By Chesley Turner
Photography: Patrick Fraser
Things that get better with age:
Alan Arkin, director, star, or supporting actor in a whole slew of black comedies, from Little Murders to The Russians are Coming the Russians are Coming to his Academy Award-winning turn in Little Miss Sunshine, knows a good film when it crosses his path. “I take the roles I have fun doing. I always have, all my career. I take what I’m interested in.”
And it’s a good thing. Because he’s got a knack for nailing the line between tongue-in-cheek and over-the-top that good black comedy takes. We see less and less of them these days, but maybe that’s because they don’t need to. Reality has supplanted artifice.
Arkin’s perspective on the predominant media topic of the day? We’re all doomed. When asked about the brewing election, he says, with a mixture of frustration and resignation, “It’s like that reality TV show of that guy out in Chicago who makes everyone hit one another. What’s his name? Jerry Springer.”
You can’t blame him for drawing that parallel. With over eight decades under his belt, Arkin can weigh in on the topic of America Politics. Has this all happened before, and the collective democratic mind willfully forgets the vitriol and lunacy, time and time again? Or is Trump and the three-ring circus that has sprung up around him truly, terribly original?
“In America? Yes. It’s never been like this before,” he says with certainty. Then, “The last time we had something like this was in Germany in the late 20s. Everyone laughed at this comic-strip of a man.” How’s that for a sobering observation, particularly when it comes from the son of Jewish immigrants from Russia and Germany?
These days, Arkin keeps to himself over on the West Coast, enjoying the warm weather and picking his battles. “Of course I’m concerned about the environment,” he says. “You’d have to be a… a… an ostrich not to be.” An appropriate nod naysayers who choose to avoid the issue altogether. But Arkin admits he has the luxury of never actually needing to interface with these people. “We don’t come into contact with them, other than in the media, or in the newspaper.” Instead, Arkin devotes himself to gentler, centering thoughts.
“What keeps me up at night? Nothing. Nothing keeps me up at night…. That doesn’t mean I’m not concerned about things. All I have to do is look at the media and I worry about the state of things.”
So keeping his mind out of the fray takes work, Arkin says. He’s lived conscientiously for over 40 years, seeking a more centered reality focused on self-realization. A practicing Buddhist, he admits it doesn’t come naturally. “I don’t know that I would call it a skill, even. But my wife and I have worked at it. Pilates discipline, reading the literature of Abhidharma, practicing meditation.” That’s what’s on the to-do list these days. “And, of course, my kids, and my grandchildren. And working every once in a long while.”
With a career that spans decades, you may not be as familiar with where Arkin started. Lately, his characters tend to be more irascible old-man types, quietly chewing on a preoccupation while observing others with quick-witted cynicism. “I haven’t always played characters like that. Only lately…only lately.”
He’s done show-stoppers, rom-coms, fantasies, and thrillers. Arkin’s 1970 break-out role was Mike Nichols’ Catch-22. Based on Joseph Heller’s classic novel (with a few artistic departures made for mainstream consumption), the film is a classic black comedy, produced in the heyday of black comedies. “I thought the book was brilliant,” Arkin says, and his portrayal of the unapologetically desperate Captain John Yossarian is on point. You’ll laugh out loud to keep from crying, as you realize that things haven’t really progressed since Heller’s acidic observations were first made.
At the suggestion that not much has changed in over four decades, Arkin busts into laughter, long and loud. He’s not entirely un-optimistic.
“I think Obama has accomplished much more than people give him credit for. His approval ratings have improved in the past month or so.” And then, almost as a sad aside, “People are seeing what else is out there….”
So who is Arkin voting for? “I’m writing in the Dalai Lama.” His delivery is entirely straight-faced. No comedic inflection, whatsoever. It’s a level-enough statement that we think he may actually mean it.
At 81, Arkin’s still got his wits and he’s still got his groove. Something you may not realize: he co-wrote the Banana Boat Song back in 1956, which Harry Belafonte made into a memorable classic. So when asked what the one song is that gets him out of his chair to dance, he laughs again, long and loud. It’s the kind of laugh that accompanies an unexpected surge of memories of years of Bossanova in classy joints where everyone is dressed up in wide-lapel suits, rum drinks in hand. “Elis Regina and Sergio Mendes. I’d say they’ve got some good stuff.”
Before the interview’s end we ask Arkin for a little open-ended advise. “Advice?” he repeats, skeptically. Then he pauses for a few seconds before saying, “Get your head out of the media. Go find or create your own peace.”
At the risk of minimizing him, he sounds a bit like the Old Lemming in The Lemming Condition. It’s a book that he wrote back in the 70s, which has been selling pretty consistently for almost 40 years.
“WHAT DO YOU MEAN, MINIMIZE ME?” he roars, laughing again. “I WROTE IT! I WROTE HIM!”
There you have it. For your true distillation of Alan Arkin and his take on the world, go pick up The Lemming Condition. Better yet, download the audiobook to hear him narrate the disastrous and indefinable inclination for civilizations to hurl themselves off cliff faces.
(Use outtake from The Lemming Condition to supplement the article. This entire book is gold, but this quote is the culmination.)
“We’re all a little bit crazy. Let’s face it. But it’s no good giving into it. We can’t sit back and accept it. We have to live in the hope that sooner or later the race will stabilize. We have to put ourselves in the forge and come out iron, so that when the loonies die off, we’re still around to elevate the species. This is what you and I must work for.”
-The Old Lemming
The Lemming Condition, written by Alan Arkin, 1976
Stylist: Sean P
Makeup Artist / Aesthetician : Libbey Lazarus