How Alec Baldwin Made His Own Rules & Won
Credit: Photograph by Mark Seliger
It's not actually a single story, but a series of anecdotes. Baldwin moved out to Los Angeles in his mid-twenties. He'd grown up in Massapequa, Long Island, where his dad coached football at the local high school and Baldwin first became interested in acting. He was the second of six children; his younger brothers – Daniel, Billy, and Stephen –famously followed in his career footsteps. (Michaels, in that same speech, called Alec "the only Baldwin brother about whom no one has ever asked, 'Which one is he?'") It turns out that, despite my suspicions, Baldwin was once a regular kid who did listen to rock & roll, mostly British stuff popular at the time, which was the seventies, so, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Jethro Tull, the Stones. When he was 16, he and his friends came into the city to see the Who at Madison Square Garden. Back in Massapequa, they'd build bonfires in an undeveloped plot of land near the Baldwin house, even in the dead of winter, and smoke cigarettes, get drunk, and listen to music on a portable 8-track player.

Later, just shy of his 30th birthday, Baldwin was driving around one day when he heard, for the first time, an entire symphony from beginning to end, Sibelius' dramatic Fourth. He just happened to catch it on the radio. "This is music," Baldwin thought. It became a world he wanted to investigate. Who was Christoph Eschenbach? What was a pathétique? He found himself obsessed, and mostly stopped listening to rock from that point forward.

The Fourth is a dark piece, and some have speculated that it has to do with the fact that Sibelius had recently given up drinking. When Baldwin first heard it, he'd been sober for three years. He was living in L.A. at this point. With crucial support from his father, he'd transferred to New York University to study acting and then moved out West to work in television, after a two-year stint on a New York–based daytime soap opera called The Doctors. Shortly after he arrived in L.A., his father was diagnosed with lymphoma. He died 18 months later. Baldwin hated L.A., missed his family, couldn't process his dad's sickness and death, and so he began partying hard, taking every drug imaginable, mostly at house parties – "orgies of debauchery" (Baldwin's words), after which he'd too often find himself behind the wheel of a car. This went on for two years. And then one day, he woke up and said, "I can't be doing this anymore. It's got to stop." And he just quit, and hasn't had a drink in 27 years.

And so later, when he did Working Girl and The Hunt for Red October, and the people around him started saying, "You do exactly what we tell you to do and you're going to be the next Kevin Costner," he began to get nervous. He felt like he was on the deck of an aircraft carrier and planes were taking off all around him, and the people in charge were saying, "You're next. We're going to put your helmet on and strap you into the seat and blast you off." And he realized he was expected to do certain things to chase a specific type of fame. And he found himself thinking, "This is just another addiction."

"It happened almost all unconsciously," Baldwin says. "Beat by beat, day by day, month by month, project by project, offer by offer: I'd be sitting there going 'I don't want to do that.'" The biggest betrayal of the system came when Baldwin opted to go back to New York to do Streetcar on Broadway rather than the sequel to Red October. "Once I did that, they went, 'He doesn't get it,'" Baldwin says. "My agent and I, we tried very hard to salvage both. But we were disinvited to the other party. In a way, it was a great failing of mine. The thing I regret is, I probably could have done it better, have [made] a compromise between the two. In the end, whatever happened to me, I made peace with." Warren Beatty once told Baldwin, "Until you take full responsibility yourself – write, produce, direct, edit, do the whole motherfucking thing one end to the other – you're going to live in a constant state of frustration." Beatty meant that if Baldwin remained in Los Angeles and continued to chase stardom, he'd best take control. But Baldwin knew he didn't want to write or direct, and that if he stuck around, "success" would all come down to luck.

"And so," Baldwin recalls, "I said, 'Fuck luck. I want to go become a good actor.'"