Could it be that the guy who terrorized Audrey Hepburn–ad us–in Wait Until Dark, was nominated for six Oscars, played Inspector Clouseau one unsuccessful time and, as a heroin-snorting grandfather, dispensed his crass brand of wisdom to his granddaughter in regards to dancing to Rick James’ Super Freak,turned 80 years old back in March?
Argo f— yourself! Alan Arkin…actor, director, musician, writer, composer. Where have the years gone? Arkin is the offspring of a teacher mother and a writer father who penned the song “Black and White” (a hit years later for Three Dog Night) and was blacklisted for his Communist interests. His first splash in the entertainment world came as a member of the seminal folk group The Tarriers, which had late 1950s hits such as “Cindy Oh Cindy” and “The Banana Boat Song.” By 1958, Arkin, who had taken acting lessons since he was 10, left The Tarriers to become a thespian. He became a member of Chicago’s Second City, where he met his second of three wives Barbara Dana, and honed his comic chops.
Eventually, Arkin landed on Broadway. His work as an aspiring young performer trying to break away from his meddlesome parents in Enter Laughing landed him the 1963 Tony for Best Leading Actor. He quickly followed that success with another hit, playing the lead in 1964’s Luv, the Tony-winning romantic farce penned by Murray Schisgal and helmed by Mike Nichols.
For his screen debut in 1965, Arkin was cast as a Russian submarine skipper in Norman Jewison’s Cold War satire The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming. Arkin, in his film bow, is absolutely outstanding as the courtly Russian who kisses a lady’s hand even as he draws a gun,” reported Variety. The film centers on a Soviet sub that mistakenly runs aground, sending a New England shore community into frantic paranoia. The film became a sizable hit, and Arkin went on to be nominated for an Academy Award for his first screen performance.
Arkin went from light to 1967’s Wait Until Dark, cast as the sociopathic ringleader of a pack of thugs searching for a cache of heroin that wound up in the Manhattan apartment of blind Audrey Hepburn. The film was much-talked about for the scene—that still that sends chills up audiences’ spines—in which Arkin lunges at Hepburn in her darkened domicile. The performer then showcased his versatility in another way, winning another Oscar nomination– and the New York Film Critics’ Best Actor Award–for The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. In this sensitive adaptation of the Carson McCullers story, he plays a deaf-mute engraver come to board with a troubled family in the Deep South. Years before Ted Wass, Roberto Benigni and Steve Martin, Arkin was the first to come up short in filling Peter Sellers’ trenchcoat, with the 1968 misfire Inspector Clouseau.
Next, Arkin was cast in the high-profile role of Captain Yossarian in Mike Nichols’ big budgeted all-star adaptation of Joseph Heller’s anti-war bestseller Catch-22. Although the film did not live up to critical or financial expectations, Arkin brought a dry sense of humor to the fatalistic bombardier dealing with the madness of war and military life while on a Mediterranean island during World War II. When asked about the failure of Catch-22’s effect on his career by New York Magazine in 2013, Arkin explained: “Catch-22 was a huge failure, and it rubbed off on everybody connected to it. I had a bunch of lean years where I had to do things, a lot of which I wasn’t wildly enthusiastic about.” However, from the late 1960s into the 1970s, Arkin proved a chameleon, mixing projects of all types as well as moving behind the camera at times. He received glowing reviews for his effort as a single Puerto Rican parent in 1969’s Popi, and tried his darndest in films that made little impact with critics, such as the Neil Simon adaptation Last of the Red Hot Lovers.
Arkin portrayed a trucker in the shelved Deadhead Miles, penned by Terrence Malick, and showcased his expertise at being drolly flabbergasted in two underrated gems, Rafferty and the Gold Dust Twins and Hearts of the West. He was also Sigmund Freud to Nicol Williamson’s Sherlock Holmes in Nicholas Meyer’s fine The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, proved to be a perfect action-comedy foil for James Caan in Freebie and the Bean and Peter Falk in The In-Laws. Arkin also took to directing, with two pitch-black comedies: an adaptation of Jules Feiffer’s Little Murders, and Fire Sale, a dysfunctional family farce buried by critics but adored by a cult audience.
