Alan Alda: The First Time I Was Stabbed in the Face

First the bad: A few weeks later, I was acting in a movie. The camera was in close on me as I smiled. A relaxed, happy smile. After the take, the director of photography came over, looking puzzled, and said: “Why were you sneering? I thought you were supposed to smile.”

“I was smiling,” I said.

“Nooo. Sneering,” he said.

I looked in a mirror and smiled. I was sneering.

My upper lip drooped lazily over my teeth, and no matter how I tried, I couldn’t form an actual smile. The problem was my frenum. I no longer had one.

In case you’re not familiar with your frenum, it’s just above your front teeth, between the gum and the inside of the upper lip. If you put your tongue at the top of your gums above your front teeth, you’ll feel a slim bit of muscle tissue, or at least you will if a barking dentist hasn’t been in your mouth. The tissue is called the maxillary labial frenum, and he had severed mine.

The procedure, he told me, was one he had invented. It enabled him to pull a flap of gum tissue down over the socket of the front tooth he had extracted. The idea was to give the socket a fresh blood supply while it healed. He was proud of his invention, and it seemed perfectly suitable for the gum’s blood supply, but not so good for using my face in movies. Without my frenum, my upper lip just hung there like a scalloped drape in the window of an old hotel.

After the movie shoot, I called him and explained with saintly patience that I made a living with my face and sometimes I needed one that could smile.

His response was curt. “I told you there were two steps to the procedure. I haven’t done the second step yet.” I was a little reluctant to let him do the second step. Maybe this time he’d have a go at the frenum under my tongue. I didn’t have many frena left, and he seemed to have an unnatural attraction to them.

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