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Oscar-winning actor Alan Arkin dies at 89

By Maggy Donaldson / AFP Published Jul 01, 2023 10:23 am

Alan Arkin, the Oscar-winning Little Miss Sunshine and Argo actor known for his wry wit and improvisation skills, has died at the age of 89, according to his sons.

Adam, Matthew and Anthony—who all followed their father into the entertainment industry—said he was "a uniquely talented force of nature, both as an artist and a man."

"A loving husband, father, grand and great grandfather, he was adored and will be deeply missed," they said in a statement Friday, without citing a cause of death.

Born in Brooklyn on March 26, 1934 to Russian-German Jewish immigrant parents, Arkin began taking acting classes from a young age.

His family relocated to Los Angeles in the 1950s, and Arkin won scholarships to various Los Angeles drama colleges before dropping out to form a folk music band, The Tarriers, in 1955.

The group had a hit with 1956's "The Banana Boat Song," and he continued to pursue a music career as well as acting for the next decade.

He was a member of Chicago's storied Second City improvisational troupe, and appeared on the big screen for the first time with The Tarriers in 1957's "Calypso Heat Wave." 

He made his Broadway debut in "From the Second City," which led to a role in acclaimed comedy "Enter Laughing," for which he won a Tony Award. 

Frederic J. BROWN / AFP
'Indelible mark'

In a rare feat, Arkin earned a best actor Oscar nomination for his first feature acting role, playing the Soviet sailor Rozanov, who is mistaken for a spy, in the 1966 comedy The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming.

That was followed by appearances in 1967's Wait Until Dark opposite Audrey Hepburn, and 1968's The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, for which he received a second Oscar nomination, for playing a deaf-mute. 

Many critics believe Arkin's best performance came in 1970's Catch 22, the film adaptation of Joseph Heller's best-selling tragicomic war novel. 

Arkin appeared regularly on stage, television and the big screen from the 1970s to the 1990s, with notable roles in Edward Scissorhands (1990), Glengarry Glen Ross (1992), and Grosse Pointe Blank (1997).

He took it upon himself to create his Little Miss Sunshine character's backstory, deciding that Grandpa Hoover should be a washed-up former saxophonist with a penchant for strip clubs and drugs. It would win him his only Oscar.

"I love completely disreputable characters who spout philosophy," Arkin said. "He's completely out there, wide open and nuts." 

He earned another Oscar nomination for 2013's best picture winner Argo, in which he played a curmudgeonly Hollywood producer who brought comic relief to the tense Iran hostage thriller.

He later starred in the acclaimed Netflix series The Kominsky Method, which premiered in 2018. He played the agent and friend to an aging acting coach, portrayed by Michael Douglas.

On Friday, Douglas called Arkin "a wonderful actor whose intelligence, sense of comedy and consummate professionalism over the past 70 years has left an indelible mark on our industry."

Arkin credited his early days as an improv performer with teaching him many lessons—but one of the key ones, he said, was failure.

"The audience came in knowing a lot of what they saw was going to fail, and it was okay," he told the Los Angeles Times in 2008. "Now if you fail, it's a moral issue, bad for the numbers crunchers."

"But one of the things I learned from improvising is that all of life is an improvisation, whether you like it or not. 

"Some of the greatest scientific discoveries of the 20th century came out of people dropping things."

Along with his three sons, Arkin is survived by his wife Suzanne as well as four grandchildren and a great-grandchild.