While Arkin has seemingly always been in demand for his talents, the 1980s weren’t particularly fruitful for him. Box-office disappointments such as Chu-Chu and the Philly Flash opposite Carol Burnett, Big Trouble with In-Laws co-star Peter Falk, the terrific Joshua: Then and Now, and the genuinely intriguing Australian superhero spoof The Return of Captain Invincible mixed with TV movies and stints on television series such as St. Elsewhere and ABC’s short-lived sitcom Harry, headline by Arkin as the head of a purchasing department at a large city hospital. Of the latter, New York Times TV critic John J. O‘Connor mused: “Mr. Arkin is an actor who has parlayed three or four mannerisms into a respectable career. He generally appears to be intensely focused on something other than the business at hand. Straight-faced, he tends to deliver dialogue in spurts, as if it is coming out of his mouth almost against his will. For whatever reasons, he is suspicious of the rest of the world, convinced that there is a conspiracy afoot to force him to be normal and ordinary. Within a context of normal and ordinary citizens, the Arkin routine can be hilarious. But ‘Harry’ makes the mistake of surrounding him with an entire collection of offbeat characters. The result is sitcom overkill.”
But the 1990s were another story: Arkin became popular once again, a go-to supporting guy, though somewhat less discriminating in selecting his roles. Among the highlights were his desperately funny salesman in Glengarry Glen Ross, the camp director in Indian Summer, the shrink in Grosse Pointe Blank, and the fortunes-a-fluctuating father in 1970s Los Angeles of Slums of Beverly Hills. Then there were small roles in The Jerky Boys, Havana, North, and a memorable guest part opposite son Adam Arkin in the TV series Chicago Hope.
As he gets older, Arkin’s popularity seems to be ascending even higher. Since his earliest days on the screen, he has proven himself comfortable as both a character actor, often stealing scenes from a film’s stars, and as an eccentric lead. The third time proved the charm as he finally won his Oscar, landing the 2006 Best Supporting Actor prize for his standout effort as Grandpa Joe Hoover amongst the terrific ensemble cast of the indie road comedy hit Little Miss Sunshine. He was also The Chief to fellow Little Miss Sunshine alum Steve Carrell’s Maxwell Smart in Get Smart. There’ve been small but nifty bits as Andy Garcia’s acting teacher in City Island, a tour guide in The Muppets, and Sylvester Stallone’s boxing trainer brought out of retirement in Grudge Match. The topper may have been his cynical, old-school movie producer scheming to help free American hostages from Iran in 2012’s Argo, for which he was nominated for Best Supporting Actor.
When asked about his nomination for Argo, Arkin–known for being somewhat cantankerous in interviews–said, “To me, that’s a euphemism for saying, ‘I liked your work’…I’m just as happy with people saying that.” Along with recent roles in such films The Incredible Burt Wonderstone (his third with Steve Carrell) and Grudge Match (alongside Robert De Niro and Stallone), Arkin can be seen on the big screen this month in Disney’s Million Dollar Arm, in which he plays real-life baseball scout Ray Poitevint, who recruited Indian cricket players in hopes they will make it as pitchers in the big leagues. Arkin has also written a few children’s books and, for 2011’s An Improvised Life: A Memoir, he recounted his experiences performing in front of live audiences and in front of the camera. How does he see his adventurous career at 80 years young? “Everybody`s career has ups and downs,” he once told an interviewer. ”I like to take chances, I don`t like to stand still. And I don`t give a damn what the market is interested in; I want to try things. “Success has nothing to do with box office as far as I`m concerned. Success has to do with achieving your goals, your internal goals, and growing as a person. It would have been nice to have been connected with a couple more box office hits, but in the long run I don`t think it makes you happier.”