QUEENS, N.Y. -- Alec Baldwin was tossing around a football on the sidewalk outside a Marriott Hotel in Long Island City while crew members of the TV show “30 Rock” were setting up. Baldwin was light on his feet, joking with the crew and happily posing for a photograph with a wandering fan.
This week sees both his first Emmy as lead actor for his role as Jack Donaghy in the comedy series and the publication of his first book, “A Promise to Ourselves: A Journey Through Fatherhood and Divorce,” co-written with Mark Tabb and published by St. Martin’s. His mood belies the book’s subject: It is an exhaustive, harrowing and deeply felt recounting of Baldwin’s experience divorcing Kim Basinger and subsequent petitioning for joint custody of their daughter, Ireland. He covers the minutiae of mandated counseling sessions and legal struggles with his ex-wife, while revealing the emotional toll the legal process has had on him personally. A devastating indictment of the family law system in California, the book is also a heartbreaking catalog of a father’s war to be a part of his daughter’s life.
Baldwin motions toward the sidewalk, grabs two folding canvas chairs and sets them up with a view of the traffic. “Hopefully this book will lead to something positive, whether or not it leads to an examination of the family law system is another matter. Everyone in my life who knows me thinks that the book is very fair.” He trailed off with a quiet chuckle.
Trucks roared by on the thoroughfare a few feet away. Given that the custody case is ongoing, and given its gag order, was there ever a concern that writing a book might cause an adverse reaction?
“They will say these are the reflections of a bitter man,” he shrugged. “They will say, ‘Well, you married her.’ The lawyers and the judges, they look at all litigants and they hate them. They despise them!”
But given that the custody of Ireland is at stake, wasn’t Baldwin concerned that the book could have repercussions?
“I don’t really care,” he said. “I’m sure individual people like [Basinger’s lawyer Neal] Hersh will seize on anything he can, but most people in the Beverly Hills family law system see Hersh for what he is.”
Baldwin might be the first to call him a cross between Gabe Kaplan and Chuck Norris. “I do like that visual,” he said, repeating sentiments expressed in the book. “But you know, there’s a demand for what he does. If you are in a divorce and you just want to make the life of your ex as miserable as possible, then Hersh is the man to have on your speed dial. He exists to make divorce a form of torture.”
Surely at this stage, the custody battle is as resolved as it will ever be?
“Nooooooo!” he said very suddenly. “No! Never! But I am forbidden by the court to discuss the current situation.”
Even though he discussed the particulars of the case in the book?
“I don’t talk about any court orders,” he asserted. “I can describe testimony and events, but I can’t quote from the transcript, and I can’t quote what the rulings were.”
The effect of the book’s catalog of court appearances and mandated counseling sessions seems so all-consuming that it is surprising that Baldwin has managed to succeed at his career these days.
“I haven’t had my best effort in my work for years,” he said. “I have been completely overwhelmed and derailed by this. And it’s still the case today. I am in court all the time. I am in court constantly for the enforcement of existing orders.”
Given that his daughter will soon turn 13 and the case has been dragging on since Basinger filed for divorce in 2001, surely there must be an end in sight, even if he has to wait until Ireland turns 18?
Baldwin continued to smile, but he drew in his breath to make an explanation that he articulates with great forcefulness in his book. “There is your time with a child for your enjoyment,” he said with studied patience. “And then there is the relationship you have to parent a child to mold them -- and those two components are the things that you lose, that’s the battleground you fight over.”
“And then they get older, during college and after, and what are the ramifications? What are the long-term effects? Statistically children raised without fathers, particularly women, become more inclined to drug abuse, alcoholism, sexually transmitted diseases, promiscuous sexual relationships, teenage pregnancy and divorce themselves. When they grow up it’s not over.”
Will his daughter read the book? “Maybe only the bad parts,” he said with a laugh. “You know, anything that will turn her against me. I really have no idea how my daughter is raised. But there is an authority, and that authority’s job is to protect the child. And none of this is now done in the best interest of the child. What you have to do now [is] to get a judge to force a mother to go into therapy to get her to stop alienating a child against her other parent -- they just don’t want to do that. Men’s behavior is examined to a fare-thee-well in the California system, and women just skate.”
There are three places in the book where he writes about breaking down, the last time being after the infamous phone message he left for his daughter last year.
“Like I have said many times,” he said, “if what you did on your worst day was recorded by someone privately. . . . " he trailed off for a moment.
“Listen,” he said, standing up and putting his hands on the armrests of his chair, pushing his weight into the canvas. “The other side is angrier than I will ever be, that’s for sure. And when what you do on your worst day is broadcast by these people. . . . Someone should have gone to a judge and said, ‘I would prefer that he not leave messages like that.’ It could have been done. The world now is so fueled by mockery, and you just get really sad when it’s your turn to be taken for a spin.”
But it is clear from his current levity on set that he has bounced back.
“To an extent. But I am changed. I’m very changed from the experience. It does change you!” he said, just as a stranger walked up and asked for his autograph.
Had Baldwin ever heard, “Is it better to be happy or to be right?”
“Yes,” he said, with a look of mild deflation. “I’ve heard that over and over. The first phrase I make in the book is, ‘I never wanted to write this book.’ But I do feel like, who is going to help other people? To see that nutty, vicious ex-spouse work you over that way in court -- it is agonizing for everybody, there is a lot -- a lot -- of collateral damage.”
Baldwin shrugged and took his arms off the chair. “If you asked me the truth, I wouldn’t even be sitting here talking to you,” he said warmly enough. “I wouldn’t do any press for the book. I have no interest in doing this. When my obligatory press turn for the book is over, you’ll never hear me talk about this again. Ever.”
Then he said: “We good?”