Alec Baldwin’s disappointment, undimmed by success.
by Ian Parker September 8, 2008
Alec Baldwin, who stars in “30 Rock,” the NBC sitcom that has revived his career and done nothing to lift his spirits, has the unbending, straight-armed gait of someone trying to prevent clothes from rubbing against sunburned skin. He is fifty years old, divorced, and lives alone in an old white farmhouse in the Hamptons and an apartment on Central Park West—feeling thwarted, if not quite persecuted. In conversation, he lets out an occasional yelping laugh, but he is often wistful, in a way that is linked to professional and romantic regrets, and to a period of tabloid notoriety last year, when an angry voice mail that he left for his daughter, who was then eleven, became public. He is very conscious of what is lacking in his life—a spouse, for example, and a film career something like Jack Nicholson’s, and the governorship of New York—and his rhetoric can sometimes bring to mind a scene from “30 Rock” in which Baldwin, in his role as Jack Donaghy, a shameless but astute TV executive, stares at an equestrian painting by Stubbs and, in a growled whisper of longing, says, “I wish I were a horse—strong, free, my chestnut haunches glistening in the sun.” According to Lorne Michaels, the executive producer of “Saturday Night Live” and an executive producer of “30 Rock,” Baldwin “guards against enjoyment.” (Michaels is a friend of Baldwin’s and was a model for the Donaghy character.) “I’ll say, ‘Alec, you have one of the best writers in television’ ”—Tina Fey—“ ‘writing this part for you. It’s shot in New York, where you chose to live. You work three days a week, you get paid a lot of money, you’re getting awards. It’s a great time in your life. It’s an all-good thing. And, if you were capable of enjoying it, it would be even better.’ ” Or, as William Baldwin, one of Alec’s three younger brothers, said recently, “There’s always something for him to fucking whine about.”
On a Friday afternoon in April, at the end of a week making “30 Rock,” in a studio in Queens, Baldwin was on a quiet suburban driveway in northern New Jersey, moonlighting on a low-budget independent film being made by friends of his. The production did not have the funds to produce Hollywood bustle: the loudest sounds were birdsong and a distant wood-chipper. Baldwin was wearing hunting gear—a bright-orange vest and camouflage pants—and this disguised him; throughout his career, he has typically been seen in fitted suits that signal a menacing delight in the exercise of power—perhaps most famously in “Glengarry Glen Ross,” which he made when he was thirty-three. (“Third prize is: You’re fired.”) Today, he was playing the owner of a suburban property business, a man in a troubled marriage. When I sat with him, he said, “I’m so fucking tired.” Besides performing in “30 Rock” and in this film, called “Lymelife,” Baldwin had just finished writing a book on divorce and the law—part memoir, part polemic about the legal barriers sometimes put between a divorced parent and his children—which drew on his bruising experience after separating from the actress Kim Basinger, eight years ago. He said that he had been falling asleep at night with a laptop on his chest.
Tiffany Nishimoto, Baldwin’s assistant and producing partner, handed him a phone, and he immediately began speaking into it: “It sounds to me like you want to . . .” Then he stopped and started again: “First of all, hello.” He has a fast, heavily stressed, highly enunciated speaking voice, punctuated by frequent throat clearings—this can give the impression that you’re hearing a warmup rather than the event itself. When he had finished, he asked about other messages. “What else?” he asked. She told him. And then: “What else?”
Turning back to me, he said of the film, which he was helping to produce, “This kind of stuff, it’s so hard”—the tiny budget, the tight schedule, no more than two or three takes. “It’s a domestic drama, and, as you might suppose, I’ve had my fill of that subject. This is the last time, in this movie, I assure you, you’re ever going to see me arguing with a spouse.” For a moment, he imagined life at the center of a big-budget drama, and remembered watching Leonardo DiCaprio at work in the lead role in Martin Scorsese’s “The Aviator,” in which Baldwin had a supporting part. “To be Leo!” he cried out. (Baldwin can be quite earnest, even as he keeps an ironic eye on his earnestness.) “To have a huge role like that! To play the role that is the fizz in the drink, you know what I mean? You are the movie! I wish I could play the lead role in one movie, one great movie.” According to Baldwin, “The Insider” was the most recent “great opportunity” for an actor of his kind. “It was smart, it was relevant, it was topical,” and the part went to Russell Crowe.
He was called to work, and rather stiffly walked a few paces into the house, where he directly began playing a tense family scene with Jill Hennessy, in the role of his wife, and Rory Culkin, as their son. Baldwin then returned to the driveway, to sit near a full-sized stuffed deer that was part of the apparatus of the film. “Maybe one will lead to the other,” he said. “Success begets success. I’ve been offered a lot of movies now that ‘30 Rock’ has been successful.” In that show, Baldwin—carrying two hundred and twenty-five pounds, like an athlete in his sportscaster years—plays the corporate overseer of a fictional TV sketch-comedy show made at 30 Rockefeller Plaza, the headquarters of NBC. Donaghy has the calm joy of someone who knows that nothing matters in life but ambition; Baldwin brings deadpan gravitas to a giddy parody of business egomania. (Explaining a tuxedo worn in the office: “It’s after six. What am I, a farmer?”) His performance has been widely recognized: last year, he won a Golden Globe and a Screen Actors Guild Award, and was nominated for an Emmy. This year, he received the same three nominations: he won the SAG Award, and on September 21st he will learn if he has won an Emmy. Although ratings for “30 Rock” have been modest, the show has been celebrated by critics. To all of this, Baldwin’s response has largely been: Where did everything go wrong? “On a television show, precise acting isn’t the order of the day,” he said to me. “It’s a sitcom. The idea is to hit certain beats, and we do it cleverly. But, you do a television show, you become a pastry chef. I’m a pastry chef now; I’m not the big chef at the big restaurant. I’m not Daniel”—a brief pause, then he jutted out his lips in a way that was familiar from his movies, and almost shouted the next word—“Boulud. You know?” He laughed.
