Alan Arkin, virtuoso comic actor with a serious side, dies at 89

Alan Arkin, virtuoso comic actor with a serious side, dies at 89

Alan Arkin, the versatile actor who finally won an Oscar – for Little Miss Sunshine — after making a career out of disappearing into characters with turns that could be comedic, chilling, or charming, he passed away. He was 89 years old.

His sons, Adam, Matthew and Anthony, announced the news in a joint statement. “Our father was a uniquely talented force of nature, both as an artist and as a man,” they said. “A loving husband, father, great grandfather and great grandfather, he was adored and will be deeply missed.”

In his first significant feature film role, Arkin received a rare Academy Award nomination for Best Actor for work in a comedy when he played a Russian sailor whose submarine is abandoned off the coast of a New England fishing village in Norman Jewison’s The Russians are coming! The Russians are coming (1966).

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Two years later, he wowed audiences and earned another Academy Award nomination for portraying deaf-mute loner John Singer in the heartwarming The heart is a lonely hunter (1968), Robert Ellis Miller’s adaptation of the Carson McCullers novel filmed in Selma, Alabama.

For playing foul-mouthed, heroin-snorting grandfather Edwin Hoover in the road movie Little Miss Sunshine (2006), Arkin was awarded an Oscar that those in Hollywood recognized was long overdue. (At age 72, he was among the oldest to win the Supporting Actor trophy.)

“The two directors (Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris) didn’t want to give me the assignment because I was too young and vital. It’s a nice way to not get a part,” he told Robert Osborne during an interview at the 2014 TCM Classic Film Festival. “But after they couldn’t find anyone for about six months, they said, ‘Well, we might as well go back to Alan Arkin.’ By then, I had aged.

Arkin then received a fourth Academy Award nomination for his work as a jaded film producer who makes a phony film to rescue hostages in Iran – and he scored bonus points for his line “Argo fuck you” – in the Best Picture winner Argon (2012).

His son Adam is an actor best known for starring in Chicago Hope. He also forged a second career as a first-rate television director.

Arkin first made his name on Broadway in 1963, when he won a Tony Award for playing David Kolowitz, a struggling actor under the thumb of his parents, in Enter Laughingbased on a semi-autobiographical novel by Carl Reiner.

A year later, she starred alongside Eli Wallach and Anne Jackson in the long-running Broadway hit comedy Lovedirected by Mike Nichols.

Like Nichols, Arkin honed his comedic skills over two years with the famed Second City improv troupe in Chicago. It was definitely funny on the big screen as seen in Madcap The in-laws, in which he played a mild-mannered dentist opposite CIA agent Peter Falk; In Rafferty and the Gold Dust Twins (1975), as a Los Angeles driving instructor gone mad; In Freebie and the Bean (1974) as a corrupt Mexican-American cop opposite his friend James Caan; and as a B-movie director on Amiable Hearts of the West (1975).

Arkin, however, was able to shed his goofy side in films like the psychological thriller Wait until dark (1967), when he played an evil thug who threatened poor Audrey Hepburn, and Take 22in which he played a pilot struggling to maintain control of his sanity in Nichols’ adaptation of Take 22 (1970).

Arkin also played Sigmund Freud in The seven percent solution (1976) and was a bored suburbanite in Tim Burton’s Edward scissor hands (1990), a wise mentor in The rocket launcher (1991), one of the pressure sellers in Glengarry Glen Ross (1992) and the nimble patriarch in Beverly Hills slums (1998).

asked in a 1998 interview with the Los Angeles Times because Arkin was no longer a protagonist, Jewison She said: “His accents are impeccable, and he’s even able to change his appearance – but strangely, this gift worked against him. He’s always been underrated, also because he’s never been in service of his own success, which is one of the things I love about him.”

Most recently, he co-starred with Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine in the crime comedy old man Go in style (2017) and with Michael Douglas in the Netflix series The Kominsky method. After two Emmy nominations, he retired from the latter ahead of the show’s third and final season, in a move announced in September 2020.

In his chat with Orborne, Arkin noted that until he hit 40, acting “was the reason I’m alive. I wanted to do every part imaginable and kill myself doing it. Working on The in-laws it marked “the first time I ever let myself go into a film enough to enjoy it, to stop that sense of tension and hopelessness I’d had for so many years.”

