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Born Alan Wolf Arkin
March 26, 1934 (1934-03-26) (age 75)
Brooklyn, New York, U.S.
Occupation Actor, Director, Musician
Years active 1957 – present
Spouse(s) Jeremy Yaffe (1955-1960)
Barbara Dana (m. 1964)
Suzanne Newlander (1996-present)
Alan Wolf Arkin (born March 26, 1934) is an American actor, director, and musician. He is best-known for starring in such films as: Catch-22; The In-Laws; Edward Scissorhands; The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming; Glengarry Glen Ross; and Little Miss Sunshine, for which he won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor in 2007. He is the father of actors, Adam Arkin, Anthony Arkin and Matthew Arkin.
Arkin was born in Brooklyn, New York City, the son of Beatrice Wortis, a teacher, and David I. Arkin, a painter and writer who mostly worked as a teacher.Arkin was raised in a Jewish family with "no emphasis on religion;" his maternal grandfather was an immigrant from Odessa, Ukraine. The family moved from Brooklyn to Los Angeles, California when Arkin was 11 years old,but an eight-month Hollywood strike cost Arkin's father a set designer job he had wanted to take. Arkin's parents were accused during the 1950s Red Scare of being Communists, which led to Arkin's father losing his job after refusing to answer questions regarding his political affiliation. David Arkin challenged the dismissal and ultimately prevailed, but only after his death.
Arkin has been married three times. He and Jeremy Yaffe, to whom he was married from 1955 to 1960, have two sons: Adam Arkin, born Aug. 19, 1957, and Matthew Arkin, born in 1960. In 1967, Arkin had son Anthony (Tony) Dana Arkin with actress-screenwriter Barbara Dana (born 1940), to whom he was married from June 16, 1964 to the mid-1990s. In 1996, Arkin married a psychotherapist, Suzanne Newlander. As of 2007, they live in New Mexico.
Arkin, who had been taking acting lessons since age 10, became a scholarship student at various drama academies, including one run by Stanislavsky student Benjamin Zemach, who taught Arkin a psychological approach to acting. Arkin attended Franklin High School, in Los Angeles, followed by Los Angeles City College from 1951 to 1953. He also attended Bennington College. With two friends, he formed the folk music group The Tarriers, in which Arkin sang and played guitar. The band-members co-composed the group's 1956 hit "The Banana Boat Song", a reworking, with some new lyrics, of a traditional, same-name Jamaican calypso folk song combined with another titled "Hill and Gully Rider".It reached #4 on the Billboard magazine chart the same year as Harry Belafonte's better-known hit version.
From 1958 to 1968, Arkin performed and recorded with the children's folk group, The Baby Sitters.He also performed the role of Dr. Pangloss in a concert staging of Leonard Bernstein's operetta Candide, alongside Madeline Kahn's Cunegonde. Arkin was an early member of The Second City comedy troupe in the 1960s. Arkin and his second wife, Barbara Dana, appeared together on the 1970-71 season of Sesame Street as a comical couple named Larry and Phyllis who resolve their conflicts when they remember how to pronounce the word "cooperate." In 1985, he sang two selections by Jones & Schmidt on Ben Bagley's album Contemporary Broadway Revisited.
Arkin is one of only eight actors to receive an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor for his first screen appearance (for The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming in 1966). Two years later, he was again nominated, for The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter.
Arkin is equally comfortable in comedy and dramatic roles. Among those for which he has garnered the most favorable critical attention are his Oscar-nominated turns above; Wait Until Dark, as the erudite killer stalking Audrey Hepburn; director Mike Nichols' Catch-22; The Seven-Per-Cent Solution (where he played Sigmund Freud); writer Jules Feiffer's Little Murders, which Arkin directed; the The In-Laws, co-starring Peter Falk; Glengarry Glen Ross; and Little Miss Sunshine, for which he received his third Oscar nomination, in the category of Best Supporting Actor. On the 11 February 2007 he received a BAFTA Film Award for Best Actor in a Supporting Role for his portrayal of Grandfather Edwin in Little Miss Sunshine. On February 25, 2007, upon winning the Academy Award for Best Actor in a Supporting Role, Arkin, who plays a foul-mouthed grandfather with a taste for heroin said, "More than anything, I'm deeply moved by the open-hearted appreciation our small film has received, which in these fragmented times speaks so openly of the possibility of innocence, growth and connection". At 72 years old, Arkin became the sixth oldest winner of the Best Supporting Actor Oscar. In 2007, Arkin was cast in a very small role in Rendition. He plays a veteran senator who wants to do the right thing but also knows you have to make compromises every step of the way. He also portrayed the chief in 2008's "Get Smart".
On Broadway, Arkin starred in Enter Laughing, for which he won a Tony Award, and Luv. He also directed The Sunshine Boys, among others.
Arkin is the author of many books, including the children's stories Tony's Hard Work Day (illustrated by James Stevenson, 1972), The Lemming Condition (illustrated by Joan Sandin, 1976), Halfway Through the Door: An Actor's Journey Toward Self (1979) and The Clearing (1986 continuation of Lemming).
