Since Catch-22, actor’s actor Alan Arkin finally stars as...Alan Arkin.
October 1970

Unlike Yossarian, Arkin climbs trees with his wife Barbara, his son Tony and his clothes on.
Unlike Yossarian, Arkin climbs trees with his wife Barbara, his son Tony and his clothes on.

1 Alan Arkin is making a point about Einstein and Casals when Barbara, Mrs. Arkin, comes out of the house and says that the tree surgeon is on the phone wanting to know why he hasn't been hired. Cautiously, Arkin asks if this is the same tree surgeon. Barbara laughs and says of course. A pained look crosses over Arkin's face. This is their first summer in their new country house, and while Barbara may love the vegetable garden and Alan not mind the mowing, nobody knows from tree surgery. The pirate-craftsman waiting at the other end of the wire knows this, having already cased their woody three acres and guessed the owners to be innocents fresh from the city. Arkin ponders, or seems to ponder--then a way out dawns on him. "Tell him I'm not home!" he says with a canny wink that sends Barbara back inside laughing. He watches her go, then returns to Einstein and Casals: the thing about them is that even with their great comprehension of man's life on earth, they both chose to live in pleasant surroundings, as Arkin himself has done. "It's like I say to myself, in this day and age, what right have I got to peace and happiness and clean air? But then I say, well, because most people can't have it so good, does that mean I should deprive myself? Who would it help?"

2 It has been Arkin's fate to be praised by the critics for doing brilliant jobs in movies they didn't like. Only his first picture, The Russians Are Coming, was generally well received. But Popi and The Heart is a Lonely Hunter both slipped past with less attention than they deserved. Arkin became known as "an actor's actor," which was to say that he could play all the tough parts too well to waste his time on something really juicy. As Yossarian in Catch-22, Arkin finally had a chance to play himseif, and he did it with such conviction and control that even critics who actually hated the picture were lavish in their respect for the art of Arkin. By the time Catch-22 was released, though, Arkin was already finishing shooting Little Murders, coming in under budget and a day ahead of schedule in his first crack at directing. And then before he had a rough cut of Little Murders put together, a call came that gave him the lead in Deadhead Miles, a picture to be made this fall--"the only thing I read all year that really got me excited." Arkin is a talented photographer, a musician and composer of songs, and there is no one who has made a better career, both as actor and director, on and off Broadway and in films. At 36, he can work as much as he wants to work, earning several hundred thousand a year. You might be tempted to say that Arkin is a big success.

But Arkin pleads confusion when his career is appraised in terms of dollars or good reviews. "I just get lost when you talk about 'success' that way. Success is doing what you've set out to do, so it can be a million different things and you yourself are the only one who can know it when it comes."

This may sound like the kind of fine distinction a newly rich actor would go in for, but Arkin was able to turn away from apparent success even when he had nothing to fall back on. After dropping out of Bennington College, he joined two friends to form a folk trio called The Tarriers, and when their Banana Boat Song became one of the big hits of 1957, The Tarriers started doing very well. They made records, played the campuses, toured the world. But for Arkin that was not success. "One day I just looked at myself standing onstage in satin pants with a guitar around my neck and I said, what the hell am I? And the next day I quit."

3 About the only thing that Arkin still enjoys doing in New York is going for a walk in Greenwich Village. His town house is close to the heart of the action, so a half-hour stroll takes him down the most spirited streets. Since he looks like so many other New Yorkers, no one recognizes him or interrupts the thoughtful mood his walks induce. "A lot of times when I'm really stuck on something and feel like banging my head against the wall, I finally give up and go out for a walk and bam!--There it is! I've got it." He sets a brisk pace, stops for a beer, turns back toward home and runs into Jack Gilford, who played Doc Daneeka in Catch-22. They greet each other like old squadron mates. Gilford asks if Arkin has seen the movie and when Arkin nods inscrutably, Gilford laughs and asks him what he thought of it. "Well," Arkin says carefully, "there were three performances I especially liked, and yours was two of 'em."

