I wonder how many people under forty learned of Alan Arkin’s passing last month and thought, “Oh, that’s sad, it’s that funny old guy from the ‘Kominsky Method’!”
Of course, they might also remember him from two hits made in this century: “Little Miss Sunshine” (2006), which brought him a late-career Supporting Actor Oscar, and Ben Affleck’s “Argo” (2012), which also earned him a nomination.
The truth, of course, is that Alan Arkin did a lot more over a career spanning six decades. Just how talented was he? Put it this way: if a movie was good enough and you cast him in it, he’d likely get Oscar-nominated. Sadly, all too often the quality of his acting was higher than the material he had to work with.
Back in 1966, Alan Arkin first burst onto movie screens in the Cold War comedy, “The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming.” Playing a frustrated submarine commander with an uncanny Russian accent, Arkin joined just a handful of actors (including Orson Welles and James Dean) to earn a Best Actor Oscar nod for his first feature film. Hollywood saw a new Paul Muni, a character actor who could convincingly portray any ethnicity, in most any genre.
His versatility even extended to music. Just after college in the mid-fifties, the Brooklyn-born Arkin first broke out as a performer as part of “The Tarriers,” a successful folk group. By this time, he had already been studying acting for over a decade, and the early sixties found him honing his talent for comedy and improvisation at Second City in Chicago. His big break came on Broadway with “Enter Laughing” in 1963, based on an autobiographical novel by Carl Reiner, who’d later co-star with him in “Russians.”
Occasionally Arkin also directed, both on stage and screen. In 1971, a banner year for him, he helmed both the screen adaptation of Jules Feiffer’s “Little Murders” starring Elliott Gould, and the original production of Neil Simon’s “The Sunshine Boys,” earning a Tony nomination.
In reviewing my picks for the top five must-see Alan Arkin films, note the quarter century hiatus between titles two and three. Over this period, this gifted actor stayed busy, mainly in television, racking up half of his six Emmy nominations. But the movie roles offered were simply not up to the standard of what had come before. The industry- and the movies- were changing, and Arkin became a casualty of that.
Still, Hollywood always loves a comeback, and in 2006 “Little Miss Sunshine” provided one, bringing the 72-year-old actor his first and only Oscar win. A late career renaissance followed, evidenced by the aforementioned “Argo” and “Kominsky Method”.
Still, looking back one wishes for a longer string of better films and juicier roles over those mid-career, two-plus decades when Arkin was still in his prime. Had he started out in the old studio system of the thirties, with better scripts and more character-driven movies, it would have been a different story.
Still, we should treasure and be grateful for the best of what he left us, which I’ve listed below. Rest in Peace, Alan Arkin.
Norman Jewison’s comedy concerns a Russian sub that gets lost and surfaces off the New England coast. Among the panicked citizens on-shore are Carl Reiner and the hilarious Jonathan Winters. Still, Arkin steals it as the Russian skipper.
Wait Until Dark (1967)
Tingling thriller centers on a blind woman (Audrey Hepburn) in mortal danger. Unbeknownst to her, a brick of heroin gets hidden in a doll she’s transporting home for her niece. When the crooks come to collect it, she is not only sightless but clueless. Arkin plays a creepy psychopath to perfection.
Glengarry Glen Ross (1992)
Adaptation of David Mamet’s hit play about a cutthroat real estate outfit and its desperate employees boasts a superb ensemble cast, including Jack Lemmon, Al Pacino, and Alec Baldwin. Amidst a few more showy performances, Arkin’s washed-out salesman is admirably understated.
Little Miss Sunshine (2006)
In this irresistible comedy, Arkin is the cranky, drug-addled patriarch of a wacky family (including Greg Kinnear, Steve Carell and Toni Collette). They all take a road trip to California so granddaughter Olive (Abigail Breslin) can enter a junior beauty pageant. An offbeat charmer.
Ben Affleck’s clever film blending comedy and suspense takes us back to the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis, and a plan to smuggle American operatives out by having them pose as part of a film crew. Arkin and John Goodman have priceless interplay as real-life movie pros hired to consult on this daring scheme.