“I always think, What if you just took your hand off the wheel, and slowly, over time, it all went away, and your life became about, you know, ‘Is the mail here yet?’ I always think about that.” But this dream of disengagement quickly gave way: in the space of a few minutes, sitting in weak sun on a New Jersey driveway, smoking a cigarette, Baldwin imagined himself as the restaurant critic of the Times; the proprietor of an inn near Syracuse; and the presenter of a classical-music show on public radio. “I could do that,” he said, and he wasn’t exactly joking. He cares about classical music; he began to take an interest in his twenties. (Perhaps not surprisingly, he adores Mahler and can’t quite see the point of Mozart.) “To sit there in the studio and just say”—a rich radio voice—“ ‘And now Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6, with Charles Dutoit and the Montreal Symphony Orchestra.’ Click. Hit a button, and then you sit back and listen, and they pay you for that. And I can’t imagine they pay you as much as the movies, but to me it’s getting to that point where there’s just something else I want to do. I don’t know what it is. I’m tired of being somebody else. I spend the waking hours of my life saying things that other people think and say and do. And behaving as someone else. I’m tired of it. I want to be me! I want to be myself!”
Alec Baldwin once wrote a screenplay for a Western, derived from “The Fastest Gun Alive.” He and his three younger brothers—Daniel, Billy, and Stephen, all of whom have had acting careers in film and television—were to portray a family of unnaturally skilled gunfighters. As Billy Baldwin, who appears in “Dirty Sexy Money,” the ABC drama, recently recalled, “Basically, it was: Daniel’s the outlaw; I’m the riverboat gambler who gets all the pussy, the shallow, good-looking sap; Stephen’s the village idiot; and he’s the fucking hero! He’s the one who saves the day at the end; he’s the Clint Eastwood. If you’re looking for how my brother thinks about his brothers, and how he always felt about his brothers, that’s it. That ’s the movie he wanted to make with his brothers.”
The four Baldwin brothers, and their two sisters, grew up in Massapequa, on the south shore of Long Island, an hour’s train ride out of Penn Station. “It was a checkered neighborhood,” Alec Baldwin said. “The waterfront south of the highway was doctors, lawyers, and then, north of the tracks, very working-class: cops, firemen, tough kids. I definitely wandered between those two worlds.” The Baldwins were not among the wealthy: Baldwin’s father—also Alec—was a high-school teacher of history and social studies, and a football and riflery coach; Carol, his mother, who had worked as a substitute teacher, stayed at home. It was “an Irish-Catholic, rowdy, rambunctious upbringing,” in Billy Baldwin’s phrase. He described Alec as smart and disciplined but noted that “he ran in a crowd that was a little rougher than I did.” He was a good athlete, “but nothing special—I may hurt his feelings saying that.” Alec’s tales of boyhood, delivered with uncannily precise sound effects of the everyday (screen doors, beer cans), sometimes place him in cars and on furiously pedalled bicycles, on his way to settle, with violence, points of teen-age honor. “I had three younger brothers committing me to things,” Baldwin said, laughing. “It was ‘My brother Alec’s going to kick your ass!’
“My father was tough,” Baldwin told me. “No. I want you to know something: My father was tough. My father would chaperone at high-school dances, and the toughest guy in the high school used to want to fight my father. My father broke his hand on a guy’s head once in school. The kid was drunk; it was a big masculine challenge for him to pick a fight with my father. My father wasn’t a violent or mean-spirited person, but he was a very strict disciplinarian in school and he knew that some of these kids only understood one thing. . . . The older I got, I learned to behave as he did, which was to not be afraid of anybody. And I’m not afraid of anybody. Wherever I go, I don’t have a drop of fear in my whole body. Never. Never.”