4 Arkin writhes in discomfort at the thought of an interview. He is articulate and witty and in such fine control of his ideas that he would seem ideally suited to shine in a ritual most actors find too flattering to resist. But it is as if he fears betraying his craft by trying to describe it, and since his craft is all he really cares to discuss, every question confronts him with a new ordeal. "These things are like biological processes, you know, and it always sounds all wrong when you talk about them. I start to pontificate and I hear my voice getting deep and ecclesiastical and what I say has nothing to do with the way I feel about anything." Then he smiles briefly, heaves a fatalist's sigh and begins to massage his forehead. A long minute passes between question and answer.

"I prepare for a role in a strange way. I don't read the script very many times. I don't consciously think of it. I just find that it stays in my mind all the time until I get locked onto an image of the person I'm supposed to be. If that doesn't happen, I consider myself in deep trouble, but usually it means that the character doesn't know who he is. Like when I was doing The Russians Are Coming. I felt terribly strange and awkward and I thought it was because this was my first movie and a lot was riding on it. But then I caught myself and said, wait a minute!--This is exactly what Rozanov feels! The strangeness and the sense of not knowing the language were his feelings, not mine. I was giving myself the right signals, but in my insecurity I misinterpreted him. Ah, God, it's very convoluted. What I'm trying to say is that you have to read the signals that come out of the subconscious and find out what they're trying to tell you. If you really listen to yourself, you can trust your instincts to practically never mislead you."


Tony is the perfect outdoor companion, a lover of flowers, tractors and small animals, and he is never happier than when shadowing his father around their country place.

5 As he leads Elliott Gould off into the shadows of the Little Murders sound stage, Arkin looks like a basketball coach talking some fight into a player. He has to reach up to keep an arm draped over Gould's shoulders, the better to talk in his ear. Gould nods gravely as he listens; Arkin pounds the air with his fist. The cast and crew wait quietly in their places. In the nine weeks they have been working together, they have watched him gain confidence and open up.

"I knew I could get along with actors from directing in the theater," he says a few nights later. He is dining in a rundown Chinese restaurant, being too poorly dressed for the good Chinese restaurant next door. "But I've always been too absorbed in my own work to notice what the director was doing in the movies I've been in, so I started with absolutely no confidence that I could get these grown-up people to do what I said. I was preoccupied with technique 70 to 80 percent of the time, and eventually it began to rub off on me. I discovered a lot of fascinating things I'd never given a thought to before, and then I discovered the obvious: all you need to direct is a clear point of view. If you've got that and are careful to get it across, everybody will come along with you and be grateful for it."

6 Alan and Barbara have got the drive into Manhattan down to 50 minutes. They breeze down the parkway in their Mercedes, arriving in plenty of time for Barbara to get to the theater. Barbara--Barbara Dana onstage--was a much busier actress before she married Alan six years ago, but now she is starring in a Broadway comedy called Room Service, and Alan fits his day to hers, reaching the cutting room in midafternoon and staying until 11, when Barbara is ready to go home. In the cutting room, seven floors above Broadway, he spends hours on end hunched over the film editor's shoulder, watching Little Murders on the Movieola. The picture is hardly bigger than a postcard, and the only sound effects are those supplied by Arkin. "uuuhhhHHHHUUUNNNGGG! " he sings out as a police car flashes into view. Then later on: "K-k, k-k, k-k." Onscreen, bullets are being fed into a rifle. The door to the darkened room opens every few minutes, admitting some new person in a slice of bright light. The work has reached the point where no one doubts it will be good, and the mood is easy and relaxed. But no matter who comes in from the light outside, Arkin's eyes never lift from the little picture.

7 "My mother's father was a terrific guy who studied opera singing well into his 80s. He was a jeweler and optometrist in Brooklyn, and in the middle of the afternoon, the busiest time, he'd close up the shop and go in the back and turn off the lights and play his violin. He had a fantastic sense of humor. A few days after he got married, he bought one of those toys where you hide a dollar inside and you put a piece of paper in one side and the dollar comes out the other. He brought it to my grandmother and said, 'Selena, I have a confession to make. I told you I was a jeweler and optometrist, but this is what I really do for a living.' And then he turned the little crank and the dollar came out and my grandmother burst into tears and ran into her room and wouldn't come out for days."

