Alan Arkin, the Oscar-winning actor whose eclectic career spanned seven decades, has died at age 89.
Arkin’s rep Melody Korenbrot confirmed his death to USA TODAY Friday, and pointed to a statement his sons Adam, Matthew and Anthony jointly offered on the family’s behalf to People. “Our father was a uniquely talented force of nature, both as an artist and a man. A loving husband, father, grand and great grandfather, he was adored and will be deeply missed.”
Arkin was most familiar to younger audiences for his role in the first two seasons of Netflix’s award-winning series “The Kominsky Method,” in which he played Norman, the Hollywood agent of Michael Douglas’ acting coach character, Sandy.
But the actor’s screen credits reveal his remarkable breadth, encompassing roles that were always informed, but never defined, by his sarcastic Brooklyn-bred persona.
Asked by CBS News in a 2007 interview what his favorite role was to date, Arkin deadpanned: “The Kaiser roll has been a favorite.” More seriously, he noted that he identified with characters “who don’t know what they’re talking about, but are happy to give you advice.”
Arkin was always willing to share his thoughts about the craft of acting, though he had an uneasy relationship with the accolades that came with success.
Arkin remains among a handful of actors to garner a best actor Oscar nomination for their first film. (He was 32 when he starred as a Soviet submariner in the 1966 comedy “The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming.”) And Arkin remains one of the oldest actors to take home an Oscar. (He was 72 when he played a foul-mouthed grandfather in 2006’s indie hit “Little Miss Sunshine.”)
Although Arkin would be nominated four times for an Academy Award – including another best actor nod for 1968’s “The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter,” opposite Clint Eastwood’s future companion Sondra Locke, and best supporting actor for 2012’s “Argo” – he did not mince words about judging artistic achievements.
“I think it’s all nonsense,” Arkin told USA TODAY shortly before the 2013 Oscars. “The whole thing’s a crapshoot. If I look at the moves that won best movie over the last 50 years, 20 are ridiculous jokes.”
Actors, Arkin believed, had a responsibility to dig into themselves to find a true performance that served not their own vanity but the emotional lives of those in darkened theaters. The modern-day Hollywood scorecard, where actors are ranked by their box-office take, offended him.
“For the industry to treat us like horses, who’s in first or second, is insanity,” Arkin told a Screen Actors Guild Foundation audience in 2012. “I wanted to move people.”
Arkin grew up in an artistic Brooklyn home, the curious son of a writer and painter father and teacher mother, both of Jewish heritage. As a boy, Arkin recalled both improving his English and developing a fascination with cinema as a result of accompanying his father to New York’s Thalia movie theater, hallowed ground for subtitled foreign films.
Arkin’s desire to morph into other people only grew when his father landed a job as a teacher and moved the family to Los Angeles in 1945. “I had the opposite of a stage mother, she wanted me to be an accountant,” Arkin told the Screen Actors Guild Foundation crowd. “But she’d sit outside my acting workshops, where I learned to make faces.”
But the hardships of Hollywood also were impressed upon Arkin early. Although his father managed to land a job later as a set designer, it vanished as a result of an eight-month strike. During the 1950s hunt for alleged Communists by Sen. Joseph McCarthy, unfounded charges against Arkin’s father shut him out of future studio jobs.
Undeterred, Arkin pursue his dream vocation. Success came in his early 20s – but not for acting. He was a member of the folk group The Tarriers, who scored a chart-climbing hit in the late 1950s with “The Banana Boat Song,” which had also been recorded around the same time by a young Harry Belafonte.
Arkin often spoke of an epiphany he had while singing onstage at the Olympia Theater in Paris. “I looked down at myself and thought, ‘Who am I, what am I doing?’ and so I quit the next day and starved for a couple of years,” he told CBS News.
The actor found enough work on various New York stages to garner an invitation to join a new improvisational group in Chicago. He went reluctantly. “It was the beginning of everything,” Arkin said.
The group was Second City, a now-legendary improv troupe whose graduates include John Belushi, Bill Murray, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Steve Carell and Tina Fey. Second City took its comedic act to New York, and that spotlight finally got Arkin noticed back home in Los Angeles.
After “The Russians Are Coming” vaulted Arkin into the A-list, hot projects flowed his way. His acting choices covered social commentary (“Catch-22,” 1970), Sherlock Holmes mysteries (“The Seven-Per-Cent Solution,” 1976), whimsical fables (“Edward Scissorhands,” 1990), gritty drama (“Glengarry Glen Ross,” 1992), and dark comedy (“Grosse Point Blank,” 1997).
After that came a career resurgence of sorts, with Arkin’s acclaimed star turns in “Little Miss Sunshine” and “Argo.” But throughout his journey, Arkin remained peeved at the way the entertainment industrial complex fetishized its top talent.
“The money some actors make, I mean, you’re making millions of dollars to just come on and say, ‘Hello,’ so it has to be a really big ‘Hell-oooo,’ ” he said to laughs at the actors’ guild event. Money “changes people, when you’re making so much where not only you’re rich but your grandchildren never need to work.”
Arkin said actors had a responsibility not to themselves but to their audience. As an occasional director (notably 1971’s “Little Murders” with Elliot Gould), Arkin said he would frequently find himself telling auditioning actors the same thing.
“They do the lines, and I’d say, ‘That was great, now do it again and lose the acting,’ and they would look so relieved,” he said. The actors would feel freed up to be true to the performance they actually wanted to give, a performance that wasn’t a performance.
That was certainly what Arkin’s best roles conveyed, this sense that on the screen no one saw a fanatic actor from Brooklyn but rather a Puerto Rican widower trying to provide for his kids (“Popi,” 1969) or a geriatric bank robber looking to pay off some medical bills (“Going In Style,” 2017).
“We live in a culture where selling is so pervasive,” Arkin said. “So if you’re authentic, you’re going to be interesting.”
He is survived by three sons from his first two marriages – actors Anthony, Matthew and Adam Arkin – and his third wife, psychotherapist Suzanne Newlander.