Alan Arkin turned 85 earlier this year, yet he has always seemed timeless. With a career spanning more than 60 years, it’s difficult to fathom when there was ever a time when Arkin wasn’t part of the culture. He was an early member of the Second City theater troupe before making his Oscar-nominated film debut in the timely “The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming!” in 1966. He gave iconic performances in seminal movies; he terrified Audrey Hepburn (and audiences) in “Wait Until Dark”; starred in Mike Nichols’ take on Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22”; starred and produced the comedy classic “The In-Laws”; and lent his voice to the 1982 cult classic “The Last Unicorn.” And that was all before his Oscar-winning turn in “Little Miss Sunshine,” which kicked off a renaissance of sorts for the actor, who earned another nomination for best picture winner “Argo” and now stars on the heralded Netflix series “The Kominsky Method” opposite fellow legend Michael Douglas.
And he’s worked with the best of the best of directors, from Sidney Lumet to Tim Burton to Mike Nichols. Says Ben Affleck, who directed Arkin in “Argo”: “There really was no one else I could think of to play the part [of film producer Lester Siegel]. The question wasn’t who should play Lester but rather will we or won’t we get Alan Arkin. We got lucky. He agreed to do the movie and when he did I immediately had the feeling the project must be charmed.”
Likewise, his influence on today’s comic minds cannot be underestimated. “It was an honor to have Alan Arkin in ‘So I Married an Axe Murderer.’ He is a hero,” Mike Myers tells Variety.
So it’s not surprising to hear he’s being honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on June 7. Tell Arkin you assumed he already had one and he simply states, “Well. You’d be wrong.”
It’s said in that trademark Arkin style: simple, straightforward, dryly hilarious. The same tone he uses when you ask him about his favorite role and he replies: “Don Corleone. Oh wait, that wasn’t me, was it?”
Arkin still has the sharp improvisation skills he honed back at Second City all those years ago. Another theme in Arkin’s life: taking unexpected opportunities that paid off handsomely — it’s no coincidence his 2011 memoir is titled “An Improvised Life.” Arkin has often just seen where life takes him, noting, “It’s kind of been the cornerstone of my work and my life, as well.”
In fact, ask him how he ended up in Chicago at the improv company that would launch his career and he again has a frank response: “Failure!” he says. “Failure took me to Chicago!”
Arkin had enjoyed some success in the 1950s — most notably as a member of the folk music group the Tarriers, who released a version of “The Banana Boat Song” with reworked lyrics in 1956. But by the end of the decade, Arkin was a struggling actor in the Compass improv group (featuring Jerry Stiller, Anne Meara and Nancy Ponder) when they played a summer gig in St. Louis. After a show, Second City co-founder Paul Sills (the son of improv legend Viola Spolin) told Arkin that if he ever wanted a job in Chicago, it was there for him.
“I thanked him politely and thought to myself, ‘Fat chance! I’m not going to go and bury myself in the Midwest,” Arkin recalls. But eight months later, lacking work and closing in on 30, Arkin says he “went to Chicago with my tail between my legs and landed what was maybe the best gig I’ve ever had in my life.”
Back then, Second City wasn’t the institution it would become — far from it. “We were a bunch of misfits who had no place else to go,” Arkin says. “But it was an extraordinarily rich education.” Arkin even wonders how his life would have turned out if he had stayed in Chicago: “I have a friend who stayed and I kind of envy him.”
|Arkin won the Oscar for his role in the indie hit “Little Miss Sunshine.”
Instead, stardom came calling thanks to Arkin’s Tony-winning turn in “Enter Laughing,” in 1963. Arkin had gone to New York with a Second City show and stuck around. “My list of people I could satirize was dwindling and my rage against the machine was getting dulled after a couple years,” he says of improv. So he took the role in the show, based on Carl Reiner’s semi-autobiographical book. Director Norman Jewison saw the play and offered Arkin a role in his upcoming film, “The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming!”
Arkin turned the role down. (In a lovely twist, it went to Carl Reiner.) When Jewison asked what role he would say yes to, Arkin replied he wanted to play Lt. Yuri Rozanov, a role that had been offered to Peter Ustinov. However, Ustinov had worked a lot in the U.S. that year and his visa wasn’t up to date. “So I owe my film career to the fact Peter had worked too much in the United States that year,” Arkin muses.
Arkin is one of only six actors to receive an Oscar nomination for lead actor for their film debuts. From then, Arkin has always worked steadily in one way or another. “Like most actors, I’ve had periods of time where nothing was happening, so I did other things instead of plaguing my agents with phone calls,” he says.