According to Billy Baldwin, “Alec put my father on a pedestal. He really idolized him.” Alec Baldwin said that he deliberately molded a relationship with his father (who died, of lung cancer, in 1983, when he was fifty-five and Alec was twenty-five), in a way that the others, who were younger, did not: “If you wanted to communicate with my father, you had to share his view of politics and culture. He was very well read, a very bright guy; you had to watch Cronkite, and ‘How Green Was My Valley,’ and after that five other Donald Crisp movies.” His brothers “didn’t meet him halfway. They’d go out the front door and play Wiffle ball.” Baldwin speaks fondly of his siblings, despite the potential sources of friction. (Daniel Baldwin—“Homicide: Life on the Street,” “Born on the Fourth of July,” “Celebrity Fit Club,” “Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew”—has had long-term problems with drugs; Stephen Baldwin, now a born-again Christian, has come to hold some conservative views, whereas Alec Baldwin is an active, highly informed Democrat and a regular contributor to the Huffington Post.) Nevertheless, for all his affection, he also calls them “very different people.” If a generation gap opened up when they were children, it expanded in adulthood, when the younger brothers—gate-crashing Stooges—joined him in the profession for which he had trained. “My brother Stephen, for example—this is not meant as a judgment on him, or to malign him—but, like a lot of young actors, they don’t have a lot of training,” Baldwin said. (In recent summers, Baldwin has given a weeklong acting class in East Hampton, where he urges students to “muscularize” their lines, or genially condemns their torpid delivery: “I wanted a meteor to come out of the sky and crush this whole building.”) Billy Baldwin told me, “I think he thinks we felt, ‘If that idiot can do it, I’ll give it a shot.’ And on some level that’s sort of true.”
Alec Baldwin began at George Washington University in 1976, with the idea of going into law and becoming President of the United States. At the end of his junior year, he split up with a girlfriend and lost a student-body election. Feeling underappreciated, he transferred to N.Y.U. and began studying at the Lee Strasberg Theatre Institute. Baldwin did not graduate at that time (many years later, he did). He was lean and intense, and had chest hair in which one could lose a telephone, and within a year he was in the New York-based daytime soap opera “The Doctors.” In 1983, he moved to Los Angeles and was soon offered a role in “Knots Landing,” the hit spinoff of “Dallas,” on CBS. His father died around this time. Billy Baldwin tentatively connects that blow—along with later career and relationship difficulties—to a general darkening of Baldwin’s mood, and an occasional habit of “grenade launching.” Alec Baldwin does not regard himself as unusually volatile—one wonders if his verbal facility has sometimes stood in the path of introspection—but he acknowledges that he used to have a sunnier self. His memory is that it survived until the end of the decade: “Pre-1990, I was just candy canes and lollipops and ice-cream cones and unicorns; I was happy-go-lucky!” (This timing is challenged by an interview that he gave in 1990, when, looking back at recent years, he said, “I was Mr. Telephone Thrower” and “My whole life was agony.”)
“Forever Lulu,” Baldwin’s first film, in 1987, was bad. But within a couple of years he had played six memorable supporting roles in six better-than-average movies—“She’s Having a Baby,” “Beetlejuice,” “Married to the Mob,” “Working Girl,” “Talk Radio,” and “Great Balls of Fire!”—with some beguiling note of severity, even cruelty, in each. Baldwin had a precise, self-contained style: his performances suggested that although he might accept an audience’s attention, he cared little for its approval. Even in “Beetlejuice,” some inner killjoy seemed to pull against the innocent, newlywed scampering required of Baldwin’s character. This was the last time a director asked Baldwin to play a blameless square—a Darrin Stephens—and one can survey Baldwin’s twenty-odd-year film career without finding a fully persuasive rendering of happiness. One has to be satisfied with flared nostrils and a dangerous flash of teeth.
In 1990, in a big step up, Baldwin played Jack Ryan in “The Hunt for Red October,” the submarine thriller. The film eventually made two hundred million dollars. That success brought Baldwin the first of many invitations to guest-host “Saturday Night Live”—so launching an admired secondary career as a mimic, and a parodist of such alpha males as Robert De Niro. (For many years, this skill was quite segregated from his day job as an alpha male.) In Hollywood, the success of “Red October” earned him “an all-access pass that lasts for five years,” Baldwin recently said. “You have to capitalize. And, if the movies you make don’t make money in that period, your pass expires.” In Baldwin’s estimation, it did expire. First, “Patriot Games,” the sequel to “Red October,” slipped away from him—he had a conflicting offer to play Stanley Kowalski in “A Streetcar Named Desire” on Broadway, and, as Billy Baldwin described the negotiations, “to a certain extent, he played chicken.” Alec Baldwin’s view is that he wasn’t reckless; rather, the sequel’s producers already had their eyes on another actor. Either way, in both “Patriot Games” and “Clear and Present Danger,” Jack Ryan was played by Harrison Ford. (In the Times, Frank Rich described Baldwin’s Stanley, in “Streetcar,” as “the first I’ve seen that doesn’t leave one longing for Mr. Brando.”)
Then began a period where, in Baldwin’s description, “I ignored all of my instincts and started to do what other people suggested I do, but I knew it was wrong.” Baldwin is perhaps too easily seduced by a narrative of grand failure, rather than accepting a quieter story of qualified success; but by his account—one that hurries past some fine performances—almost everything he did in film from that point on was, at best, dissatisfying. A year after “Red October,” Baldwin made “The Marrying Man,” and started a romance with Basinger, his co-star. The film was a commercial and critical disaster. Baldwin said, “After that, I did ‘Glengarry Glen Ross,’ where I only had a very small role, regardless of how appreciative people are of it. Then I did ‘Prelude to a Kiss’ ”—based on a very successful theatrical production, in which Baldwin starred—“and that was a bomb. In 1992, I did ‘Malice,’ with Nicole Kidman. And that movie was a very cookie-cutter thriller. It did pretty well. In ’93, I did the remake of ‘The Getaway,’ with my wife. That was a bomb. I did ‘The Shadow.’ That was a bomb. In ’94, I did ‘Heaven’s Prisoners.’ That was a bomb. In ’95, I did ‘The Juror.’ That was a bomb. In ’96, I did ‘The Edge’ and ‘Ghosts of Mississippi.’ And that’s when you hear the sound of the wheels of the train screeching to a halt. ‘The Edge’ and ‘Ghosts of Mississippi’ were my last shots at the arcade, so to speak. Both movies were out in ’97. They bombed.” (“L.A. Confidential,” starring Basinger, was released the same year; she won an Oscar. Not long afterward, the couple provided voices for cartoons of themselves on “The Simpsons.” Basinger was shown ostentatiously polishing her statuette. “Honey, why don’t you give that thing a rest? You’re taking the finish off,” Baldwin says. “When you win one, you can take care of it however you want,” she replies.)
