Alan Arkin is an Academy Award-winning American actor who is also an acclaimed director, producer, author, singer and composer.
He was born Alan Wolf Arkin on March 26, 1934, in Brooklyn, New York. His family were Jewish emigrants from Russia and Germany. In 1946, the Arkins moved from Brooklyn to Los Angeles, California. His father, David I. Arkin, was an artist and writer, who worked as a teacher, and lost his job for merely refusing to answer questions about his political affiliation during the 1950s Red Scare. His father challenged the politically biased dismissal and eventually prevailed, but unfortunately it was after his death. His mother, Beatrice (Wortis) Arkin, a teacher, shared his father’s views. Young Arkin was fond of music and acting, he was taking various acting classes from the age of 10. He attended Franklin High School, in Los Angeles, then Los Angeles City College from 1951 – 1953, and Bennington College in Vermont from 1953 – 1954. He sang in a college folk-band, and was involved in a drama class. He dropped out of college to form the folk music group The Tarriers, in which Arkin was the lead singer and played guitar. He co-wrote the 1956 hit “The Banana Boat Song” – a Jamaican calypso folk song, which became better known as Harry Belafonte’s popular version, and reached #4 on the Billboard chart. At that time Arkin was a struggling young actor who played bit parts on television and on stage, and made a living as a delivery boy, repairman, pot washer and baby sitter. From 1958 – 1968 he performed and recorded with the children’s folk group, The Babysitters. He has also recorded an entire album for the Elektra label titled “Folksongs – Once Over Lightly.”
In 1957 Arkin made his first big screen appearance as a lead singer with The Tarriers in Calypso Heat Wave (1957). Then he made his Off-Broadway debut as a singer in “Heloise” (1958). Next year he joined the Compass Theatre in St. Louis, Missouri. There he caught the eye of stage director Bob Sills and became the original member of the “Second City” troupe in Chicago. In 1961 Arkin made his Broadway debut in musical “From the Second City”, for which he wrote lyrics and sketches, then starred as David Kolowitz in the Broadway comedy “Enter Laughing” (1963), for which he won a Tony Award. He starred in a Broadway musical “From the Second City production, then returned to Broadway as Harry Berlin in “Luv” (1964). Arkin made his directorial debut with an Off-Broadway hit called “Eh?” (1966), which introduced the young actor, named Dustin Hoffman. He won a Drama Desk Award for his direction of the Off-Broadway production of “Little Murders” (1969), and another Drama Desk Award for “The White House Murder Case” (1970). He also directed the original version of Neil Simon’s hilarious smash, “The Sunshine Boys” (1972), which ran over 500 performances.
Arkin earned his first Academy Award nomination as Best Actor for his feature acting debut in a comedy The Russians Are Coming the Russians Are Coming (1966), by director Norman Jewison, co-starring as Lt. Rozanov, a Soviet submariner who is mistaken for a spy after his boat accidentally wrecks aground in New England. Arkin demonstrated his dramatic range as the psychopathic killer Roat in suspense film Wait Until Dark (1967), opposite Audrey Hepburn. He reinvented himself as the sensitive deaf-mute in The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter (1968), for which he received his second Academy Award Nomination as Best Actor in the Leading role. He followed with what remained his best known role as Captain Yossarian in Catch-22 (1970), directed by Mike Nichols and based on the eponymous anti-war novel by Joseph Heller. In it Arkin arguably gave his strongest performance, however, his career suffered because the film initially did not live up to expectations. After a few years of directorial work on television, Arkin made a comeback with an impressive portrayal of doctor Sigmund Freud in The Seven-Per-Cent Solution (1976). In the early 1980s he acted in three movies that were family affairs, written by his wife, Barbara Dana, and co-starring his son, Adam Arkin.
During the 1990s he turned out several notable performances, such as a bitter former baseball player in TNT’s Cooperstown (1993), and as a hilarious psychiatrist opposite John Cusack in Grosse Pointe Blank (1997). He won raves for his portrayal of a divorced father who struggles to keep his kids enrolled in the Beverly Hills school system in Slums of Beverly Hills (1998). Arkin gave a brilliant performance opposite Robin Williams in Jakob the Liar (1999), a film about the Nazi occupation of Poland. He also returned to the New York stage co-starring with his son, Tony Arkin and Elaine May in “Power Plays”, which he also co-authored. His most recent comeback as a heroin-snorting, sex-crazed, foul-mouthed grandfather in Little Miss Sunshine (2006), earned him his third Academy Award nomination for Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role, and his first Academy Award.
Alan Arkin has been a modern Renaissance man. In addition to his achievements as an actor, director, and producer, he made his mark as a singer-songwriter with his popular-song compositions “Banana Boat Song”, “Cuddle Bug,” “That’s Me,” and “Best Time of the Year.” Arkin also authored several books, including science-fiction and some children’s stories, such as “The Clearing”, “The Lemming Condition” and “Cassie Loves Beethoven” among his other publications. He is a father of three sons, Adam Arkin, Matthew Arkin, and Anthony Arkin, and a grandfather of Molly Arkin.
Alan Arkin has been a strong supporter of an organic way of living and also a proponent for preservation of the environment and natural habitat. He has been avoiding the show-biz-milieu and is known as an actor who does not really care about prestigious awards, but values having a good job and being acknowledged by his peers. In Arkin’s own words he wants to “Stay home for three months. Living as quietly as humanly possible.” Arkin was given an Indian name, Grey Wolf, by his Native American friends in New Mexico.
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