Among these were continuing his music career and directing, including “Little Murders” and most recently, “Arriago.” He has also written several stories and books, including the children’s books “Tony’s Hard Work Day” and “The Lemming Condition.” In 2018, he released what he calls a “mini-memoir” on Audible titled “Out of My Mind” that he says is a bit of a departure, focusing on his spiritual journey. “It’s an adventurous other side of me. I’m very proud of it.”
Arkin even wrote an acclaimed play — by accident. A friend purchased software to write a play but couldn’t figure it out, so the “fairly computer savvy” Arkin offered to take a look at it. “I was fooling around with it for about a week and looked at what I had written and said, ‘God, I think I wrote a play by accident,’” he recalls. “I spent another week trying to decipher and finish it and called my son Tony to see if he wanted to do a reading of it.”
“He just has this special gift of making everything funny, absurd and real. When Alan comes into a room it’s like a light. Although a strangely colored light.”
Ultimately titled “Virtual Reality,” the reading was attended by Elaine May with a producer friend, who then told Arkin that May was going to write a companion piece. May penned “The Way of All Fish” and contributed her previous piece “Death Defying Acts” to complete a trio they staged under the title “Power Plays.” It opened in 1998 Off Broadway and starred Arkin, his son Tony, May and her daughter Jeanne Berlin.
As much as Arkin loved that experience, he has no desire to get back on stage. “People sometimes offer me a play and even if it’s good, I’ll say, ‘Here’s how much I want to do your play. If you told me I could make a million dollars a performance, I only had to do it three times, I could go on stage without any direction, script in my hand, and it would bring world peace for the next 500 years, I would say, ‘I have to think about it for six months and then I’d turn you down.’ That’s how much I want to do a play.”
The reason, he explains, is the repetition. “In eastern religions there’s a place called Devachan — it’s between lives where you relive stuff endlessly,” he says. “That’s what going on stage feels like to me.”
Not that Arkin’s schedule would even permit a play at this point; it’s been more packed than ever to the point even he says: “It’s been busy, I gotta slow down now.” Earlier this year, he reunited with his “Edward Scissorhands” director Tim Burton for the live-action “Dumbo.” Recalls Burton, “One of my favorite experiences was working with Alan on ‘Edward Scissorhands.’ Playing the dad — and without even knowing my father — he became my dad. Acting? Demon possession? He just has this special gift of making everything funny, absurd and real. When Alan comes into a room it’s like a light. Although a strangely colored light.”
Later this year, he’ll play Mark Wahlberg’s mentor in “Wonderland,” the type of role he particularly enjoys. “I started getting a whole raft of curmudgeons after ‘Little Miss Sunshine’ and I don’t mind if they have some humor and warmth,” he says. “But lately I’ve been being offered mentors and teachers and I like that a lot.”
|One of Arkin’s early films was “Catch-22” for director Mike Nichols.
That curmudgeonly persona can be fun to play with; Arkin had a blast in “So I Married an Axe Murderer” playing a sweet police captain whom underling Anthony LaPaglia wishes would be more like a clichéd tough guy. (Instead of chewing him out, Arkin offers him a hug.)
“Alan may often play curmudgeons, but the reason why he worked so well in the part in ‘Argo’ was because of his considerable inner warmth and kindness,” Affleck says. “You can’t help feeling his basic goodness and he radiates a kind of kindness that is belied by that cranky demeanor.”
That is one of the reasons Norman Newlander, the veteran agent he plays on “The Kominsky Method,” is such a perfect fit. “Norman can be crusty, but he’s a good guy,” Arkin notes. “I want to play people I have regard for.”
Arkin wasn’t looking to do a TV series when “Kominsky” came along, but “everybody yelled at me that I had to seriously consider it.”
He had never worked with or even met Douglas before, which seems odd given how prolific both their careers have been.
Douglas, for one, has followed Arkin from way back.
“I knew him from Second City,” Douglas tells Variety. “He’s so good with the humor, he’s wonderful. This is a great opportunity to work with great comedy stuff and learn a little bit more about timing.”
Their chemistry is so vital to the show, and Arkin says it’s easy with a pro like Douglas. “I had no idea what to expect but he was just an absolute delight to work with,” Arkin says. “He’s incredibly flexible and easygoing on set — not an ounce of temperament or pulling any kind of star trip. He’s a very hardworking, very collaborative actor.”
Season one landed Arkin Golden Globe and SAG Awards nominations, and the duo has almost finished shooting the second season of “Kominsky.”
But his next honor will be the Walk of Fame ceremony. “I was surprised and touched,” he says of first hearing the news. “I don’t know what to expect, but I’m looking forward to it.”
What: Alan Arkin gets a star on the Walk of Fame.
When: 11:30 a.m., June 7
Where: 6914 Hollywood Blvd.