Oscar winner Alan Arkin is one hot property. Best known for such films as “Catch 22,” “Edward Scissorhands” and “Glengarry Glen Ross,” Arkin scored Academy Award gold as an irascible grandfather in the indie smash “Little Miss Sunshine.” More recently, he’s starred in “Get Smart,” “Marley and Me” and “The Private Lives of Pippa Lee.”
Now, with projects involving Robert Downey Jr., Billy Crudup and Greg Kinnear in the works, it appears Arkin — the father of actors Adam, Anthony and Matthew Arkin — is in more demand than ever.
“When I hit my middle 60s, I got hit on by women more than ever in my life,” Arkin said with a chuckle. “My reaction has been slightly miffed about it. I keep going, ‘Where were you 30 years ago?’ ”
Arkin, 75, can expect even more attention when he appears March 20 at the San Luis Obispo International Film Festival. He’s slated to receive the King Vidor Career Achievement Award, which honors excellence in filmmaking. Past recipients include Malcolm McDowell, Peter Fonda and Morgan Freeman.
“He’s done an amazing amount of work (and) he’s still working constantly,” Festival Director Wendy Eidson said of Arkin. “He’s still very busy.”
Arkin’s path from unknown to industry mainstay has been a circuitous one.
He kicked off his showbiz career in the 1950s with the folk group The Tarriers. Their version of “The Banana Boat Song” reached No. 4 on the Billboard chart before being eclipsed by Harry Belafonte’s better-known cover.
After stints with children’s folk group The Baby Sitters, Broadway and The Second City comedy troupe, Arkin made his film debut in 1966’s “The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming” — earning his first Academy Award nomination. He received his second Oscar nod two years later for “The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter.”
“I live a lot in that old statement, ‘If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans,’ ” said Arkin, who won a Tony Award for the play “Enter Laughing.” “So I’ve done a lot of things that I never dreamed I would do and I’m happy for it. One of the keys to a really successful life is being flexible and jumping into what presents itself.”
Over the years, Arkin has branched out into directing, producing and screenwriting. He’s also written several books, including “The Lemming Condition” and “Halfway Through the Door: An Actor’s Journey Toward Self.”
Arkin recently chatted with The Tribune about acting, improv and the merits of a life on the fly.
Q: You describe your time with The Second City as “the thing that changed my life.”
A: When I was in my late 20s … I got an offer to be with a little improvisational group in Chicago. There were no such things. Nobody had ever heard of Chicago, or that there was theater in Chicago, and improvisation was … (for) jazz musicians.
But nothing was happening to me in New York. So I took the job for 125 bucks a week and lived in a one-room (apartment) with a bathroom down the hall and thought, “At least I’m working.” Six months later, the group started getting national attention.
Q: What was Second City like back then?
A: It was the Wild West. We were a bunch of people who didn’t belong anywhere. Everybody thinks of us now as being pathfinders paving the way for improvisation in the country. We were just trying to survive.
Q: What was it like working on “The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming?”
A: Norman Jewison was the first film director I ever worked with, and nobody has ever been better than him. He was to me the model of what every good leader should be in any area of the human experience. And I’m not saying that because he may be there. (laughs) …
His approach was so generous, so filled with love not only for the materials and the actors but the whole community we were working with.
Most of the town of Fort Bragg, Calif., was involved in the movie.…Everybody would come to dailies. (Jewison) would end up saying to the people of the town, ‘Please leave your dogs and your babies at home for the dailies because we can’t hear the soundtrack.’ ”
He turned it into a communal event, which was enormously heartwarming.
Q: Did you expect to get an Oscar nomination?
A: My hope and prayer was that I’d get another job some day. I think that’s true of every actor.
Q: As a three-time Oscar nominee, what’s your attitude toward the Academy Awards?
A: It’s complicated. I recognize the importance of the awards and the nominations from a business standpoint. But philosophically, I just don’t believe anybody has the right to say “This is better than that.” …
Let’s say a movie is seen by 50 people and changes those people’s lives. Another movie makes $150 million or $200 million…but people walk away and forget about it the next week. Which is the more important film? And how do you gauge that?
Q: In which production would you rather be involved?
A: It depends on the specific project. I like making a living like everybody else does. I have a mortgage I want to pay. So getting a larger film every once in a while to pay the bills has meaning. …
Big or small, it has to be a part that I have enjoyment in playing. Otherwise it’s not going to work.
Q: Was “Glengarry Glen Ross” enjoyable?
A: It was the hardest thing any of us had ever worked on. (David Mamet) is tougher than Shakespeare. …
Most of my stuff was with Ed Harris. First of all, we rehearsed for a month. When we weren’t on (camera), Ed and I would run to my trailer or his trailer and we’d run scenes. … I’ve never rehearsed so much in my life. …
It was very difficult, very time-consuming and very exacting with no margin for error.
People ask me if it was a fun production. It’s like asking someone if doing brain surgery is fun. It’s a good thing to be doing and you’re happy to be doing it, but it isn’t fun.
Q: Turning to “Little Miss Sunshine,” I understand the directors originally rejected you as “too virile.”
A: It was the nicest rejection that I’ve ever gotten. But then they couldn’t find anyone that was right for it. They came back to me and everything worked out OK.
Q: Your character in “Little Miss Sunshine” was the latest in a long line of curmudgeons and malcontents. What draws you to those roles?
A: There’s a big mythology about actors about what they pick and what their careers are.
We pick the best of what’s offered to us— unless you’re in the superstar category, which I’m not. That’s what’s being thrown at me these days, and I look for the (roles) that I can get excited about.
I love playing curmudgeons so it’s not an issue. … I loved Mr. Hoover in “Little Miss Sunshine.” ... I enjoy characters who are not very bright but are comfortable in spouting off philosophy to everybody who listens. So many people are like that that it gives me an opportunity to poke a little fun at them.
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