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Acting Magic: Alan Arkin (1934-2023)

To impact two different generations for two completely disparate films takes a remarkable actor. Alan Arkin was that kind of actor. 

Growing up, I watched the 1982 animated film “The Last Unicorn” obsessively, but not for the reason you might think. It was for Arkin’s voice performance as Schmendrick the Magician. His trademark deadpan line delivery projected a level of melancholy I found beguiling as a child and still do today. I didn’t know who he was then, but one day my dad watched it with me and told me how much he loved Alan Arkin as a teen. Years later, I saw the Cold War comedy “The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming!” and realized my dad had modeled much of his humor from Arkin’s character. From that moment on, Arkin created a special bond between me and my father. Certain actors have that kind of special power to connect people. 

In a career that spanned nearly seven decades, Arkin made an indelible mark in entertainment, moving seamlessly between comedy and drama, acting and directing, working in theatre, movies, and television. He was nominated for six Emmys, two Tonys, and four Academy Awards, winning the Tony for his performance in “Enter Laughing” in 1963 and an Oscar for his unforgettable performance as an incredibly inappropriate grandpa in “Little Miss Sunshine'' more than 40 years later. Throughout his varied and incomparable career, I’m sure he connected with many people through a shared admiration for his unique gift, just like he did for my dad and me. He died on June 29, 2023, in his home in Carlsbad, California. He was 89.

Arkin had a knack for delivering his lines in such a unique, often deadpan, way that the words would take on a life beyond the films in which he uttered them. For my dad, it was “Emergency! Everybody to get from street,” a line from “The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming!” Arkin repeats it many times as he attempts to teach the phrase to his fellow comrades in one of the film’s most hilarious scenes. In our household, it instantly became a shorthand for “get out of the way.” 

He was also a generous comedic screen partner. In “Freebie and the Bean,” Arkin co-starred with the late James Caan (coincidentally, the two shared a March 29th birthday) as a pair of vice squad detectives. While elements of the film’s plot have not aged well, their oil-and-water chemistry remains off the charts. The scene where a squabble between the two ends with their fingers in each other’s mouths is a thing of absurd beauty. Similarly, Arkin’s turn as a mild-mannered dentist opposite Peter Falk’s mysterious businessman in the 1979 comedy “The In-Laws” transformed a basic meet-the-parents story into transcendent, truly side-splitting comedy gold. Cue literally anyone who has ever seen that film shouting, “Serpentine! Serpentine!”

Although he is often remembered for his comedies, Arkin was also a remarkable dramatic actor. In “Wait Until Dark,” he oscillates between his breezy persona and shocking bursts of violence as a home invader terrorizing a blind Audrey Hepburn—a movie I watched with my mother perhaps far too often. In the Emmy-nominated TV movie “Escape from Sobibor,” he tapped into his Jewish roots to play Polish resistance leader Leon Feldhendler. Arkin channels Feldhendler’s deep sorrow and rage through soft-spoken monologues, finding power in raw human emotion. 

Perhaps the greatest surprise in his career was his Oscar-nominated turn as John Singer, a deaf mute in the 1968 adaptation of Carson McCullers’s “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter.” Arkin has no dialogue in the film. His performance is built on glances and gestures; as such, he wears all his emotions on his face and in how he holds his body. Arkin’s externalization of John’s internal journey, sorrow, and joys is a masterclass in range.

He used this range throughout his career, but especially towards the latter half, in which he often appeared in movie-stealing supporting roles. As an elder millennial, the earliest live-action films I saw him in were Tim Burton’s “Edward Scissorhands,” as frazzled suburbanite Bill Boggs, and Billy Campbell’s mustachioed partner-in-aviation A. "Peevy" Peabody in “The Rocketeer.” Both films are prime examples of the loveable acerbic curmudgeon he slowly perfected throughout the decade. See also “Grosse Pointe Blank” and “Slums of Beverly Hills” for further riffs on his unforgettable persona.

His slew of memorable, movie-stealing supporting roles, cultivated throughout the decades, spurred Arkin’s unexpected return to his early Oscar-nominated beginnings. In 2006, he found himself not only nominated but winning the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for the indie breakout “Little Miss Sunshine.” The role of foul-mouthed, drug-snorting Edwin Hoover feels like a culmination of everything Arkin was known for as an actor. Although Edwin is loud and combative, Arkin quietly calibrates his big performance to fit within the quirky ensemble, crafting a dynamic chemistry with Abigail Breslin as his precocious granddaughter Olive. In his acceptance speech, Arkin said, “Acting for me has always been, and always will be, a team sport. I cannot work at all unless I feel a spirit of unity around me.” This was surely a feeling he brought to all those he worked with. 

Arkin spent the last decade and a half of his career continuing to work in ensembles, whether it was in Best Picture winners like Ben Affleck’s “Argo,” for which he received his fourth and final Oscar nomination, or less than well-received films like “Stand Up Guys” with Al Pacino and Christopher Walken, which Roger covered memorably. He continued his special talent for crafting one-on-one chemistry with Michael Douglas in “The Kominsky Method,” for which he received multiple nominations. 

But for Arkin, acting was never about the accolades. It was about continually challenging himself and challenging the audience. In conversation with the late Robert Osborne at the 2014 TCM Classic Film Festival, he said, “There's something didactic in me. I like to make films that people can grow from and change from." 

When I first saw that Arkin had died, I thought of my dad and how he’d take the news, how Arkin’s films had been a part of his life since he was a teenager. Then I thought about all the roles I’d loved him in. His performances have provided some of the deepest laughs and most devastating cries in my cinematic life. He made every movie worth watching, even if only for the minutes he graced the screen. While his death leaves an immeasurable void, his life left us with a body of work that will continue to challenge, provoke, and make us laugh until we cry. This is a bittersweet feeling, but as Schmendrick says in “The Last Unicorn,” “There are no happy endings because nothing ends.”

Marya E. Gates

Marya E. Gates is a freelance film and culture writer based in Los Angeles and Chicago. She studied Comparative Literature at U.C. Berkeley, and also has an overpriced and underused MFA in Film Production. Other bylines include Moviefone, The Playlist, Crooked Marquee, Nerdist, and Vulture. 

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