“Do you want to know the truth?” Baldwin said to me not long ago. “I don’t think I really have a talent for movie acting. I’m not bad at it, but I don’t think I really have a talent for it.” He described the film actor’s need to project strength and weakness simultaneously. “Nicholson’s my idol this way. Pacino. There’s a mix you have to have where the character is vulnerable, the character is up against it, but there’s still a glimmer of resourcefulness in his eye—you look at him and the character is telegraphing to you this is not going to last very long. ‘I’m down’—Randle McMurphy, Serpico, whatever it is—‘but it’s not going to last, I’m still going to figure my way out of this.’ ” In contrast, he referred to Orson Welles. “Welles was a powerful actor, but he wasn’t always a great actor,” Baldwin said, with, perhaps, a faint nod to his own career. “Even when Welles was lost, he was arrogant.”
In the late nineties, Baldwin began to take leading roles in smaller films, and (at last) in comic films—most notably in “State and Main,” directed and written by David Mamet—as well as more modest roles in big studio productions. For a movie star just turned forty, he was prematurely willing to take a generational leap; in “Outside Providence,” in 1999, Baldwin played the father of a teen-age boy. (Long before he was fifty, Baldwin had become independent cinema’s first choice for divorced father, tough patriarch, creepy boss.) As Baldwin sees it, if his career had now moved past the stage of leading man, that was in part because he had become a father himself. Ireland, his daughter, was born in 1995, two years after Baldwin and Basinger were married, on an East Hampton beach. “I just became—you know I’m not saying this to sound like a good guy—I just was obsessed with being with my daughter, and trying to parent my daughter. I always wanted children. And I think, in hindsight, I probably made a mistake, in the sense of my career.” He compared himself with his brother Billy. “My life, in some ways, has been a half-measure. I didn’t commit myself all the way to my marriage and family, because I would have given up more. And I didn’t go all the way with just being completely selfish. I always wonder where my career would be if I was more selfish. Billy is someone who gave it all up for his family. And he has a lovely family. He’s happily married. He stayed married to one person. . . . ”
I recently asked Marci Klein, one of Baldwin’s closest friends, if she had tried to discourage Baldwin from writing the book about his legal battle with Kim Basinger. “Oh, yes,” she said. Klein is a senior producer on “Saturday Night Live” and an executive producer on “30 Rock”; she has known Baldwin since he was first on “S.N.L.” She told me, “I said, ‘Do not write this book. Nobody cares. Nobody wants to hear about your divorce anymore.’ ” She laughed. “He goes, ‘You bitch!’ I go, ‘You loser!’ We work well together.”
Baldwin and Klein—who is forty-one and married, with young children—chaperone each other to award shows or sit at home and order takeout. “He’s happiest eating Lupe’s Mexican food and watching a movie,” Klein said. “I like to ask him, ‘Who fucked you up? Which girl in sixth grade?’ ” Baldwin often jokes about how they should have married. “But we’re friends,” she said. “And also I feel like I’m his mother, even though I’m a lot younger than him. I feel like I take care of him.” She added, “Marriage is very important to him. He didn’t want to get divorced. He wanted to make it work. He was very committed. With men, it’s not the first thing—‘I want to get married, I want to have kids’—but Alec is a different kind of guy. And therefore having it not work, for whatever reasons, was very difficult for him.”
When I first spoke to Baldwin, one afternoon in the bar of a midtown hotel, we barely moved from the subject of his marriage and divorce for two hours. He drank coffee—he hasn’t had alcohol since the nineteen-eighties—while a harpist played in the corner of the room. “I loved her,” he said at one point. “I loved her. I loved her the way I loved my father. I loved her the way I loved my mother. I loved her the way I loved people I cared about on the deepest level.”
In 2000, Baldwin and Basinger spent the year in a rented house in Bridgehampton. (They had bought a house in Amagansett, nearby, but it was being renovated.) Their daughter went to school locally. But, as Baldwin put it, “some people, no matter what you say, you can’t get them to come into the water.” That is, Basinger wanted a cloistered life, as he saw it, whereas he wanted to be out in the world. (Billy Baldwin, talking more bluntly of what he saw as Basinger’s difficult behavior, said, “Alec’s friends, family members, people in Hollywood had been asking, basically, ‘Should we do an intervention?’ ”—to extract him from the relationship. “I wish he’d figured it out after three or four years, not ten.”) Alec Baldwin’s final dispute with Basinger, as he recalls it, was about Ireland’s repeatedly catching colds at the end of that year. Baldwin saw this as normal, and good for a child’s immune system; Basinger saw a Long Island winter making her daughter sick. In December, the couple broke up, and Basinger took Ireland back to L.A., where they also had a place. (Basinger, through a representative, declined to comment for this article.)
