A rare treat for TCM-FF attendees this weekend was Robert Osborne’s career-spanning chat with Alan Arkin at The Montalban Theatre this afternoon. A multiple Academy Award nominee for his work in such films as The Russians Are Coming The Russians Are Coming (1966), The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (1968), and Argo (2012), and a 2008 Best Supporting Actor Oscar winner for the 2007 indie hit Little Miss Sunshine, Arkin revealed himself throughout the 90 minute interview to be introspective yet disarmingly ego-free, having long ago exorcised the demons that caused him to be dissatisfied with his mid-career doldrums and, by his own admission, often difficult to work with. A native New Yorker who grew up in Hollywood when his family relocated to Los Angeles in the 1940s, Arkin knew he wanted to be an actor as early as age five but making a place for himself within the industry took many more years. A comic folksinger in his 20s (Arkin was an original member of The Babysitters, alongside former Weavers member Lee Hays), Arkin turned to improvisational comedy when his career stalled early on, eventually appearing on Broadway with the famed improv troupe Second City.
Arkin enjoyed continued success on Broadway in Carl Reiner’s Enter Laughing and in Murray Schisgal’s Luv. Having made his feature film debut as the unexpectedly gentle captain of a Soviet submarine that surfaces off the coast of New England in Norman Jewison’s The Russians Are Coming The Russians Are Coming, Arkin playing against his good natured type as the slimy villain Harry Roat of Wait Until Dark (1967), in which he terrorized a blind Audrey Hepburn and was made to pay dearly for it. Arkin’s lead role in Mike Nichols’ Catch-22 (1970) should have solidified his standing as a name-above-the-title star but the trouble-plagued production’s failure at the box office had the opposite effect of derailing his career, leading to work in a slew of flops such as Last of the Red Hot Lovers (1972), Deadhead Miles (1973), and Rafferty and the Gold Dust Twins (1975). There were scattered successes in the popular comedies Freebie and the Bean (1974) with James Caan and The In-Laws (1979) with Peter Falk but after 1980 Arkin found more enduring success as a character actor, playing Sigmund Freud to Nichol Williamson’s frazzled Sherlock Holmes in Nicholas Meyer’s revisionist The Seven Percent Solution (1976) and James Woods’ rascally father in Ted Kotcheff’s Joshua, Then and Now (1984). Arkin also reconnected to his theatrical roots, directing (against his initial better judment) the original Broadway production of Neil Simon’s The Sunshine Boys.
In conversation with Robert today, Arkin credited both the wisdom that comes with age and meditation as the balancing forces in his life. Long interested more in the collaborative process of filmmaking than in the competition for salaries and awards, he has found fulfillment in using his craft to help others better their lives, leading improvisation workshops with such charitable organizations as The Omega Institute and Veteran’s Village of San Diego, the latter an outreach program that strives to help better the situation, and the quality of life, of returning veterans. The conversation swung wide to include his impressions of working with such diverse writer-directors as Tim Burton and David Mamet and when asked which performers have proven themselves to be most inspirational to him, Arkin answered with the exceedingly unlikely pair of Harpo Marx (no explanation needed) and Steven Hill, the former Mission: Impossible and Law & Order whose memorable supporting turn in Sidney Lumet’s Running On Empty (1988) compelled Arkin to seek the actor out to deliver his praise personally. Candid but compassionate, hysterically funny but deeply philosophical, Alan Arkin was a wonderful addition to this year’s festival and good company today at the Montalban Theatre.