Alan Arkin, the witty character actor who displayed his versatility in everything from hilarious comedy to chilling drama while receiving four Academy Award nominations and winning an Oscar for “Little Miss Sunshine,” has died. He was 89.
On Friday, his sons Adam, Matthew, and Anthony acknowledged their father’s death through the actor’s publicist. “Our father was a uniquely talented force of nature, both as an artist and as a man,” the family said in a statement.
Paul Reiser, Michael Rapaport, and Patton Oswalt were among those who paid tribute to Arkin. “What a wonderful, unique voice for comedy.” And, on the few occasions when I was in his company, he was a kind and generous soul. I learned a lot from watching him. “And the laughs I got from his glorious work seem endless,” Jason Alexander tweeted.
Arkin, a member of Chicago’s legendary Second City comedy group, was an initial success in films with the Cold War parody “The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming” and peaked late in life with his award for best supporting actor in the surprise 2006 smash “Little Miss Sunshine.” His first Oscar nomination, for “The Russians Are Coming,” came more than 40 years after his nomination for playing a devious Hollywood executive in the Oscar-winning “Argo.”
In recent years, Alan Arkin co-starred with Michael Douglas in Netflix’s comedy series “The Kominsky Method,”
“When I was a young actor, people wanted to know if I wanted to be a serious actor or a funny one,” Michael McKean said on Twitter on Friday. ‘I’d respond, ‘Which type is Alan Arkin?’ and that would silence them.”
Arkin reportedly told The Associated Press that the best part about being a character actor was not having to strip naked for a role. He wasn’t a sex symbol or a superstar, but he was always busy, having appeared in over 100 TV and feature films. His trademarks were likability, relatability, and complete immersion in his roles, no matter how unusual, whether he was playing a Russian submarine officer in “The Russians Are Coming” who struggles to communicate with the equally jittery Americans, or he was the foul-mouthed, drug-addicted grandfather in “Little Miss Sunshine.”
“Alan’s never had an identifiable screen personality because he just disappears into his characters,” “The Russians Are Coming” director Norman Jewison famously noted. “His accents are flawless, and he can even change his appearance.” He’s always been underrated, in part because he’s never worked for his own success.”
While still with Second City, Carl Reiner cast Arkin as the young protagonist in the 1963 Broadway comedy “Enter Laughing,” which was based on Reiner’s semi-autobiographical novel.
He drew rave reviews and the attention of Jewison, who was planning to helm a 1966 comedy about a Russian submarine that causes a panic when it gets too close to a small New England town. Arkin’s next major film proved, albeit unwillingly, that he could also play a villain.
Arkin featured in ‘Wait Until Dark’ as a ruthless drug dealer who takes a blind woman (Audrey Hepburn) hostage in her own flat, convinced that a narcotics shipment is stashed there.
In a 1998 interview, he recalled how tough it was to terrorize Hepburn’s persona.
“Just awful,” he exclaimed. “Being mean to her was difficult because she was an exquisite lady.”
Arkin’s career took off again in 1968 with “The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter,” in which he portrayed a sensitive man who couldn’t hear or talk. He played the bumbling French investigator in “Inspector Clouseau” the same year, although the picture was overshadowed by Peter Sellers’ Clouseau in the “Pink Panther” films.
Arkin’s reputation as a character actor flourished further when fellow Second City graduate Mike Nichols cast him as Yossarian, the victim of wartime red tape, in 1970’s “Catch-22,” based on Joseph Heller’s million-selling novel.
Arkin appeared in films such as “Edward Scissorhands,” in which he played Johnny Depp’s neighbour, and in David Mamet’s “Glengarry Glen Ross,” in which he played a tenacious real estate salesman.
In the 1998 film “The Slums of Beverly Hills,” he and Reiner played siblings, one successful (Reiner) and the other struggling (Arkin).
“I used to believe that my work was diverse. “However, I realised that for the first twenty years or so, most of the characters I played were outsiders, strangers to their surroundings, foreigners in some way,” he told The Associated Press in 2007.
“That began to shift as I became more and more at ease with myself.” A few days ago, I received one of the finest compliments I’ve ever received. They stated that they believed my characters were frequently the heart, or moral centre, of a picture. I didn’t understand it, but I enjoyed it and it made me happy.”
Other recent projects include “Going in Style,” a 2017 remake starring fellow Oscar winners Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman, as well as “The Kominsky Method.” He portrayed a Hollywood talent agency and Douglas’ character’s pal, a once-promising actor who now runs an acting school after his career faltered.
He also played Wild Knuckles in the 2022 animated feature “Minions: The Rise of Gru.”
Arkin also directed the film adaptations of Jules Feiffer’s 1971 dark comedy “Little Murders” and Neil Simon’s 1972 play about feuding old vaudeville partners, “The Sunshine Boys.” Arkin featured on television in the short-lived programmes “Fay” and “Harry” and played a night court judge in Sidney Lumet’s drama series “100 Centre Street” on A&E. He also wrote several children’s novels.
He was born in the New York City borough of Brooklyn and relocated to Los Angeles with his family, which included two younger brothers, when he was 11 years old. His parents got positions as teachers but were sacked because they were Communists during the post-World War II Red Scare.
“We were dirt poor, so I couldn’t afford to go to the movies very often,” he explained to the Associated Press in 1998. “But I went whenever I could and focused on films, as they were more important than anything else in my life.”
He studied acting at Los Angeles City College, California State University, Los Angeles, and Bennington College in Vermont, where he received a scholarship.
He married Jeremy Yaffe, a fellow student, and they had two boys, Adam and Matthew.
After his divorce from Yaffe in 1961, Arkin married actress-writer Barbara Dana, with whom he had a son, Anthony. All three sons became actors, with Adam appearing on the TV show “Chicago Hope.”
“It was certainly nothing that I pushed them into,” Arkin claimed in 1998. “It didn’t matter to me what they did as long as it allowed them to grow.”
Arkin began his entertainment career as an organiser and vocalist with The Tarriers, a group that briefly rode the late 1950s folk musical revival wave. Later, he moved on to theatre acting, mostly off-Broadway and in tragic parts.
He collaborated with Nichols, Elaine May, Jerry Stiller, Anne Meara, and others at Second City to create intelligent, high-speed impromptu parodies on current fads and follies.
“I had no idea I could be funny until I joined Second City,” he explained.