In-laws - Peter Falk, Alan Arkin

Alan Arkin (right) with Peter Falk in 1979’s ‘The In-Laws’

Warner Bros./Photofest

Alan Wolf Arkin was born in Brooklyn on March 26, 1934, the eldest of three children. His parents were teachers and he said they were Communists. His father took him to see foreign films at New York’s Thalia, and he “learned to read by watching subtitles,” she told Osborne.

Arkin often noted that by the age of 5 he had already decided that he would become an actor.

In 1945, he and his family moved to Los Angeles, and Arkin studied at LA City College and Cal State LA. Then he won an acting scholarship to Bennington College in Vermont as one of the school’s few male students.

Arkin played guitar, piano, fife and vibraphone, and from 1957 to 1959 he performed and toured throughout Europe with the folk singing group The Tarriers, who had a hit “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song )”, later made more famous by Harry Belafonte. (Arkin and group sang it along with another song in the 1957 film Calypso heat wave).

Arkin then appeared with a repertory company in the Adirondacks and landed a role in an Off-Broadway production of Abelard and Eloisa.

Struggling to make a living, Arkin moved to St. Louis to work with the Compass Players, an improv stand-up comedy revue. He was spotted by Paul Sills, who invited him to come to Chicago to join the fledgling Second City improv comedy troupe in the 1960s.

“I feared getting fired for the first month or two,” he said in a 2012 interview. “I couldn’t be funny. I didn’t know how to be funny. I didn’t think I would make it. There was no place I thought I could go if I didn’t make it there, so I worked and worked and worked, and finally found a character who made me laugh. And I held on to that character like a lifeline.

“Then I got pretty confident with that, so I started developing a library of characters around him. And when I played them, I had laughs. … I finally reached the point where I could do it not with extreme characters, but closer and closer to myself. But it took a long time.”

In one memorable part, he played a beatnik trying to pick up an uptight girl (Barbara Harris) in a Chicago art museum.

Arkin stayed with Second City for two years, including one in New York, before leaving to act Enter Laughing, where he helped choose his future second wife, Barbara Dana. (They married in 1964 and divorced in the 1990s.)

All of us “ended up in Second City thinking we were outcasts and misfits and instead became the center of a movement,” he said.

After hitting big with The Russians are comingArkin stepped in for Peter Sellers Inspector Clouseau (1968) and, much more successfully, played a Puerto Rican widower with two children Doll (1969).

He went on to appear in other movies like The last of the Red Hot Lovers (1972), Sale (1977) — which he also directed — Simone (1980), Chu Chu and the Philly Flash (1981), Improper channels (1981), The return of Captain Invincible (1983), Bad medicine (1985), Joshua yesterday and today (1985), by John Cassavetes Big issue (1986), Havana (1990), Steal big. Steal little (1995), Gros Pointe Blank (1997), Four days in September (1997), Thirteen conversations about one thing (2001), Be smart (2008), Marley & I (2008), Get up guys (2012), Grudge match (2013) e Million dollar arm (2014).

Tried to star in a sitcom, Harrybut the ABC show about a hospital car dealer lasted only seven episodes in 1987. In 2001-2002, he played a judge who was soft on criminals in the A&E series Via del Centro 100.

In 1969, Arkin won an Obie Award and an Outer Circle Critics Award for his off-Broadway direction of Little murders, Jules Feiffer’s black comedy about the inexorable decay of New York City. Three years later, he directed the original Broadway production of Neil Simon The boys of the sun, with Jack Albertson and Sam Levene. He and Elaine May also teamed up for three dizzying short plays performed in 1998 under the banner Power games.

Arkin also directed the 1971 film version of Petty murders; directed and wrote a 12-minute short film, People soup (1969), Academy Award-nominated (starring Adam and Matthew; their mother was his first wife, Jeremy Yaffe); and directed the pilot for the short-lived 1975-76 Lee Grant sitcom Fay at NBC.

Arkin has composed more than 100 songs and recorded albums for children, including four with the children’s folk group The Baby Sitters. She has also written children’s books such as The condition of the lemmingspublished in 1976, and a 2011 memoir, An improvised life.

Survivors also include his third wife, Suzanne, whom he married in 1996; grandchildren Molly, Emmet, Atticus and Abigail and great-grandson Elliott.

Duane Byrge contributed to this report.