When the publicist connected us, it took 30 seconds before a coherent sentence passed from my lips. Even then all I could muster was, “Forgive me, but you do realize that you’re Alan Arkin?” Once the unbridled, instantly recognizable chortle subsided, the Academy Award–winning actor responded, “Thanks for letting me know immediately that I’m not an insane person.”
A decidedly balanced Arkin will be at La Jolla’s Museum of Contemporary Art Thursday, September 25, to receive the inaugural Gregory Peck Award at the San Diego Film Festival’s “Variety’s Night of the Stars: A Tribute.”
Being bar mitzvahed somewhere between The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming and The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, it can be said that my coming of age at the movies coincided with Arkin’s star on the rise. His performance in Russians earned him the first of four Oscar nominations, but almost a decade separated the Cold War comedy from Arkin’s big-screen nod.
“I’ve seen all your pictures.” It’s a phrase commonly uttered by fans while waiting for a movie star to finish scrawling his name across a cocktail napkin. Arkin won’t call his admirers on it but finds it “very unlikely. A lot of them were buried upon arrival.” Even I can’t confess to having seen all of Arkin’s 70-plus movies, starting with his debut feature, Calypso Heat Wave (1957.)
“Oh, my God,” he laughs on the phone from his home in North County. “Like they say in the Mafia, I thought I was a made man with that movie. I was going to be able to transfer the extraordinary success into an acting career and everything was going to be wonderful after that. Of course, no surprise, nothing happened.”
His career sparked amid the dying embers of the studio system. Instead of hopping a ride on the back of Peter Fonda’s motorcycle, Arkin took a more traditional approach by appearing in studio pictures. “The fact that it was a studio movie made no difference to me,” Arkin recalls. “I was so thrilled and excited about working. I don’t know if anybody was aware that it was a transition period. Looking back, I realize it was kind of a call for revolution. There was an adventurous spirit in the country and in the business that I don’t think we’ve captured again.”
Arkin set up shop in Hollywood, bringing with him a United Nations of character acting. Calling it, “An appellation I honor (and one that I still wouldn’t mind having),” he did his best to circumvent the pitfalls of typecasting. “I didn’t want anyone to know who or what I really was. I never wanted to be typed as a brand-name. Plus, coming out of the Second City tradition where we play 10 or 15 characters a night, I just loved the variety and invention of it.”
Roles are chosen on the basis of a point system. Script quality, the director, character nature, co-stars, crew members, et cetera are all awarded a certain amount of points. “And depending on whether I have money in the bank,” he’s quick to note, “that’s another series of points. One way or another it’s got to add up to a hundred and it really doesn’t make any difference to me how. If I’m working with a great director the character doesn’t have to be something that I jump up-and-down for.”
Not every character he chose was a good fit as evidenced in Catch 22’s Yosarian. There is not a bad shot in the film. It’s handsomely staged, based on a best-seller with an all-star cast. Yet as Duncan Shepherd, my Reader predecessor observed, “Once past Arkin, all subtlety stops.”
Honest Al is “touched that I got a decent review out of him, but I didn’t like my work in it, and I don’t think the film is very good. The first 20 minutes are spectacular and then it becomes like a high school version of World War II.” The Vietnam conflict raged on as the mood of the country shifted. Moviegoers had just been M*ASHed and Pattoned over the head with war films. Could this have somehow had an adverse effect on the box office? “I think what you’re saying is true,” Arkin answers. “M*ASH got the credit. It also had a sense of the bite and satire and darkness that [Joseph] Heller’s book had.”
If celebrity interviews were made of sand, my colleague and confrere, Fred Saxon, would have enough granules to bolster a sinking delta. It’s no surprise that he had a couple of great Arkin stories up his sleeve. Their first meeting took place in New York while on the promotional trail of Big Trouble. Fred was living in L.A. at the time and Arkin jotted down his mother’s phone number and asked that he call her to say “Hi.” He did and got the following response from Bea Arkin: “What’s the matter? He can’t call me himself?”
Fred also clued me in on a period of upheaval in Arkin’s personal life. During the Red Scare era, Alan’s father, David Arkin, was one of six teachers fired by the Los Angeles Board of Education for refusing to answer questions about a possible affiliation with the Communist Party. It took 28 years for the board to clear their names. Rather than vindication, Arkin thinks “confess and apologize is a more appropriate way to phrase it.”
“The six teachers felt it was against their constitutional rights and filed suit against the L.A. school system for holding their own tribunal,” Arkin continued. “My father said, ‘Have I committed any crime that put me up on charges? If I haven’t you have no right to ask me any of my beliefs.’ They won, but by the time the suit came to trial my father had died. He never got a chance to see his vindication. It was a tough time. He was out of work for about 15 years. He got stigmatized mightily for it.”
Did this period in America’s history that Arkin experienced find its way into his performances? “I think everything finds its way into everybody’s everything,” he clarifies by way of confusion. “There is no way of saying it hasn’t. My parents’ moral sense and what they felt this country was all about has certainly creeped into my work, and I’m proud of that fact. What they stood for, what they believed in, was the equality of the sexes, the equality of the races, and peace on Earth. I’d like to think that I stand for the same things and try to the best of my ability to find things to do that somehow reflect those ideas. It’s hard, but it’s what I try to do.”
The level of paranoia and hysteria Arkin brings to many of his characters has become a trademark of sorts. His face has weathered the years beautifully, the clenched mask gradually giving way to reveal a curmudgeonly humanist at work. As with any master builder, 80-year-old Arkin continues to move forward — has there ever been a time when he wasn’t making movies? — bringing with him an amplified level of integrity and commitment hinted at in some of his early roles. Art and the psychology of humankind in one irresistible package. Lovely man, this.