Alan Arkin had known he would become an actor when he was only five years old.
“All the films I saw, all the plays I also saw, all the musical notes I heard fed in me the insatiable need to transform myself into a man other than the one I was”, had– he writes in An Improvised Lifehis memoirs written in 2011.
He was the son of Jewish immigrants from Germany and Ukraine, who had settled in Brooklyn where he himself was born in 1934. But during a long career – filled with adventures – he had known how to transformed into a tormented Russian submarine officer (“The Russians Are Coming”, in 1966), a Puerto Rican widower struggling with the difficulties of existence (“Popi”, in 1969) or a Manhattan dentist recruited in a plan of improbable spying by her daughter’s future stepfather (“The In-Laws,” 1979).
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His versatility was further enhanced by his study of the “Stanislavski” method, a method taught by Benjamin Zemach, a pioneer of American modern dance who specialized in Jewish themes. He had also made a short appearance in the comedy improvisation troupe Second City, of which he had been one of the very first members.
“It’s improvisation and sometimes it’s terrifying, but some of it is terrible,” he told a reporter of his time with Second City. “Acquiring the ability to fail has been an extraordinary privilege, a real gift… You can’t learn anything without failing”.
Arkin, who became the sixth-oldest winner of the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his role in “Little Miss Sunshine,” died Thursday at his home in San Marco, Calif. He was 89 years old.
In a career that spanned more than seven decades, he brought emotion to his comic characters and sarcasm to his serious roles. He will have worked almost until the end of his existence, sharing the poster, in 2018 and 2019, with Michael Douglas in the excellent series “The Kominsky Method” on Netflix, produced by Chuck Lorre. His portrayal of Agent Norman Newlander earned him two consecutive Emmy Award nominations.
Among his other known roles are that of a paranoid shopkeeper in the big screen adaptation of “Glengarry Glen Ross”, the play by David Mamet, and that of a deaf-mute in a drama Southern Gothic“The heart is a lonely hunter”, in 1968. He had also lent his features to Yossarian, the recalcitrant aviator, in “Catch-22”, a film adaptation, released in 1970, of the novel by Joseph Heller.
Arkin had also been the voice of JD Salinger – or, at the very least, a character who claimed to be the famous Jewish author – in Netflix’s cult animated series, “BoJack Horseman.” »
He had made his directorial debut with “Small Murders Without Importance”, a black comedy released in 1971 and an adaptation of the play written by Jewish author and cartoonist Jules Feiffer. In 1975, Arkin was the Broadway director of Neil Simon’s “The Sunshine Boys,” a comedy based on the Jewish vaudeville team Smith and Dale.
Arkin was the son of David I. Arkin, painter and novelist, and Beatrice Wortis, teacher. He wrote that he had grown up in a Jewish family “that did not emphasize religion.” The family had moved to Los Angeles when Alan was eleven; his parents had been accused of being communists during the “Red Scare” in the 1950s, and they had encountered difficulties in working. He was educated at Los Angeles State College and Bennington College.
Arkin won a Tony Award for Best Actor in 1963 for a play on Broadway called “Enter Laughing,” a comedy based on an autobiographical novel written by Jewish comedian, writer and director Carl Reiner.
Arkin had made his film debut – and he had been nominated for the Oscars for the first time ever – opposite Reiner in “The Russians Are Coming!” », a film telling the story of a Soviet submarine that ran aground miserably off the coast of New England. Americans, even today, like to use a phrase spoken by Arkin in the film which has remained famous: ” Emergency! Everybody to get from street!“.
Thirteen years later, “The In-Laws” was still to be an opportunity for American cinema lovers to discover another phrase that has become cult, after Arkin and Peter Falk manage to escape a salvo of bullets while running zig-zag and screaming: Serpentine! »
In 1987, he had the leading role in a television movie, “Escape from Sobibor”, where he played Leon Felhendler, a Polish resistance fighter who had organized the uprising of prisoners in the extermination camp in 1943. A role which had allowed Arkin to be nominated for an Emmy Award and for a Golden Award in the category of Best Supporting Actor.
In 2006’s “Little Miss Sunshine,” he played the grumpy, vulgar grandfather of a granddaughter who dreams of winning a beauty pageant—an unlikely dream. Arkin’s character spent hours working with the kid on his dance performance in this indie comedy that turned out to be an unexpected box office hit.
When he received his Oscar for the role in 2007, Arkin said: “More than anything, I am deeply moved by the heartfelt love our little film has sparked and which, in this fractured time, speaks so so open to innocence, bond and passing childhood. »
Arkin was also a folk singer and he had formed a group, The Tarriers, which had distinguished itself in 1956 by its cover of “The Banana Boat Song,” a traditional and popular Jamaican song that Harry Belafonte was to make very famous.
Arkin had been married three times. He had three sons, all of whom became actors: Adam Arkin, Matthew Arkin and Anthony (Tony) Dana Arkin.
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Jewish actor Alan Arkin dies aged 89