Quiet, tender laughter breaks the story off and sets Arkin to remembering other funny times. "My father's father was something else. He used to love to read letters aloud. I remember walking into his bathroom one day and seeing a pair of feet sticking out from under the bathtub. It was the plumber fixing a pipe. And there stood my grandfather, tears streaming down his face, reading a letter from my uncle in North Africa out loud to the plumber."

Playing a cameo role as the paranoid detective in Little Murders, Arkin works himself into a froth, only to go back behind the camera as director that afternoon, relaxed and completely self-assured.

Directing, according to Arkin,is simply a matter of establishing a point of view, here conveyed to Elliott Gould in unmistakable Arkinese.

8 Alan Arkin was born in Brooklyn, but when he was 12, his family moved to Los Angeles, arriving just in time for the great Hollywood strike, which closed down the studios for eight months, costing Alan's father the set designer's job he was after. Alan had been taking acting lessons since the age of 10, and before long he was a scholarship student at a succession of drama academies, including one run by Benjamin Zemach, who had studied with Stanislavsky and who taught Alan the psychological approach to acting. "He taught me the whole idea of subtexts, which is considering what each line means in relation to the next, dealing with the script in a more analytical way than the author himself might have done, and in this way getting to the point where you're so deeply into it that you don't exist anymore, where time doesn't exist, where life is just happening to you, and the idea of being onstage is completely gone from your mind."

9 One day while riding on a New York bus, Arkin glanced up at the Capsule Philosophies card tucked in among the ads, and there he found a most important teaching. "I thought it would be Demosthenes or Socrates or someone, but who was it? Benny Goodman. It was Benny Goodman's capsule philosophy. So I chuckled to myself and then I read it, and what he was saying was that he'd spent years trying to find the right wood for reeds. And he said, 'A lot of people think this is a shameless waste of time but it is terribly important to me, because I have found that the one thing a man must have is an activity that destroys time's terrible rush.' Time's terrible rush--that said the whole thing to me."

10 At Franklin High in L.A., Alan found out what it was to be a foreigner. In the land of cars and suntanned blondes, he perceived himself as a Russian-German Jew from New York, completely out of the action. He made friendships on the basis of liking anyone who showed any interest in books, and in this way won one friend as a freshman and a couple of others later on. His parents were leftist intellectuals who had taught him to distrust the system. Yet when his grades turned sour in the super-American high school, his parents were disappointed, as if they expected him to succeed within the very structure they despised. This led him into a long and painful confusion as to how he might please them best.

11 Arkin is in no sense a member of the Now Generation, even though, in the theater, 36 is young enough to stretch a point. But he keeps his hair short enough for boot camp and his taste in clothes hasn't changed since the '50s. He is a liberal aghast at the doings of the Movement, and unlike such "activists" as Candice Bergen and Paul Newman (who lives just across the gulch from the Arkins in Connecticut), he is skeptical of most causes and the show folk who take them up. "This is still the freest country in the world," he will say. And: "There are black doctors, black lawyers, black congressmen, black mayors. It isn't as if blacks can't make it here." And: "The only thing I hate worse than the right wing is the left wing."

12 When he went out to Chicago in 1960 to join the Second City troupe, Arkin had given up on his chances of succeeding in New York. Two years had passed since he quit The Tarriers, and the only work to come his way was in the off-Broadway play Heloise, where he was hired not for his acting but because he could play the lute and the guitar. "I figured that in the Midwest I could have a normal life and a small career as a local actor," he recalls. "At the time, that looked about as good as anything I could do." But the Second City troupe turned out to be something like an early commune, and Arkin would go to the club as soon as he woke up and stay until the last show was over at 2 or 3 the next morning. Then, 10 months after his arrival, the troupe moved to New York, and From the Second City became the season's biggest comedy hit. This quick reversal in fortunes led Arkin into further doubts about the nature of success. "It was fantastic when all these fancy people we'd been cutting up in our routines started showing up in the audience. We were nervous and embarrassed, but then we started hearing how much they loved us, and some of them even came backstage and told us how marvelous we were. The effect of this was to make me doubt the premise of our work, which was satire is relevant, or something like that. I thought there had to be something wrong with either the potency or the aim when the people we thought we were destroying all loved it so much."

