Alec Baldwin never intended to become an actor – he wanted to be a lawyer. From the age of 10, he bonded with his father by watching the evening news, absorbing great moments in American history; watching political leaders write the narrative of the 20th century.

“It was right about then that I decided I wanted to be a lawyer, when I was 10,” he told the Harvard Law School graduating class, as the student-selected 2011 Class Day speaker.

“It seemed, at least to me, that everyone who was a significant player on the political scene at that time, those shaping public policy or holding office, had a law degree,” Baldwin said.

He abandoned his law school plans to pursue acting, but Baldwin – Hollywood star, live entertainer, theater and voice actor, author and political activist – told HLS’s graduating students that if he could rewind the clock, he would take another path.

“This feeling has engulfed me … it touches me every time that I visit Harvard and I am in the company of its law school students and faculty. My attachment to my work is deep and strong, perhaps more so than ever, but if I had it to do all over again, I would choose differently. I would trade places with you,” he told the graduating class.

He said: “My passion for politics, for public policy, for patriotism and service to my country occupy another chamber in my heart, but I am limited by the preconceptions of my business. You are not. There is truly no limit to what each of you can do in order to change the quality of peoples’ lives; manage our economy so as to balance the often-contrary forces of capitalism and democracy; to unburden, even to liberate, your countrymen in a myriad of ways. That power rests with you now. Use it not to do good; that is too vague of a word. Use it, as my learned friend [New York University President] John Sexton said, to bring morality to the law.”

Baldwin urged graduates “to leave here and save this country, because this country needs your help.”

In an interview earlier in the day, Baldwin elaborated on the limitations of his political influence as an actor:

“All of the glitter and all of the nonsense of show business really obfuscate your intentions. People think it’s another role you want to play, that it’s an attention-seeking thing,” he said. “When I, who have no economic interest whatsoever, speak about [issues] in terms of the general good … people always say, ‘who needs to hear from you?’”

When asked what his 30 Rock character Jack Donaghy might say to Harvard graduates, Baldwin said he thought he would take a more laid-back approach.

“I think the Jack Donaghy character at this point in his life would say: ‘Work hard, play 18 holes to the best of your ability, and then when you get to the clubhouse, kick back … and enjoy life,” Baldwin said. “Jack wants to settle down … and smell the roses.”

Baldwin has visited HLS several times as a guest lecturer in recent years at the invitation of Professor Jeannie Suk ’02, speaking to students about his experiences as related to legal practice.

“Alec has done me the favor of coming to speak repeatedly in my courses, in family law, and performing arts and law,” Suk said. “His intelligent and frank perspectives on legal issues with which he has had professional and personal engagements have contributed to some of the most challenging, honest, and controversial classroom discussions that I have seen at HLS.”

He also participated last year in the Harvard Kennedy School’s John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum (and was the first person to stay overnight in John F. Kennedy’s old Harvard dorm room since its recent renovation).

Baldwin, a life-long New Yorker, who refers to Harvard Law School as the “New York Yankees of legal education,” is a 1994 graduate of New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. He was presented with an Honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts from NYU in 2010.

Baldwin currently stars with Tina Fey on NBC’s 30 Rock, winner of the 2007, 2008 and 2009 Emmy for Outstanding Comedy Series. Baldwin has received five SAG Awards, three Golden Globes, the Television Critics Award and two Emmy awards as Best Actor in a Comedy Series for his performance on the show. In addition to many other television appearances, Baldwin has hosted Saturday Night Live 15 times, sharing the title of most-frequent guest host with actor Steve Martin. Baldwin and Martin also co-hosted the 82nd Academy Awards in 2010.

Baldwin’s company, El Dorado Pictures, has produced several projects, including TNT’s Emmy-nominated Nuremberg: Infamy on Trial, Showtime’s WGA Award-winning The Confession, and David Mamet’s film, State and Main.

He has appeared in more than 40 films, including Beetlejuice, Working Girl, Miami Blues, The Hunt for Red October, Glengarry Glen Ross, Malice, The Juror, The Edge, Ghosts of Mississippi, Mercury Rising, Notting Hill, State and Main, Pearl Harbor, The Cat in the Hat, The Cooler (for which he received the National Board of Review Award for Best Supporting Actor and an Oscar nomination), The Aviator, The Departed, and It’s Complicated, among many others.

He last appeared on stage in the 2010 Guild Hall (East Hampton, N.Y.) production of Peter Shaffer’s Equus, directed by Tony Walton. Among his other stage appearances: Joe Orton’s Entertaining Mr. Sloane, directed by Scott Ellis (Roundabout Theatre Company, 2006); Loot (Broadway, 1986, Theatre World Award); Caryl Churchill’s Serious Money (Broadway, 1988); Prelude to a Kiss (Circle Rep., 1990, Obie Award); A Street Car Named Desire (Broadway, 1992, Tony nomination); Macbeth (NYSF, 1998); The Twentieth Century (Roundabout, 2004).

He is a dedicated supporter of numerous causes related to public policy and the arts. He serves on the boards of People For The American Way, The Hamptons International Film Festival and Guild Hall of East Hampton. He is an active supporter of The Radiation and Public Health Project, East Hampton Day Care Center, The Actors Fund, The Public Theatre/New York Shakespeare Festival, The Roundabout Theatre, PETA and The Water Keeper Alliance, among other organizations.

Baldwin’s book, A Promise to Ourselves (St. Martin’s Press) was published in paperback in 2009.

—Sarah Marston