Alan Arkin, the versatile actor who finally won an Oscar — for Little Miss Sunshine — after making a career of disappearing into characters with turns that could be comic, chilling or charming, has died. He was 89

His sons, Adam, Matthew and Anthony, announced the news in a joint statement. “Our father was a uniquely talented force of nature, both as an artist and a man,” they said. “A loving husband, father, grand and great-grandfather, he was adored and will be deeply missed.”

In his first significant role in a feature, Arkin received a rare best actor Oscar nomination for work in a comedy when he played a Russian sailor whose submarine is marooned off the coast of a New England fishing village in Norman Jewison’s The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming (1966).

Two years later, he moved audiences and earned another Oscar nom for portraying the lonely deaf mute John Singer in the poignant The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter (1968), Robert Ellis Miller’s adaptation of the Carson McCullers novel that was filmed in Selma, Alabama.

For playing the foul-mouthed, heroin-snorting grandfather Edwin Hoover in the road movie Little Miss Sunshine (2006), Arkin was rewarded with an Oscar that those in Hollywood recognized was long overdue. (At age 72, he was among the oldest to win the supporting actor trophy.)

“The two directors [Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris] didn’t want to give me the job because I was too young and vital. It’s a nice way to not get a part,” he told Robert Osborne during an interview at the 2014 TCM Classic Film Festival. “But after they couldn’t find anyone for about six months, they said, ‘Well, we might as well go back to Alan Arkin.’ By that time, I had gotten old.”

Arkin then received a fourth Academy Award nom for his work as a jaded movie producer who makes a bogus film to save the hostages in Iran — and got bonus points for his line, “Argo F— Yourself” — in the best picture winner Argo (2012).

His son Adam is an actor best known for starring on Chicago Hope. He also forged a second career as a top-notch TV director.

Arkin first made a name for himself on Broadway in 1963 when he won a Tony Award for playing David Kolowitz, a struggling actor under the thumb of his parents, in Enter Laughing, based on a semi-autobiographical novel by Carl Reiner.

A year later, he starred opposite Eli Wallach and Anne Jackson in the long-running Broadway comedy hit Luv, directed by Mike Nichols.

Like Nichols, Arkin honed his comedy chops during two years with the famed Second City improvisational troupe in Chicago. He was winningly funny on the big screen as seen in the madcap The In-Laws, in which he played a mild-mannered dentist opposite CIA operative Peter Falk; in Rafferty and the Gold-Dust Twins (1975), as an L.A. driving instructor driven to madness; in Freebie and the Bean (1974) as a corrupt Mexican-American cop opposite buddy James Caan; and as a B-movie director in the amiable Hearts of the West (1975).

Arkin, though, was able to shed his silly side in films like the psychological thriller Wait Until Dark (1967), when he played an evil thug menacing poor Audrey Hepburn, and Catch-22, in which he starred as a pilot struggling to maintain a grip on his sanity in Nichols’ adaptation of Catch-22 (1970).

Arkin also portrayed Sigmund Freud in The Seven-Per-Cent Solution (1976) and was a bored suburbanite in Tim Burton’s Edward Scissorhands (1990), a wise mentor in The Rocketeer (1991), one of the pressured salesmen in Glengarry Glen Ross (1992) and the nimble patriarch in Slums of Beverly Hills (1998).

Asked in a 1998 interview with the Los Angeles Times why Arkin hadn’t become more of a leading man, Jewison said: “His accents are impeccable, and he’s even able to change his look — but oddly enough, this gift has worked against him. He’s always been underestimated, partly because he’s never been in service of his own success, which is one of the things I love about him.”

More recently, he starred with Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine in the geezer crime comedy Going in Style (2017) and with Michael Douglas in the Netflix series The Kominsky Method. After two Emmy noms, he bowed out of the latter, before the show’s third and final season, in a move announced in September 2020.

In his chat with Orborne, Arkin noted that until he reached his middle 40s, acting “was the reason for my being alive. I wanted to do every conceivable part and kill myself doing it.” Working on The In-Laws marked “the first time I’d ever let go in a film enough to have a good time, to stop that sense of clench and desperation that I’d had for so many years.”

