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Alan Arkin, 1934–2023

A funnyman whose dramatic range turned out to be limitless.
by Bill Ryan
June 30, 2023
Alan Arkin, 1934–2023
Actor Alan Arkin of "Argo" poses at the Guess Portrait Studio during 2012 Toronto International Film Festival on September 8, 2012 in Toronto, Canada. (Photo by Matt Carr/Getty Images)

In the commentary track for the Blu-ray release of David Mamet and James Foley’s Glengarry Glen Ross (1992), Alan Arkin—the great actor died on June 29, at the venerable age of 89—who plays the cowed and brooding real estate salesman/con man George Aaronow in the film, explains how he managed the intricacies of Mamet’s dialogue, especially the half-sentences that are cut off by other, more aggressive characters, leaving the generally quiet Aaronow feeling unheard again. The key, he said, was to have, in his head, the rest of the character’s sentence. These words, remember, are not something David Mamet wrote; the audience is never going to hear them. But it was important to know the rest of the character’s thought and even to be ready to say it, because otherwise, when Aaronow gets cut off, there’s the danger of the unfinished thought ending on a phony note. The script indicates where Aaronow is interrupted, so the talking always stops on a specific word. The way Arkin worked it, though, his character is genuinely interrupted by the others, because he had more to say, and he was ready to say it.

This sort of sharp thinking, and the thoughtfully individualistic approach to his roles to which it attests, made Alan Arkin stand out as one of the best and most dependable actors of his generation. His training at Second City, the improv and sketch comedy group out of Chicago, during its early days no doubt helped him develop the tools that allowed him to handle Mamet’s dialogue with such apparent ease. But it didn’t make him funny—he just was funny. And it didn’t make Arkin, who basically looked and sounded like an ordinary guy, jump off the screen with such energy, making the audience pay attention to him, despite a relative absence of flamboyant flourishes. This was the case even when he played a flamboyant character, like the murderous hippie stalking Audrey Hepburn in Wait Until Dark (1967). Arkin could go big, to be sure, but he had such a tight grip on that side of his talent that he could surprise you by underplaying certain moments.

Arkin’s film career got rolling with the early success of Norman Jewison’s comedy The Russians are Coming the Russians are Coming (1966), for which Arkin earned his first Academy Award nomination. The film was only his second feature; his character in his first movie didn’t even have a name. Then, after a couple of short films, Arkin becomes the most famous aspect of the aforementioned Wait Until Dark. Originally a hit play, Arkin’s Harry Roat doesn’t appear on screen for at least a good half hour, if not more, but when he finally does, the film is all his. When Arkin’s knife-wielding Roat leaps from the shadows in pursuit of Hepburn’s blind heroine, Arkin immediately became the centerpiece of one of the most successful, memorable, and least cheap jump scares in the history of cinema. If anyone in Hollywood had been inclined to dismiss Arkin’s manifest talents, they couldn’t do so anymore.

It wasn’t all highs in Arkin’s career. One of his next films was as Inspector Clouseau in Inspector Clouseau, which should have been a home run given Arkin’s comic talents, but which nobody gave a hoot about. Then, in 1968, Arkin received his second Oscar nomination for his role in the Carson McCullers adaptation, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. At this point, Arkin appeared capable of anything. His range was limitless. Trained in comedy, he hadn’t even made that many comedies. In hindsight, all of this makes his next major role almost an inevitability. Joining a ridiculous cast that ranges from Art Garfunkel to Orson Welles, Arkin starred as Yossarian, a World War II bombardier, in Mike Nichols’s ambitious adaptation of Joseph Heller’s classic novel Catch-22 (1970). Nichols had all sorts of interesting ideas for this make-or-break film, such as not including any extras, so that the only people onscreen are our star and his supporting players. So those who do appear onscreen had better pop, and they do, from Bob Newhart to Jon Voight. None more so, however, than Arkin.

The first time we see Arkin in the film, he’s being stabbed in the back, literally, by an unknown assailant. As the knife enters his back, Arkin lets out a shocked, croaking gasp, which in a way sums up Arkin’s Yossarian—he’s a man in perpetual shock, fear, and pain, a state he’ll live in forever unless he can get out of this damn war.