13. The night that Alan and Barbara took Mike Nichols and Jackie Kennedy out to Coney Island for supper, Jackie did something that struck Alan as the most civilized and thoughtful and genuinely gracious act he'd ever seen. Someone came over to their table and asked Jackie for her autograph. "No, thank you," Jackie said.

14 Arkin credits much to his analysis, which he began soon after returning to New York with the Second City. His first marriage had ended the year before, and he was subject to moody depressions that success did nothing to dispel. "I'd been telling myself for years that everything would take care of itself as soon as I became a successful actor. And then I became a good working actor, working six days a week, and that was great except that I had absolutely no life at all outside of that. I felt like I was being swept along in some current. I didn't feel that I had any control over my destiny. And then three people in one week told me I ought to see a psychiatrist, and that started me fantasizing about going, and how I'd be sitting there telling this neutral person all these horrible things about myseIf, and it was impossible to imagine, because I couldn't talk to anybody, I couldn't talk about anything. So I figured if it was that bad, I'd better go. I went there with my mind made up to be terribly open about all the worst stuff. The things that would be the most difficult to talk about I'd make myself tell right away. And it turned out, of course, that those were the really easy things. About two years later, I found out what the really hard things were."

Preoccupied with learning technique, Arkin spent most of his time on Little Murders discovering the camera's eye.

15 Tony, the Arkins' 2-year-old son, being too short to get a good grip on the doorknob, uses some kind of children's magic to open the townhouse door. Tony is the sublime combination of Barbara's clear beauty and Alan's Levantine looks, and his command of the language already runs to sentences of 11 words and more: his father pridefully totes them up as Tony talks. Alan's two sons from his first marriage, Adam, 14, and Matthew, 10, also live with him, but they are in California, visiting their mother. To see Arkin with his children is strikingly revealing of how guarded he is at other times. It is as if, with Tony in his lap, he cant possibly be misunderstood.

16 Adam and Matthew have both performed on the Baby Sitter records Arkin makes with his family and friends--four albums, so far, of children's songs, sung and played with gusto and good humor. The two older boys also appeared in People Soup, one of Arkin's own short movies, and now both have been offered parts in commercial films. Alan, who seems keen on the idea of their working, says, "Since people have been after Matthew, he's really opened up." Arkin is obviously delighted when he tells how someone walking by the town house a few weeks before heard Adam practicing his drums and came to the door to offer him $75 to play a job in Pittsburgh with a rock band. Adam did it, too.

17 Several years ago, Arkin made two of his Second City routines into short films that are classics. The Last Mohican is a tragicomic portrait of an old pretzel vendor still working his stand in a neighborhood that has gone to glass and steel all around him. That's Me records a social worker's attempt at talking some ambition into a young Puerto Rican whose wisdom directs him to stay in the park forever, playing his guitar. It is a curious experience to see these older movies alongside People Soup, which Arkin made just last year. The early movies are informed with a social vision that can come only from the underside, while People Soup evokes a cornucopian life in the richest suburbs. Arkin seems perplexed at the notion of there being a changing sensibility apparent in his films. He thinks it over, then says: "People Soup is a more positive statement than the other two. What it's really about is the magic of childhood, which is something I believe in. I think it's the best of the three. What bothers me now about the other two is not that they're invalid or untrue or imperceptive but that they represent points of view I no longer feel. They're both caring films, but they're placid. They're not on the side of the possibility for betterment. And no matter how true they might have been, it's not good enough to just accept life like the Puerto Rican does or refuse to see that it's changing, like the pretzel seller. Ah, God. You know what? We shouldn't be talking about this. It almost dissipates the reason for having made them."