In 2002, after a period of improvised custody-sharing, Basinger and Baldwin entered litigation—Basinger now equipped with a lawyer whose name evokes, in Baldwin, a desire to find an insult that outperforms all earlier insults he has thrown at the man. In various venues and, eventually, in open court, the parties argued about Baldwin’s access to his daughter. Baldwin has many complaints about the family-law system, and some record of this is in “A Promise to Ourselves,” his forthcoming book, but his primary focus is what he regards as a simple injustice: he hoped to have a reasonable share of his daughter’s time, and his ex-wife and her representatives were able to thwart him, in various ways, for years, in part by reference to behavior traits—or failings—that had not disbarred him from fatherhood when he was married. (So, for example, in 2002 Baldwin agreed to attend a course of twelve anger-management sessions. At the time, he was shooting “Second Nature,” in London. He remembers standing on the street after the last session “and just sobbing that they had put this enormous obstacle in my way and I had succeeded.”) When I asked Baldwin if he could have made the process smoother or quicker, he bristled: “That’s where the thing gets twisted around to where the persistence of the father to want to have enforcement of his parental rights is viewed as abusive and aggressive—pathological behavior. ‘All of our problems would go away if you would just back off. Why can’t you just back off? You’ll see the kid when I tell you that you can see the kid.’ ”
Some mental-health professionals employ the term Parental Alienation Syndrome to describe a condition in children damaged by one parent’s propaganda about the other. (It’s not formally recognized as a psychiatric disorder.) But “parental alienation” is also used in a looser, less clinical way—as Baldwin uses it—to refer to the mere daily flow of parental undermining. “Parental alienation is about people who narcissistically project their whole reality onto a child: ‘I don’t need you, so the child doesn’t need you,’ ” he said. “And what you ultimately realize is the clock that they’ve been running out is childhood itself. The kid goes from five to six to eight. Kids have school, they have friends; the next thing—my daughter is twelve. They have no use for either of their parents when they’re twelve. And you’ve missed everything. You’ve gotten only these little time-lapse things. The goal of the alienating parent is to kill contiguous time. People need reliability. They need regularity. And I’ve been a victim of a campaign to kill all that. You wind up being more an uncle than a father.” Sometimes, in order to have lunch with Ireland, Baldwin flew to California in the morning and flew back overnight, to be at a rehearsal the next day.
Baldwin did keep working after the breakup: in 2001, he directed his first film, a remake of “The Devil and Daniel Webster,” although the backers of the film were, at best, out of their depth; the financing collapsed, the film was never properly finished, the F.B.I. became involved, and, by the time it appeared, six years later—as “Shortcut to Happiness”—Baldwin had removed his name as director. In 2004, he was unexpectedly nominated for an Oscar for his role as a casino boss in “The Cooler.” He was in “Twentieth Century” on Broadway, with Anne Heche. He had parts in “The Aviator,” “The Departed,” and “The Good Shepherd.” But he says that he was distracted, in his professional life, by the struggle over his daughter. “Think I’m walking stiffly?” Baldwin asked me not long ago. “Yeah, there’s a hundred-and-twenty-pound actress on my back.”
“I used to be so upset,” he said. “I used to be consumed. It ate me alive.” When, in the spring of 2006, he began to discuss taking a part in a new sitcom, it was in a spirit close to defeat. “I kind of needed a harbor to duck into awhile,” he said. “I was so beaten down. They came to me and said did I want to do a TV show. I never wanted to do a TV show. Never.”
“30 Rock” is filmed at Silvercup Studios, in Long Island City. One afternoon near the end of the show’s second season, Baldwin, energized by coffee, was in a social mood. When a cry of “Rolling! Rolling!”—designed to hush the stage and bring absent actors to their positions—interrupted a story that he was telling, he announced, “No, we’re not,” and then he got to his punch line, which required an impression of Rob Reiner, the film director. (The writers mine Baldwin’s off-duty mimicry for their scripts; in a virtuosic scene last year, for instance, during a role-playing therapy session with Tracy Jordan, the troubled comedian played by Tracy Morgan, Baldwin’s Jack Donaghy drew five characters out of the air—three African-American accents, one Hispanic, one Wasp—in little more than a minute.)
That afternoon, Baldwin and his colleagues worked on an episode revolving around a John McCain fund-raiser arranged by “the Committee to Re-Invade Vietnam.” Baldwin’s manner on the set was proprietorial: “Can we do that without the tubercular cough in the background?” Or, after an error, “Fuck, shit—I’m going to say it again. No, I’m going to do something else.”
At the dimly lit edge of the studio, Don Scardino, the episode’s director, told Baldwin that he should have more children. “I had my boy when I was fifty,” Scardino said.
“My hero,” Baldwin replied, with a sigh. A moment or two later, Tina Fey carried her two-year-old daughter, in a pink jacket, through the studio.
