish monomaniac—at least on television. Off-screen, he’s saner but less lovable, and he’s hoping to change that. Last year, it looked like his less-than-beloved off-screen persona might overshadow his onscreen career in a Michael Richards type of way: everybody with an Internet connection or a radio heard the instantly legendary tape of a voice mail he left for his 11-year-old daughter, Ireland, in which he called her “a rude, thoughtless little pig” for not answering his phone calls. Instead, he’s a newly successful actor who just won an Emmy for 30 Rock, a show whose low ratings haven’t stopped it from being picked up for a third season (premiering on Oct. 30). He’s even turned pig-gate into an opportunity to create a kinder, gentler public image: he gave a humble and uncontroversial Emmy acceptance speech, a New Yorker profile tried to make us sympathize with the pressure he’s been under, and he has a new book out, A Promise to Ourselves: A Journey Through Fatherhood and Divorce, in which he shares his pain over his much-publicized custody battle with Ireland’s mother, actress and former Batman girlfriend Kim Basinger. The book’s villains include Basinger, a female judge (“with her customary lack of insight into parental alienation”), a female lawyer (“dressed in a garish, Dolly Levi hat”), a female therapist (“like most of the other drones inside the system”), plus the people from TMZ.com who posted that voice-mail message in the first place. On television, in movies, in magazines, and now in books, Alec Baldwin wants us to know that he rants and raves because he has a heart of gold, just like that guy he plays on TV.
We’re all so used to the image of Alec Baldwin as a big, intense, growly voiced man saying horrible things at top speed that it’s almost shocking to remember how many years he spent as a more or less conventional leading man. He was the first person to play Tom Clancy’s all-American hero Jack Ryan (in The Hunt for Red October). But when it came time to make the next Jack Ryan movie, Patriot Games, the part was recast with Harrison Ford. Baldwin claimed that this was because he chose to do a Broadway revival of A Streetcar Named Desire instead, but since the studio only got Baldwin in the first place after Ford turned them down, they probably weren’t too depressed. After that, he seemed to squander his early promise by starring in movies like The Shadow, about a nearly forgotten radio character whose main ability was to make himself invisible (because nothing makes a star like not being seen), or his self-directed remake of The Devil and Daniel Webster with Jennifer Love Hewitt as the devil; Hewitt called him “the best director I’ve ever worked with,” and she works with luminaries of the cinematic art every single week on Ghost Whisperer. But the movie wasn’t released until three years after it was made. By the early part of this decade, Baldwin was known not so much as an actor as part of an acting family; he and his brothers, Stephen, Daniel and William, were like taller versions of the Estevez brothers. Yes, he had that one scene in Glengarry Glen Ross, giving a motivational pep talk that consisted entirely of threats, insults and swear words. But that was only one scene. As an actor, he was that guy who did the one good scene, made a lot of flop movies and hosted Saturday Night Live almost as often as Tom Hanks. But that was before Jack Donaghy.
Baldwin’s Jack Donaghy isn’t only the most popular character on 30 Rock; he is the main reason the show is still on the air. When 30 Rock started, it looked like a surefire bomb, a weak sister to Aaron Sorkin’s Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, which had the exact same premise and was on the same network. The pilot of 30 Rock, even after much reshooting and recasting, mostly came off as a bland workplace sitcom, about a line of work—running a late-night comedy show—that just isn’t very interesting to most people outside of show business. What could possibly save a show with such a weak start? Alec Baldwin, that’s what. Writer-star Tina Fey initially seemed to be writing Jack Donaghy as a fairly conventional sitcom antagonist, the company man from General Electric (which owns NBC) put in charge of ruining a comedy show. But Baldwin turned the part around by making an acting decision that was as eccentric as anything his character has ever done: instead of playing the part for wacky sitcom hijinks, he played it as serious and intense as any of his non-comic roles. In a pilot where most of the characters were chipper sitcom stereotypes, Baldwin’s Jack growled, grimaced, talked at Glengarry-esque speed, and threw off all the other characters—and the audience—with his obvious yet underplayed insanity. He made the over-the-top improv comics—like Tracy Morgan, as a monomaniacal actor—look like generically wacky sitcom characters; with Jack, we react the way the other characters do, wondering what bizarre thing he’s going to say next in that deep, deep voice.