18 Arkin is cooking up a pot of Mu tea in the kitchen of the town house. Herbal infusions are part of his family heritage, along with a taste for borscht. His openness to great art is another thing his family taught him, and he often speaks of how esthetic encounters have bowled him over. "The first time I ever got outside my skin was hearing Beethoven's Seventh. My father made me sit down and listen to it, and afterwards he asked me what it was about, and I told him tremendous sorrow. So he said listen again, it's about the sorrow that's beyond sorrow. And so I listened and pretended that I was Beethoven composing it, and I got into a state of such grief and joy that it floated me right out of my chair."

Arkin is also given to quoting the sages. In a single conversation one night at the town house, he quotes Dostoyevsky, Flaubert, Emerson, Tolstoy and Benny Goodman. If he didn't do it so naturally and well, you'd think that Bartlett's was his bedside reading.

19 “It never fails: everybody who really makes it does it by busting his ass." ARKIN, Alan (1934-)

Alan and Barbara have the talent for being alone together in all situations, falling naturally into a tender pose on a country walk.

20 When preparing for a part in a movie, Arkin begins by establishing "keys." A key is some central fact about the character that he fixes on in every scene. The key to Singer, the deaf-mute in The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, was that he was always listening. Rozanov in The Russians Are Coming was frightened of leadership and didn't know the language. Yossarian was basically selfish. Such a key as applied to Arkin might be: he always winds up winning.

21 Since the age of 6, Arkin says, he has always thought of directing a movie as "the epitome of what a human being can do." The only things that have ever interested him deeply are acting, writing, music and photography, and directing is the only activity which draws upon them all. "When I'm really working well as a director, it's as if the script is somewhere back of my head, and the actors are out in front and I'm suspended on a beam of light in between. It's the greatest feeling you can possibly have. I think directing is a more mature activity than acting. When you're acting, you're re-creating someone else's vision of the world. When you're directing, you're interpreting someone else's vision and incorporating your own into it. But in acting I have such a feeling of confidence that I can't just leave it behind. It's the only thing that gives me that good feeling of potency, where you trust yourself. It's too much of a feeling to learn to live without. Acting in a movie is going to be like a vacation now. I suppose it's the German tradition or the Jewish or whatever that tells you that everything has to have a reason for being, that it's not enough to just have a good time. But I think I've come about as far as I can with the idea of working out of discipline and dedication. From now on I'm going to try to work out of joy, I guess. I'm going to learn to trust myself to the extent where I feel that whatever I'm in contact with is going to be worth something."

22 No doubt it was simple convenience that led Arkin to say on a number of occasions that he was Yossarian. The only people who were bleak enough to ask him how he felt about Yossarian "as a person" were people conducting interviews, and since he hates an interview but is nice to people, it probably seemed easiest to say that he and Yossarian were the same person. He might have meant that, like Yossarian, he is aware of living in a murderous world. Or that he is direct, mercurial, engaged with his own skin. Still, the illusion led to a peculiar impression of the novel's hero in a time of safety and success--Yossarian as winner, survivor, pushing a power mower, getting along with producers. Yossarian when no one wants to kill him anymore. Not being one to give himself problems, Arkin only smiles at the ironies involved. "Yeah, I used to be panicky. There used to be a time when I thought that if I couldn't act I was going to have to jump out a window. But I don't feel that anymore. Now I have a life of my own. I can get through a day very, very well involving myself in a thousand things that have nothing to do with acting. I can spend time with my wife. I can devote good constructive time to my children. I can play tennis. I can garden. I used to just question my existence all the time. I guess a lot of people do--it's the 20th Century disease, you know, who am I? Well, I don't ask anymore. I don't wake up in the morning and say, who am I? What do I have to do to feel like I'm alive? I already know I'm alive, and since I already know, I don't have to ask."

Throughout the shooting of Little Murders, Arkin and Gould enjoyed creating foolishness between takes.