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Baldwin with Sean Connery in The Hunt for Red October
The desire to leave acting has been a long time coming for Baldwin, who’s been in the business for more than 30 years. To be fair, the actor has proved his interest for things outside acting: He has been a fill-in host for NPR; he’s also the voice of the New York Philharmonic, hosting its weekly radio show. But the desire to really, truly call it quits becomes most clear to Baldwin when people are after him to get his opinion on topics far beyond his craft, like when a news network asked him to sit in with a show’s anchors to provide post–Election Day commentary.

“In this world where everyone’s asking you to give your opinion, the problem is, you give it. You take the bait, you show up, and you start talking. That’s becoming very reduced for me,” Baldwin says. “For me, everything is about what I’m going to do when the show is over. We have this year, and we have next year, and we’re done.”

The show Baldwin is referring to is, of course, NBC’s 30 Rock, where he plays cantankerous executive Jack Donaghy, a role that has scored him two Emmys and two additional Emmy nominations.

“Working with Alec is inspiring and also incredibly frustrating,” his 30 Rock co-star Jack McBrayer, who plays feckless NBC page Kenneth on the show, says about Baldwin via e-mail. “I love doing scenes with him, and I learn so much; but at the end of the day, you realize that he’s just gifted, and you will never be as good as him. So I just write in my dream journal and cry myself to sleep.”

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Baldwin and co-star Meryl Streep in It’s Complicated
The other people crying themselves to sleep might be the show’s producers and writers, once 2012 rolls around and Baldwin’s contract expires. Even if there is an option to extend his six-year deal, Baldwin says he’s not having it. “Wouldn’t do it,” he says. “It’s not meant to say anything negative about the show. There are just other things that I want to do. Do you want to do the same thing your whole life?”

And how about that life he’s had?

Baldwin, 52, grew up in Massapequa, N.Y., the son of a schoolteacher father and a homemaker mother. One of six kids (he has two sisters in addition to his well-known brothers, Daniel, William and Stephen), he went to George Washington University and had every intention of becoming a lawyer. But before he made it to law school, Baldwin, on a dare, tried out for the drama program at New York University — and he got in. In 1980, he was cast in the daytime TV series The Doctors, and he has worked in television, in film and onstage ever since.

All the while, and despite his spate of award nominations and wins across every acting platform, Baldwin has never taken the craft too seriously.

Fellow longtime actor Tim Daly, who is currently on Private Practice, recalls doing theater with Baldwin in Williamstown, Mass. The two were onstage together for A Study in Scarlet, adapted from the A. Conan Doyle novel of the same name. In the great Baldwin timeline, this 1987 play falls between Baldwin’s stint on Knots Landing and his work in films like Beetlejuice, which led to his starring role in 1990’s The Hunt for Red October.

“We were like schoolboys — we couldn’t look at each other in the eye without cracking up,” Daly says. “It was like we had an understanding, that he was really saying ‘Here we are, grown men pretending to be other people.’ ”