Throughout Catch-22, Arkin distinguishes himself as perhaps the one sane man on base, which sets him apart as crazy (“That’s some catch, that catch-22”). His Yossarian would be one of Arkin’s biggest swings as an actor: flamboyant and comic and desperate and death-haunted. I said before that Nichols had some pretty big stylistic ideas for the film, some of which threatened to smother its natural and ironic liveliness. Arkin almost single-handedly raises this Catch-22 out of that danger. Arkin keeps the heaviness light, which was supposed to be the whole idea in the first place.

The very next year was, you might say, a landmark in Arkin’s career, even if an obscure and understated one. 1971 is the year that Arkin directed one of his two feature films, an adaptation of Jules Feiffer’s play Little Murders. Feiffer’s story is a somewhat surreal look at senseless violence in America, and how, during a decade of assassinations (he wrote the play in the 1960s), society had fallen apart. Elliot Gould starred in the play during its initial catastrophic Broadway run; later, after it earned commercial and critical success, Gould secured the film rights. Jean-Luc Godard was originally attached, but that ended up going nowhere. Arkin, meanwhile, had directed a successful off-Broadway production of Feiffer’s play in 1969, and was tapped by Gould to direct the film. Arkin didn’t really want to do it, but changed his mind after meeting Feiffer.

Before this, Arkin had written and directed a couple of short films, along with the plays he’d directed, so he wasn’t exactly a novice. Still, a film like Little Murders, even in the rambunctiously creative 1970s, was bound to encounter hardships. Critically, it did pretty well, but gained little traction outside of the cult status it was bound for from the beginning. However, the film (in which Arkin also took a small role as a somewhat antic police lieutenant) is unlike anything else I’ve ever seen before. Genuinely shocking at times, and about as overtly satirical as films get, Little Murders has all the quirk and stylistic showmanship that Arkin the actor spent his career controlling, letting it loose only when no other approach would do. A tamped-down Little Murders is inconceivable, and Arkin lets it all hang out.

His career never seemed to pause: he was prolific, successful, and varied. Of his post-Little Murders work, his best-remembered movies are probably The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, in which he plays Sigmund Freud opposite Nicol Williamson’s cocaine-addicted Sherlock Holmes (the film is basically lighthearted, but it’s not that lighthearted, and Arkin plays Freud straight), and the madcap Arthur Hiller comedy The In-Laws, where Arkin plays opposite Peter Falk. This, needless to say, is an absolute dream-pairing, and the two brilliant actors show up just to give the audience a damn good time. In the middle of all this, there are several Arkin films that nobody remembers, but he kept going, because people wanted him to be in their movies.

Arkin seemingly never lacked for work, even, if not especially, during his later years. He popped up everywhere, from Edward Scissorhands and The Rocketeer to Little Miss Sunshine and Argo. In regards to these last two, it could sometimes be difficult to tell just how much of a shit he gave. When he finally won an Oscar—Best Supporting Actor for his role in Little Miss Sunshine (a film I confess to enjoying)—you could tell, as he accepted the award, how little it meant to him. This could have been on account of the award being a long time coming, or that it was a blatant career award (he’s good in the film, but nobody would claim it’s among his best work), or it could be that if he’d won for The Russians are Coming the Russians are Coming, he would have cared just as little. If anyone in his business seemed to be doing it for every reason other than possible awards, it was Arkin. He might have just stayed home that night, as George C. Scott did the year he won for Patton, but Little Miss Sunshine is a nice little movie in which Arkin’s character is closely bonded to a little girl. That little girl, Abigail Breslin, was also nominated for an Oscar that night, and Arkin was open about the fact that she shouldn’t win, because that kind of accolade could, he believed, be damaging to a child. Upon her nomination announcement, Arkin said, “It’s enough. She has had enough attention. I love her and I love her family, and I feel enough is enough. She is a kid; she needs to have a childhood. I hope she loses.”

Alan Arkin’s passing will leave a permanent hole in American film. It would be difficult to claim that he’d been truly great in a truly great film for some time, but he was never less than very good, and a complete joy to see again and again in any number of Hollywood films. There are many actors about whom it is said that they immediately improve any film they’re in; Roger Ebert developed a whole rule about this as it pertained to M. Emmett Walsh and Harry Dean Stanton. This also applies to Arkin, who was unlike anyone else, and is therefore irreplaceable.

Correction: An earlier version of this story claimed Arkin directed only one feature (Little Murders); he actually directed two (Little Murders and Fire Sale). 

Bill Ryan

Bill Ryan is the writer and sole proprietor of the blog The Kind of Face You Hate. He can be found on Twitter at @faceyouhate.