The In-laws - Peter Falk, Alan Arkin

Alan Wolf Arkin was born in Brooklyn on March 26, 1934, the oldest of three kids. His parents were teachers, and he said they were communists. His dad took him to see foreign films at the Thalia in New York, and he “learned how to read by watching the subtitles,” he told Osborne.

Arkin often noted that by age 5, he had already determined that he was going to be an actor.

In 1945, he and his family moved to Los Angeles, and Arkin studied at L.A. City College and Cal State L.A. He then won a drama scholarship to Bennington College in Vermont as one of the few male students at that school.

Arkin played guitar, piano, fife and vibraphone, and from 1957-59 he performed and toured throughout Europe with the folk-singing group The Tarriers, who had a hit “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song),” later made more famous by Harry Belafonte. (Arkin and the group sang it and another song in the 1957 film Calypso Heat Wave).

Arkin then appeared with a repertory company in the Adirondacks and landed a role in an off-Broadway production of Abelard and Heloise.

Struggling to make a living, Arkin moved to St. Louis to work with the Compass Players, an improvisational cabaret revue. He was spotted by Paul Sills, who invited him to come to Chicago to join the nascent Second City improv comedy troupe in 1960.

“I was afraid I was going to get fired for the first month or two,” he said in a 2012 interview. “I couldn’t be funny. I didn’t know how to be funny. I didn’t think I was going to make it. There was no place I thought of I could go if I didn’t make it there, so I worked and I worked and I worked, and I finally came up with a character that got laughs. And I hung onto that character like a lifeline.

“Then I got secure enough with that, so I started developing a library of characters around him. And when I played them, I got laughs. … I finally reached the point where I could do it not with extreme characters, but closer and closer to myself. But it took a long time.”

In one memorable bit, he portrayed a beatnik who tries to pick up an uptight girl (Barbara Harris) at a Chicago art museum.

Arkin stayed with Second City for two years, including one in New York, before leaving to star in Enter Laughing, where he helped cast his future second wife, Barbara Dana. (They married in 1964 and divorced in the 1990s.)

All of us “ended up at Second City thinking we were outcasts and misfits and instead became the center of a movement,” he said.

After he hit it big with The Russians Are Coming, Arkin stepped in for Peter Sellers in Inspector Clouseau (1968) and, with much greater success, played a Puerto Rican widower with two sons in Popi (1969).

He went on to appear in such other films as Last of the Red Hot Lovers (1972), Fire Sale (1977) — which he also directed — Simon (1980), Chu Chu and the Philly Flash (1981), Improper Channels (1981), The Return of Captain Invincible (1983), Bad Medicine (1985), Joshua Then and Now (1985), John Cassavetes’ Big Trouble (1986), Havana (1990), Steal Big Steal Little (1995), Grosse Pointe Blank (1997), Four Days in September (1997), Thirteen Conversations About One Thing (2001), Get Smart (2008), Marley & Me (2008), Stand Up Guys (2012), Grudge Match (2013) and Million Dollar Arm (2014).

He tried his hand at starring in a sitcom, Harry, but the ABC show about a hospital wheeler-dealer lasted just seven episodes in 1987. In 2001-02, he played a judge who was soft on criminals on the A&E series 100 Centre Street.

In 1969, Arkin won an Obie Award and an Outer Circle Critics Award for his off-Broadway direction of Little Murders, Jules Feiffer’s black comedy about unrelenting decay in New York City. Three years later, he helmed the original Broadway production of Neil Simon’s The Sunshine Boys, starring Jack Albertson and Sam Levene. He and Elaine May also teamed for three giddy short plays performed in 1998 under the banner Power Plays.

Arkin also directed the 1971 film version of Little Murders; helmed and wrote a 12-minute short film, People Soup (1969), that was nominated for an Oscar (it starred Adam and Matthew; their mom was his first wife, Jeremy Yaffe); and directed the pilot for the short-lived Lee Grant sitcom Fay at NBC.

Arkin composed more than 100 songs and recorded albums for children, including four with the kids folk group The Baby Sitters. He also wrote children’s books like The Lemming Condition, published in 1976, and a 2011 memoir, An Improvised Life.

Survivors also include his third wife, Suzanne, whom he married in 1996; grandchildren Molly, Emmet, Atticus and Abigail, and great-grandson Elliott.

Duane Byrge contributed to this report.


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