In late 2004, when Fey—then the head writer for “Saturday Night Live”—began to devise “30 Rock,” it was in the hope, but not the expectation, that Baldwin would play the boss of Fey’s character, Liz Lemon, who is the head writer for a show something like “Saturday Night Live.” As Lorne Michaels said recently, “We were looking for a foil for Tina’s character—someone who was right just often enough to be infuriating.” Baldwin was wary. It was a sitcom, and he had played Macbeth and Stanley Kowalski on the New York stage. His mind turned to the example of Conrad Bain, the actor with a fine theatrical background who came to be Philip Drummond, the white father of two adopted African-American boys, on “Diff’rent Strokes.” Embroidering on this thought, Baldwin imagined an actor who signs up for the quick money of a sitcom pilot quite confident that the show will never be commissioned: “The agent’s saying, ‘Don’t worry, it’s the biggest piece of shit in the history of show business.’ Cut to six years later: you’re in your dressing room, you’re in season five, and on the wall are posters of you from the New York Shakespeare Festival—these achingly beautiful posters on the wall. By that point, you’re making a hundred and seventy-five thousand a week, you’ve got a house in East Hampton, you’re getting laid constantly, you’ve got closets of beautiful Italian suits, and you’ve got three cars in the garage and you’re paying alimony to your ex-wife who’s living down in Florida. And you’re doing the same jokes, again and again and again.”
Baldwin, who admires Fey—“She’s so bright you’re always wondering if you’re boring her,” he says—agreed to be in the pilot, but on the understanding that, if the show worked out, he would appear in no more than six episodes a season, for six seasons. The pilot was made. NBC saw it, and offered to take the show only if Baldwin was in all twenty-one episodes of the first season. It was a fair judgment: Baldwin’s Donaghy—too smart and too perverse to be a standard business blowhard—was an obvious asset. Although originally conceived as a bullying antagonist to Liz Lemon, by the time of the pilot the character had already begun to expand into a fellow-protagonist, a cynic who guides a neurotic. Unpunished for saying aloud what he should not even be thinking (“Don’t ever make me talk to a woman that old again”), Donaghy became a kind of mentor to the writers and performers under him. In Baldwin’s mind, “Jack Donaghy is Lorne, first and foremost. ‘What am I, a farmer?’ That is Lorne. I think he said that. Lorne’s got a tuxedo in the glove compartment of his car. Lorne is a big-ticket A-list New York water buffalo. He’s big on the Serengeti. Lorne is a person who seduces you into thinking that if you take his advice and play your cards right you’re going to end up with his life.”
Some actors might have taken NBC’s avidity as a compliment. “I said, ‘Go fuck yourself,’ ” Baldwin remembered. “I saw it as network scumbags trying to fuck you around. Zucker, I like”—Jeff Zucker, now the president and C.E.O. of NBC Universal, was then running NBC television—“but everybody who works for Zucker I have reservations about.” He added, “If the show does succeed, it’ll be something of a fucking miracle, because NBC hasn’t done a fucking thing to help this show at all. This show is the red-headed stepchild in the lineup. They’ve gone out of their way to wring the last drops out of ‘My Name Is Earl’ and ‘Scrubs.’ Those shows are done! They’re cooked! Yet they do a one-hour episode of ‘Earl’! You’ve got to be fucking kidding me!” (Jeff Zucker told me, “Alec brings to ‘30 Rock’ a level of comedic excellence that is unparalleled in network television.”)
Marci Klein gave herself the task of persuading Baldwin to sign up for every episode of “30 Rock,” and, by implication, to have him acknowledge the possibility that, thanks in part to some mixture of charm and unyieldingness in his personality, his career might reach one of its peaks in a role that might take no more effort than telling a story over dinner. “I tried to explain to him, ‘You’re going to win every award.’ I knew it. I saw it. ‘Everything you are is coming out in that part.’ . . . We kept meeting. We’d go for drives. I got down on my knees.” In the end, Baldwin offered NBC twelve episodes, and the network accepted; he went on to do all twenty-one. “Even now, he has no idea how people worship him on ‘30 Rock,’ ” Klein said. “It’s really the saddest thing.”
That day at Silvercup Studios, the cast and crew ate tacos at long communal tables. Baldwin, sitting next to Klein, said, “I still want to do the episode of ‘30 Rock’ where we make fun of ‘Grey’s Anatomy’—where everyone on our show talks about something important for thirty seconds and then goes in a room and fucks each other.”
“That sounds like a sketch you should be doing,” Klein said, referring to “Saturday Night Live.” She had been pressing him to host again. He has hosted the show thirteen times. At fourteen, he would draw level with Steve Martin, the record holder. “Nobody does the show better than Alec,” Klein said to me. “Nobody.” Baldwin said there was no time. They argued back and forth.
“Seriously,” Klein said.
“It’s my daughter’s spring break! It’s my only vacation! With my daughter! It’s my daughter’s spring break!”
“She’ll have fun!”
Baldwin’s resolve was slipping. He said to his assistant, “Do me a favor, give me the phone. I’m going to call Ireland. I’m going to see what she says. The not-so-little Ireland. Five feet ten. Five feet ten!”