Baldwin originally signed on to be a recurring character on the show, appearing in six episodes a year; according to The New Yorker, NBC agreed to pick up the show only on condition that Baldwin would appear in every episode. For once, the network executives’ point of view was the same as the public’s: 30 Rock may have been a vehicle for Tina Fey and her buddies from the world of improv, but it was Baldwin, the oldest, most old-fashioned actor in the cast, who was making the show hilarious, and it was clear to writers and viewers alike that the show needed to be rewritten around him. Though Fey’s character, Liz Lemon, is the head writer of a late-night comedy show, that show is now almost never seen or even referred to; like NewsRadio and Just Shoot Me, the shows it most resembles (Stephen Root on the former and George Segal on the latter played bosses who were somewhat similar to Jack), 30 Rock is now a workplace comedy about a business that’s almost completely generic, and instead of being about late-night comedy, it’s mostly about the relationship between Fey’s and Baldwin’s characters. Liz Lemon wants to see her work as something special; Jack wants to teach her the joy of seeing yourself as part of the larger corporate world. He is, in other words, a comic, lovable version of Baldwin’s character from Glengarry Glen Ross; Baldwin has figured out how to take his best, albeit shortest, screen performance and apply it to the cuter, sweeter format of half-hour comedy. Jack ought to be a monster, especially since he’s a Republican, something Baldwin hates almost as much as TMZ.com. And yet, because Baldwin plays him realistically and not cartoonishly, he’s one of the most human and likeable comic characters on TV. When, toward the end of the second season, he had to leave his job at GE (his rival gained control of the company) and work in the “sinking ship” known as the Bush administration, we rooted for him to escape that dead-end job.
So America loves Alec Baldwin, sitcom saviour. But it’s not enough for him; he now wants America to love his hyper-intense, work-obsessed persona in real life, too. After all, Baldwin has said many times that he wants to run for public office someday—“I’m Tocqueville compared to Arnold Schwarzenegger,” he has said, and who can argue with that?—and even if he never does, he certainly can’t be blamed for not wanting a reputation as a guy who leaves angry voice mails for his daughter. So while A Promise to Ourselves is a plea for fathers’ rights in custody cases and doesn’t trivialize the real trauma that parents and children go through in a messy divorce, it’s also a brief in defence of Alec Baldwin, a misunderstood man who lets us know the real story behind the famous tape, or, as he calls it, the “insidious attempt to smear me.” We learn that he wasn’t responsible for his words because “when the beep came, I snapped,” and anyway, even though he
was talking to his daughter, his words “were directed at someone else entirely.” He also wants you to know that “parental alienation is a form of child abuse” and that Kim Basinger was trying to alienate their daughter from her father, not that he’s calling Basinger a child abuser or anything. He emerges from this book, in other words, as a flawed but good man fighting against the impossible obstacles put in his way by ex-wives, lawyers, judges, doctors, journalists, and the Internet. And in case that wasn’t enough to make us love him, he assures us that there are plenty of people out there who already think he’s great, like the ordinary Americans who wrote to him to say things like, “Hang in there. If they recorded some of the things I’ve said to my children, I would be put away!”
So that’s a preview of the new Alec Baldwin. It’s hard to tell if this image makeover is getting any traction; Baldwin can never help saying things that get him into trouble, though he, unlike Barack Obama, makes sure to avoid using the word “pig.” Even The New Yorker interview got him into a feud with a producer at his own network: when Baldwin said nasty things about My Name is Earl, Greg Garcia, creator of Earl, told Defamer.com, “Maybe the reason enough people aren’t watching 30 Rock to make Mr. Baldwin happy is because Alec Baldwin is so unlikeable as a person.” Baldwin, Garcia added, “sounds like a psychotic narcissist who whines about being rich for eight pages in The New Yorker.”
Is Garcia right that 30 Rock’s ratings are low because Baldwin is “unlikeable as a person”? Baldwin probably doesn’t think so, but it certainly wouldn’t hurt his show’s chances of survival if he were as popular as his character. Jack Donaghy gives weird but helpful advice to Liz Lemon; in A Promise to Ourselves, Baldwin seems to be trying to become the person he plays on TV, a dispenser of wisdom and a guy whose failed marriages and bad experiences have made him just the person to teach us about life. It might work. If it doesn’t, he can just borrow a line from Glengarry Glen Ross and say, once again, “Good father? I don’t give a f–k.”