Jewish Journal: As an accomplished actor, director, author, musician and composer, do you consider yourself compulsively creative?
Alan Arkin: (laughs) Not anymore, but I guess I used to be.
JJ: Is it true that you began studying acting when you where 10 years old?
AA: Yes, but I wanted to be an actor since I was 5.
JJ: What influenced you at that age?
AA: I spent a lot of time with my father, who took me to the Thalia movie theater on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. I practically learned how to read watching foreign films. I watched Russian, German and Italian films, and it became clear to me to me at a very early age that we're basically all the same. There are cultural differences, but the similarities between people were much more important to me than the things that separated us.
JJ: And it's that realization that drew you to acting?
AA: That and seeing that my father was enormously affected by the movies we'd see. He was so affected, he used to yell in the movies. I think one of my deepest desires was to have an affect on him.
JJ: And did you?
AA: Not that I was aware of, but he lived long enough to see my success.
JJ: Did your parents emigrate here from Europe?
AA: My parents were born here. My mother's father came from Odessa and settled in New York, in Brooklyn. I lived there with my parents till I was 11, then we moved to Los Angeles.
JJ: Where did your musical influences come from?
AA: There was music in our house all the time. My mother played the piano and my uncle was a pretty well-known composer. There were people coming over to our house all the time; they played guitars, piano and sang. Woody Guthrie, Lead Belly, Paul Robeson were all at the house. I met all these people. Music was part of our everyday life.
JJ: It doesn't seem like you were raised in a traditional Jewish household.
AA: No I didn't have a traditional Jewish upbringing. There was no emphasis on religion. My grandfather used to read Sholom Aleichem a lot. There was no running away from the fact that we were Jewish, but no big emphasis on being Jewish. We had people of all races and all religions at the house at all times. I was aware of myself as being Jewish, but also aware of myself being part of a larger worldwide community. I grew up being part of a kind of international family.
JJ: Did that help in your ability to play a diversity of ethnic characters?
AA: I suppose growing up with all kinds of people I knew with the help of my parents, my focus was on the things that we all have in common, other than the things that separated us. I focused on the things we had in common with everybody everywhere.
JJ: Did you purposely seek out ethnic or Jewish roles?
AA: I haven't purposely sought out anything. I suppose I received roles that were Jewish. I take the most interesting parts to come along. I look for good directors, if I can find them. I care more about being in a piece that has integrity, a sense of something that makes a positive statement more than I care about anything else. I like films that can't be easily categorized.
JJ: Like "Little Miss Sunshine?"
JJ: Is there a character that you've played that you strongly identify with?
AA: I identify very much with this guy, Mr. Hoover from "Little Miss Sunshine."
JJ: You identify with the patriarch of a dysfunctional family?
AA: That's an easy word that people throw around a lot. Every family's a dysfunctional family. There's a great old Chinese saying that says, "No one can put a plaque over their front door that says, 'There are no problems here."'
JJ: You were somewhat of a nomad as a young man.
AA: I moved around a lot, that's what actors do until we get a career that roots us somewhere. I got a scholarship to a college in Vermont, left to play folk music, got a job in St. Louis at the Compass Theatre for a while and then went to Chicago 'cause I got a job there with Second City.
JJ: Do you think the comedic improvisation you studied at Second City helped you hone your craft?
AA: I was with Second City for two years, but it felt like 30. It was incredibly dense and compacted, like a whole lifetime of study. Improvisation is very much a part of my work. I think people recognize that when they hire me. That's part of the way I work, and nobody seems to be afraid of it. I don't like to improvise on camera, but I like to use it as kind of a rehearsal technique, helping to sometimes get the dialogue a little richer.
JJ: I understand that you don't place a lot of importance on awards?
AA: Only when I lose. [laughs] There's no such thing as the best performance; it's arbitrary. What makes something the best performance? When you get 100 people who say this is the best performance, and they're all kind of titillated by that performance, and there's another performance that changed 15 people's lives, what's the gauge? Because 500 people like something, does that make it better than something that three people like?
JJ: I've read that you have a great affection for films from the 1930s and 1940s. Do you feel they made better films then?
AA: Part of the reason is that there was a greater community then. When they talk about "Little Miss Sunshine," they talk about the great ensemble work. Well, that comes to me as a shock. I feel like every film should be great ensemble work. I have no interest in a film where one or two people are featured and everyone else is kind of a wash, you can put anybody in it and it doesn't make much difference. The films of the '30s and '40s, and particularly people like Frank Capra, were at the forefront of this. There could be 100 characters and you remember every one of them. The minute they come on the film, they have something definitive and memorable to contribute. I was a huge, huge admirer of [Jean] Renoir, who epitomized this sense of community. You want to jump up on the screen and be a part of what's going on. It was so rich and loving, such an extraordinary rich tapestry of life. I think all films should be like that.
Pat Sierchio is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to Written By, the magazine of the Writers Guild of America, West.