Baldwin has rather courtly manners. He told me, “Once, I almost choked to death on a piece of broccoli at Orso”—a restaurant in midtown. “So loath was I to inconvenience everybody else that I ran down the stairs to the men’s room, so they wouldn’t have to see me choke to death. So I wouldn’t disturb their conversation. Literally.”
But there have also been moments of public anger: in the early eighties, Baldwin tussled with a man who pushed his girlfriend on the street; a decade later, he was arrested after attacking a press photographer the day that he and Basinger brought Ireland home from the hospital. In 2006, during a run of Joe Orton’s “Entertaining Mr. Sloane,” at the Roundabout Theatre, Baldwin, annoyed that the theatre hadn’t fixed its air-conditioning—onstage, his glasses kept slipping off his nose—punched a backstage wall, upsetting Jan Maxwell, a fellow-performer. In an e-mail to a friend, which later reached the Post, she wrote, “My bottom line was my physical safety, mental health, and artistic integrity.” She left the production. Baldwin said recently, “I thought, This woman’s working for my ex-wife’s divorce lawyer! Physically threatened? You were in a room that was fifty feet away! I never had any interaction with this woman offstage whatsoever, other than saying, ‘How are you?’ ” (Scott Ellis, the play’s director, speaks supportively of Baldwin, who has become a friend. “I found two different actors. One was very giving and willing to adapt and collaborate. Jan was not that,” he said.)
Then, in April of last year—not long after he finished shooting the first season of “30 Rock”—Baldwin left a voice mail on his daughter’s cell phone. “I am tired of playing this game with you,” he said, and his voice rose to a shout. “I’m leaving this message with you to tell you that you have insulted me for the last time.” She had made him “feel like shit,” he said, adding, “You’ve made me feel like a fool over and over and over again.” He referred to Basinger as a “thoughtless pain in the ass” and to Ireland as a “rude, thoughtless little pig.”
Baldwin had spent a week with Ireland in February, and another week in March. But, in the days leading up to the voice mail, he had not been able to reach her on the phone, despite an arrangement decided in court: four scheduled calls a week. He told me, “One thing people don’t understand: I had lived my life for years a certain way. That is, always having a seat on the aisle when I go to the theatre, because I had to make my court-appointed phone call at a certain time. I mean, the hoops that I jumped through. So, once again: I was in a restaurant having dinner with my friends”—at Shun Lee, near Lincoln Center—“and I’m watching the clock and I get up and I can’t get a signal, and I walk out into the street and, once again, for the tenth day, there’s not even a ring—it goes right to voice mail. It’s not even turned on, and I freak out—it was wrong, I’m sorry I did that—I freak out.”
One evening a week later, the message was posted at TMZ.com, an online celebrity-gossip site. (Baldwin is sure that Basinger was responsible for the leak; she has denied it.) The next morning, it was a news story. Not long after that, near the subway station at Seventy-second Street and Broadway, a woman shouted at Baldwin, “Why don’t you call your fucking daughter, you fucking asshole?”
“When the tape came out, I wanted to die,” Baldwin said. “I wanted to die, literally. I didn’t want to live anymore. Every night, I’d say my prayers”—Baldwin is still a churchgoer—“and I’d say, ‘Please don’t let me wake up in the morning. I don’t want to do this anymore.’ ”
Baldwin said, “I had friends, a handful of people, of whom my sister Beth and my brother Stephen were the primary ones: real friends can hear you say the same thing over and over again every day for a year. The same thing, sobbing on the phone, saying, ‘How did this happen? How did I get this way?’ I only wanted to have a healthy relationship, a meaningful relationship, with my child.”
Billy Baldwin said that, on first hearing the voice mail, “I was heartbroken for him and his daughter,” but he also wondered if “there might be a silver lining, and he would be forced to say, ‘I really should look at this.’ Surrender. Just like A.A. The first step is admitting that you have a problem.” He was encouraged that, a year later, “he’s back into his relationship with Ireland. They’re spending a lot of time together.” This spring, for example, Ireland was in New York for her father’s surprise fiftieth-birthday party. And the public scorn had begun to disperse. “As someone pointed out to me, the garbage barge of someone else’s problem comes into the harbor right after yours,” Alec Baldwin said. “There’s a new shipment coming in every month.”
On a cool rainy day in June, the parking lot in the center of East Hampton was no more than half full, but Baldwin drove around it slowly, as if not seeing the many available spaces, and then drove around again, and stopped only when he saw someone he vaguely knew—a youngish woman with a large umbrella. “You’re a vision with your umbrella,” he called out through the window, in a neighborly way. (In public places, Baldwin’s broody gaze seems to be drawn about equally to women and to young children.)
