June 30, 2023: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler
Not to be too emphatic about it, but Alan Arkin was among my most favorite actors. King of the hill, top of the heap. Hearing of his death this morning at age eighty-nine has sent me into a memory spin of the nearly sixty years of film and television work I was fortunate enough to experience first-hand. Paying for a ticket to see him in everything from the side-splitting comedy of The In-Laws to the menace of Wait Until Dark, to the stark drama of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, provided lessons for a young actor that were immeasurable. Seeing him on screen always guaranteed an element of surprise. Which Alan Arkin would turn up this time?
At age twenty-nine, Arkin opened on Broadway in 1963 in Joseph Stein’s adaptation of Carl Reiner’s semi-autobiographical novel, Enter Laughing. The New York Times wrote, “Let’s not waste time on its ifs, buts and maybes. Enter Laughing is marvelously funny, and so is Alan Arkin in the principal role... the major complaint about the new play that pranced into Henry Miller’s Theater Wednesday night is that it doesn’t provide enough rest periods between side-splitting laughs. Even an uproarious farce ought to be more considerate of the customer’s staying powers.”
Most of the reviews were just like that, with Arkin going on to win the Tony Award for his performance. Within a year, he was starring in Murray Schisgal’s Luv, directed by Mike Nichols. These back-to-back hits paved the way for his film debut in 1966 in The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming, a box office sensation that brought him the first of four Academy Award nominations (he won in 2006 for Little Miss Sunshine). With Russians, Arkin became a movie star of the first rank seemingly overnight, though it came after years of stage work (including his time as a folk singer with a hit song—more on that later).
He had made his Broadway debut in 1962 when New York was treated to From the Second City, which showcased Arkin’s dazzling improv talents, as well as those of Barbara Harris and Paul Sand, who were among the cast.
Sadly, Enter Laughing and Luv proved a drain on his creativity and Arkin put a stop to live performing that held for decades. In a 1966 interview with Roger Ebert, he explained what power he derived from working with Second City. “Improvisation sometimes seemed more like jazz than acting, like verbal jazz, with the actors playing a theme back and forth, and then introducing another theme, incorporating it, somehow trying to work their way all together to a meaning of some kind, or at least a conclusion. We had the opportunity to push ourselves in any direction.”
More to the point, in an interview on NPR’s Talk of the Nation in 2001, Arkin described how strait-jacketed he felt outside the realm of improv: “You’re not encouraged to experiment or play very much. The play gets set the minute opening night is there and … you’re supposed to do exactly that for the next year. And I just am constitutionally unable to just find any kind of excitement or creativity in that kind of experience.”
However, Arkin never abandoned the theatre, keeping up as a director for most of his career. One of my earliest off-Broadway experiences as a teenage theatergoer was his production in the West Village of Jules Feiffer’s dark comedy Little Murders in 1969. He managed to superbly balance the farcical and realistic elements of a piece that had failed two years prior in a fatally misdirected Broadway production. He also directed Neil Simon’s The Sunshine Boys (1973), to this day one of the funniest shows I’ve ever seen. I only wish that Arkin hadn’t been so adverse to acting onstage, as he would have been perfect to follow in the footsteps of Jack Albertson and Walter Matthau as the volatile and hilarious Willy Clark in a Sunshine Boys revival.
Whether it was modesty, insecurity or a combination of both, Arkin refused a directing credit for his first off-Broadway play, Henry Livings' Eh? As it turned out, he had nothing to worry about, because not only did the play run for close to a year, but it made a star out of a young actor, Dustin Hoffman, who had to take a few days off in 1966 to fly to Los Angeles and screen test for the role of Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate.
As mentioned earlier, before any of his theatre or film successes, Arkin was part of the Tarriers, a folk singing group that had a bona fide hit with “The Banana Boat Song.” As one of its team of songwriters, Arkin saw some significant residuals, as the hit recording by Harry Belafonte was a best seller. Below, check out his recording of the song with the Tarriers and see if you can glean Arkin’s voice among the threesome:
Passionate about his work, he was a perfectionist and hard on himself a good deal of the time. He once described acting as “torture” and said that “if I didn’t do a scene well I felt as if I’d died." One of his most conspicuous misfires was when he took over the role of Inspector Clouseau in 1968 from Peter Sellers. He marked that performance as “a failure,” and admitted he’d been in lots of “terrible” movies.
Arkin was also passionate about writing. He told Robert Osbourne in a 2014 interview: “I’ve written about ten books, all of them by accident. For many, many years I couldn’t stand the idea of a day going by without doing something creative.” If you've never read his autobiography, An Improvised Life, published in 2011, amend that situation. It's wonderful.
His devotion to craft is what kept him going and thriving till almost ninety. Not one to rest on his laurels, his Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor in 2006’s Little Miss Sunshine did nothing to diminish his drive. Six years later, he received another Supporting Actor nomination for Argo (his grouchiness is unparalleled). He also created another memorable character, the crusty Norman Newlander, in the 2018 Netflix series The Kominsky Method, playing beautifully opposite Michael Douglas. He opted out of the third season of the series. He was eighty-five years old. He had a right to retire.
There's no room here to go into all of Arkin's credits. Among my favorites (to cite a mere few), are his Yossarian in Catch-22, an apoplectic film director in Hearts of the West (New York Film Critics Award), Sigmund Freud in The Seven Percent Solution, an overbearing Jewish father in Joshua Then and Now, and an overprotective one in Slums of Beverly Hills. His performance in the all-star cast of David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross is another gem (or Death of a F**king Salesman, as the cast liked to call it). Keep in mind that his IMDB listing includes 111 projects. And he always, always delivered.
But of all the clips, in the all the world, I think this scene from Little Miss Sunshine best sums up the essence of what made his acting so damn special. Generous to his scene partner, always in the moment, and uniquely... Alan Arkin. You've seen it many times but watch it again as a tribute to one glorious actor. Rest in peace.
If you enjoyed this, please check out Up in the Cheap Seats: A Historical Memoir of Broadway, available at Amazon.com in hardcover, softcover and e-book. To receive all future columns by email, hit the blue FOLLOW button above and feel free to comment below or write me at Ron@ronfassler.org.