Critical Appreciation: Alan Arkin, King of Comforting Irony (and that Terrifying Fright)

Critical Appreciation: Alan Arkin, King of Comforting Irony (and that Terrifying Fright)

The first time I saw Alan Arkin on screen, it scared the shit out of me.

The veteran Oscar-winning actor, who died on Thursday at the age of 89, is best known these days for his witty uncle-like presence in films like Little Miss Sunshine and TV shows like The Kominsky Method, his last big acting role. But my first experience with him happened in middle school, where for some inexplicable reason the powers that be decided to invite the entire student body to the screening of the film Wait until dark it was a good idea.

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In that classic 1967 thriller, Arkin played Harry Roat, the most sadistic member of a trio of villains who terrorize a blind Audrey Hepburn because they think she owns a doll full of heroin. In a climactic scene set in near darkness, a seemingly dead Roat suddenly leaps into frame and grabs Hepburn by the leg. The entire auditorium of children screamed as loud as one in response to what is literally one of the great scares in cinematic history.

The fact that Arkin could be as scary as he was funny is a testament to his consummate skill as an actor. And his versatility didn’t just extend to acting. He had a hit single, “The Banana Boat Song”, as a member of the folk singing group The Tarriers. He excelled in improv comedy at Chicago’s Second City troupe, the incubator of talented performers. He was a published author, playwright and director for both stage and screen. Among his directorial triumphs is the film adaptation of Jules Feiffer’s groundbreaking black comedy Little murders (sadly forgotten these days, but brilliant) and the original Broadway production by Neil Simon The boys of the sun. Why in recent years no one has thought of casting Arkin in a remake of the film version of that play is a mystery.

Arkin had a modest but undeniable talent. He won a Tony Award for his first Broadway lead role in Enter Laughing and an Academy Award nomination for his first lead role in a film The Russians are coming, the Russians are coming. It could break your heart, whether you play a deaf man who can’t speak in Carson McCullers’ creepy film The heart is a lonely hunter or a widower struggling to raise two children Doll. And it might make you laugh hysterically, from his work as a straight man opposite Peter Falk in The in-laws to his hilarious and profane support performances in Argon AND Little miss Sunlight to his impassive terrified shrink Gros Pointe Blank.

Arkin has made a lot of movies, not all of them good. (Anyone who remembers Chu Chu and the Philadelphia Flash, The last of the Red Hot Lovers, Bad medicine OR Flag Raised? I didn’t think so.) But he was hardly ever mean In They. He had a remarkable ability to elevate even mediocre material into something worth watching, if only for him.

Following her acclaimed 1965 Broadway turn in Murray Schisgal’s Love, Arkin focused on film and television and did not return to the theater except occasionally as a director. But he made a rare stage appearance in 1998 on off-Broadway Power games, a trio of one-act plays he directed, wrote and starred opposite Elaine May, with whom he once performed in Second City. I was lucky enough to see it, and even a quarter century later it remains in my memory – not as a big night of comedy (they were sporadically funny at best), but as a comedy acting lesson of two of the best of all times.

Arkin’s death affected me more than usual. I mean, every segment of “In Memoriam” in every award show these days features artists that I’ve long loved. But Arkin was a more comforting presence than most. He made irony and sarcasm seem like the most natural and intelligent response to a world that is making less and less sense. We needed him now more than ever.