“In East Hampton, I’m a nudist and I eat meat,” Baldwin—a vegetarian—had said before my visit, expanding on the idea that he lived a quite different life on Long Island than he did in New York. “I shoot deer with a bow and arrow. I smoke the deer meat and eat it every morning with my eggs and toast. I am a homosexual. I listen to rock music, loud.” We had met at his house. Baldwin was wearing sandals; his shirt was untucked. There was nobody else at home. (He recently broke up with a long-term girlfriend, an attorney in New York; then they got back together again, and then broke up again.) He gave me a brief tour of the house, which ended in a very large basement TV room, with pea-green walls, designed to please his daughter and her friends. Baldwin put on a DVD of “Strangers on a Train,” and offered a running commentary: “Watch those boats glide in—directors now would be cutting, cutting.” We watched up to the moment of the murder—the murder of a good man’s unkind wife. Later, Baldwin recalled an afternoon in a hilly part of Los Angeles, after he first separated from Basinger but when they were still in contact. Together, they looked at a house for Baldwin to rent. Baldwin walked a little way down a path until he found himself, to his surprise, looking down a sheer cliff. “You’ve got to come over here and see this!” he called back to Basinger. As he told me, “She moved forward, her body moved forward, but”—he mimed a little shake of the head, a glance at a watch—“she said, ‘No, no, come back, we’ve got to go. We’re late.’ And then I thought, She thinks I’m going to throw her off this cliff!”
We took a drive of disappointment through East Hampton. Baldwin talked of stores that had closed down, the car mechanic who abandoned him, the houses he should have bought but did not: “I almost bought that house right there.” And later: “I cried, I wanted that house so badly.” We drove near the beach. “You see the caps of those waves? They look clean—a little bit of a minty crisp green when they roll. I swim every day when I’m here. It cures anything that’s wrong with you, physically and mentally.”
He bought a coffee at Starbucks, where a young woman said something nice about “30 Rock.” “I do feel I’m entering that Clinton phase,” he said after we left. “I’m fifty. There are women who’ll go up to a young movie star and they’ll look at him, like, ‘There are certain things I really want to do with you, and it’s pretty plain to anyone why I’d want to do them with you.’ And then there are people who look at me now, at my age, and they’ll look at me and the look is ‘I can’t explain why, because it’s kind of strange . . .’ It confounds and perplexes even them. ‘In spite of the fact that you don’t look like a young leading man anymore, I’d quite like to throw you down on this blanket right now.’ A bit of that.”
We drove to the East Hampton Marina. “We’re going to be so happy,” Baldwin said. “We are going to be so fucking happy.” For the first time since the previous summer, he was going out on the water. Geoffrey Briggs, the yard’s owner, looked doubtful—“You remember how to work it?”—while Baldwin made a fuss over a small dog: “Chopper! My Choppy! Grrrr!” A few minutes later, we were in Three Mile Harbor, in Baldwin’s sleek speedboat, which has white leather seats and pale-brown trim. He explained that the boat, at twenty-five feet, was as long as it could be while still providing the initial pop of speed that would allow a man weighing more than two hundred pounds to water-ski. “This is why we do sitcoms in Queens!” he said, as he accelerated to fifty-five miles per hour.
The clouds were low and threatening, but the water was calm. He headed toward Shelter Island, making fast, sweeping turns. “It’s the only time in my life I can relax,” Baldwin said. “The most relaxing places for me—and I want to swallow my own vomit when I say this, it sounds so phony—the most relaxing places for me are onstage doing a play and on this boat. When I get onstage in a play, I feel very safe, very protected, very fulfilled. I go out there, I can’t tell you how happy I am: ‘We have a chance of something.’ With movies I always think to myself, We don’t have a chance.”
He pulled on the throttle, which became part of his rhetorical equipment: he slowed for reflective thought, then sped up again. He recalled a day, a few years ago, when he was driving through L.A., saw a car run a red light, smash into another car, and keep moving. Baldwin gave chase and, eventually, blocked the culprit in a cul-de-sac. Before the police arrived, the driver got out of his car—“Typical drug-addict, alcoholic, fuckhead look on his face. He was, ‘O.K., what? What? You’re chasing me. What?’ This nineteen-year-old kid, his eyes blazing. I’m thinking, I’m going to come over there and knock your teeth down your fucking throat just because you’re asking me ‘What?’ You know what, you little fuck? I saw you. I’m a pretty liberal person, but my liberalness comes from what the government should be doing with its excess of wealth. That doesn’t mean I’m not a law-and-order person. I’m the kind of person—you catch the kid who’s drunk and high and he almost killed a girl, let’s take him in and beat the shit out of him for a couple of hours. Then he’ll learn.” He laughed. “I believe that!”
He talked about Presidential politics, and an idea for a second book—about “the social and political and legal fabric of male and female sexuality”—and his hope that Anne Heche would play his girlfriend in the third season of “30 Rock.” We became slightly lost, and quite cold. We nearly ran aground. Baldwin’s spirits remained high; or, at least, his determination to be high-spirited remained strong. “I’m so glad we did this,” he said. “I’m so glad.” At one moment, he let out, as if for the first time ever, a cautious whoop of pleasure.
An hour or so later, he was driving his handsome Mercedes back into East Hampton, for a late lunch. He called his assistant.
“You told him no dice to the event, correct? What else? Saying what?” Pause. “What else? Which is when? What’s on the calendar now? Right? And her event is what? Whenever you see an invitation that says ‘What could be more magical than an evening under the stars in the Hamptons?’ you press delete. What’s going on with my voice-over for Major League Baseball? What’s their deadline? What else?” He banged the steering wheel. “What? Speak more clearly, I can’t hear you. He said what? Satellite broadcast goes where? I’ll look at that. What else? O.K. Take a deep breath. I don’t know what you’re talking about. What does their letter say? O.K. What else? O.K. What else? O.K. What else?” ♦