As a multi-talented film and stage performer with an intense comic flair, the diminutive and stocky Jewish-American character actor Alan Arkin built a career for himself out of playing slightly gruff and opinionated yet endearing eccentrics. Though not commonly recognized as such, Arkin's ability extends not only beyond the range of the comedic but far beyond the scope of acting. In addition to his before-the-camera work, Arkin is an accomplished theatrical and cinematic director, an author, and a gifted vocalist.
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Born March 26, 1934, to immigrant parents of Russian and German Hebrew descent, Arkin came of age in New York City, then attended Los Angeles City College in the early '50s and launched his entertainment career as a key member of the folk band the Tarriers, alongside Erik Darling, Carl Carlton, and Bob Carey. Unfortunately, the Tarriers never managed to find a musical foothold amid the 1960s folk boom -- which, despite the success of a European tour in 1957, encouraged Arkin to leave the group and carve out a niche for himself in another arena.
Arkin instead turned to stage comedy and joined Chicago's Second City troupe, then in its infancy. (It officially began in 1959.) From there, Arkin transitioned to Broadway roles, and won a Tony and critical raves for his debut, in Carl Reiner's autobiographical seriocomedy Enter Laughing (1963). He followed it up with the lead in Murray Schisgal's surrealistic character comedy Luv, and made his onscreen debut alongside friend and fellow actor Reiner, for Norman Jewison's frenetic social satire The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming! The picture not only scored with the public and press (and received a Best Picture nod) but netted Arkin a nomination for Best Actor. He lost to Paul Scofield, for the latter's role as Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons.
Arkin evinced pronounced versatility by cutting dramatically against type for his next performance: that of Harry Roat, a psychopath who systematically psychologically tortures Audrey Hepburn, in Terence Young's Wait Until Dark (1967). A return to comedy with 1968's Inspector Clouseau (with Arkin in the Peter Sellers role) proved disastrous. Fortunately, Arkin took this as a cue, and shifted direction once again the following year, with his aforementioned portrayal of Singer in The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter -- a gentle and beautiful adaptation of Carson McCullers' wonderful novel. For the effort, Arkin received a much-deserved sophomore Academy Award nomination for Best Actor, but lost to Charly's Cliff Robertson.
The '70s brought mixed prospects for Arkin. He debuted as a film director in 1971, with a screen adaptation of Jules Feiffer's jet-black comedy Little Murders -- a theatrical work that Arkin had previously directed, to rave reviews, off-Broadway. A foray into the subject of American apathy in the face of random violence as it escalated during the late '60s and early '70s, the film tells the story of a sociopathically aggressive woman (Marcia Rodd) who wheedles an apathetic photographer-cum-avant-garde filmmaker (Elliott Gould) into marriage. The film divided journalists sharply. Despite initial reservations and objections, the film aged well with time, and has received renewed critical attention in recent years.
Arkin's choice of projects over the remainder of the decade varied dramatically in quality -- from the dregs of Gene Saks' Neil Simon cinematization Last of the Red Hot Lovers (1972) and the tasteless police comedy Freebie and the Bean (1974) to the finely wrought, overlooked comedy-mystery The Seven-Percent Solution (1976) and Arthur Hiller's sensational farce The In-Laws (1979). Alongside his film work during the '70s, Arkin authored two best-sellers: the children's book Tony's Hard Work Day (1972) and an exploration of yoga, Half Way Through the Door: An Actor's Journey Towards the Self (1975). In the late '70s, Arkin made a rare television appearance, delighting younger viewers with a wild and gothic starring role on an episode of Jim Henson's Muppet Show.
If the 1970s struck Arkin fans as something of a mixed bag, the actor's career choices suffered during the '80s, perhaps because of the paucity of solid comedic roles available in Hollywood during that decade. A brief list of Arkin's film credits during that period render it surprising that he could even sustain his own career throughout such poor choices: Chu Chu and the Philly Flash (1981), Improper Channels (1981), Full Moon High (1982), Bad Medicine (1985), Big Trouble (1985), and Escape from Sobibor (1987).
Arkin did make two wonderful contributions to overlooked '80s comedies, however: 1980's Simon and 1985's Joshua Then and Now. In the first picture, directed by fellow Tarrier vocalist (and former Woody Allen co-scenarist) Marshall Brickman, Arkin plays Simon Mendelssohn, a college professor who falls prey to a nutty government think tank run by Max Wright and Austin Pendleton. Although the film remained an obscurity, Joshua delivers some of Arkin's most impressive onscreen work to date, and doubtless enabled him to pull from his own Jewish heritage in developing the character.
The public's decision to snub these two pictures may have foreshadowed Arkin's work in the '90s, when he appeared in several fine, but equally overlooked, efforts. These included: Havana (1990), The Rocketeer (1991), Indian Summer (1993), Bullets Over Broadway (1994), the aforementioned Mother Night (1996), Grosse Pointe Blank (1997), and Slums of Beverly Hills (1998). He delivered a searing performance as the "loser" salesman who robs his company of much-sought-after leads, in James Foley's David Mamet cinematization Glengarry Glen Ross (1992), and offered the only memorable contribution to Andrew Davis' fable Steal Big, Steal Little (1995), as "an opportunist who weighs in with the underdogs and learns the true meaning of decency and friendship...[striking] the perfect blend of cynicism, sincerity, and simpatico."
Arkin maintained a comparatively lower profile during the early years of the millennium, aside from outstanding contributions to the otherwise dull farce America's Sweethearts (2001), the gripping telemovie The Pentagon Papers (2003), and the historical biopic And Starring Pancho Villa as Himself (2003). In early 2007, Arkin received his first Academy Award nod in 38 years: a Best Actor nomination that he subsequently won for his hilarious turn in the road comedy Little Miss Sunshine. In that movie, Arkin played the grandfather of an über-dysfunctional family, who is ejected from a nursing home for his freewheeling lifestyle. The character's passions include porn and heroin -- elements that, as used by the film's directors, enable Arkin to provide much of the film's fresh and inspired humor. The part earned him rave reviews, and an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.
He appeared in the dog film Marley & Me in 2008, and that same year reteamed with Steve Carell for the big-screen version of Get Smart. He was the executive producer and co-star of the shaggy-dog crime tale Thin Ice in 2010, and the next year he had a brief cameo as a studio tour guide in The Muppets, and appeared in The Change-Up. He had a major part in Ben Affleck's Argo, a thriller about agents attempting to save American hostages held by Iranians by pretending to be making a Hollywood blockbuster. His portrayal of a showbiz producer who helps pull of the scheme, Arkin captured another Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor.
Alan Arkin has married and divorced three times, to Jeremy Yaffe, to Barbara Dana, and to Suzanne Arkin. In addition to the legacy engendered by his own career resumé, Arkin has fathered something of an acting dynasty; his three sons, Adam, Matthew, and Tony, are all gifted and accomplished actors, with Adam Arkin (Northern Exposure, Chicago Hope) maintaining a somewhat higher profile than his brothers. ~ Nathan Southern, Rovi