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Remembering Alan Arkin, an Oscar- and Tony-winning actor/filmmaker

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli. Alan Arkin, the Oscar-winning actor who appeared in such films as "Wait Until Dark," "Little Miss Sunshine" and "Argo" died last week at age 89. One of his most famous starring roles was in the 1970 Mike Nichols movie version of Joseph Heller's "Catch-22." He played Yossarian, the World War II bombardier who wanted to stop flying dangerous bomber missions. He cornered the company doctor on the airstrip as planes took off loudly all around them and asked to be declared too crazy to fly. But the doctor, played by Jack Gilford, explained why that wasn't so easy.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CATCH-22")

JACK GILFORD: (As Dr. "Doc" Daneeka) There's a catch.

ALAN ARKIN: (As John Yossarian) A catch?

GILFORD: (As Dr. "Doc" Daneeka) Sure - Catch-22. Anyone who wants to get out of combat isn't really crazy, so I can't ground him.

ARKIN: (As John Yossarian) OK. Let me see if I got this straight. In order to be grounded, I've got to be crazy. And I must be crazy to keep flying. But if I ask to be grounded, that means I'm not crazy anymore, and I have to keep flying.

GILFORD: (As Dr. "Doc" Daneeka) You've got it. That's Catch-22.

ARKIN: (As John Yossarian) That's some catch, that Catch-22.

BIANCULLI: Alan Arkin played both comic and dramatic parts and came from a background that was equally versatile. Before he began acting on stage, screen and TV, he was a member of the folk singing group The Tarriers, who had a hit with "The Banana Boat Song" in 1956, the same year as Harry Belafonte. He was an early member of the Second City comedy troupe in Chicago and won a Tony Award in 1961 for starring in the comedy "Enter Laughing." His movie debut was as one of the stars of "The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming," and his later films included him playing Sigmund Freud in "The Seven-Per-Cent Solution" and playing opposite Peter Falk in "The In-Laws." On TV, he played a grieving husband in a recurring role on "St. Elsewhere," and at the end of his career was racking up Emmy nominations as a supporting actor in the Netflix comedy series "The Kominsky Method."

He won his Academy Award for playing the foul-mouthed grandfather in the 2006 film "Little Miss Sunshine." The family is crammed into a van for a road trip, and the grandfather, played by Arkin, starts a conversation with the grandson seated silently next to him, while Arkin's son, played by Greg Kinnear, drives and objects.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE")

ARKIN: (As Edwin Hoover) Can I give you some advice? Well, I'm going to give it to you anyway. I don't want you making the same mistakes I made when I was young.

GREG KINNEAR: (As Richard Hoover) Can't wait to hear this.

ARKIN: (As Edwin Hoover) Dwayne - that's your name, right? Dwayne. This is the voice of experience talking. Are you listening? [Expletive] a lot of women, Dwayne.

KINNEAR: (As Richard Hoover) Hey.

ARKIN: (As Edwin Hoover) Not just one woman.

KINNEAR: (As Richard Hoover) Dad.

ARKIN: (As Edwin Hoover) A lot of women.

KINNEAR: (As Richard Hoover) That's enough, all right?

ARKIN: (As Edwin Hoover) Are you getting any?

KINNEAR: (As Richard Hoover) Dad.

ARKIN: (As Edwin Hoover) You can tell me, Dwayne. Are you getting any?

KINNEAR: (As Richard Hoover) Come on. Please.

ARKIN: (As Edwin Hoover) No? Jesus. You're what - 15? My God, man...

KINNEAR: (As Richard Hoover) Dad.

ARKIN: (As Edwin Hoover) You should be getting that young stuff.

KINNEAR: (As Richard Hoover) Dad. Hey.

ARKIN: (As Edwin Hoover) That young stuff...

KINNEAR: (As Richard Hoover) Hey.

ARKIN: (As Edwin Hoover) ...Is the best stuff in the whole world.

KINNEAR: (As Richard Hoover) Hey, Dad, that's enough. Stop it.

ARKIN: (As Edwin Hoover) Will you kindly not interrupt me, Richard? See, right now, you're jailbait. They're jailbait. It's perfect. I mean, you hit 18, man, you're talking about 3 to 5.

KINNEAR: (As Richard Hoover) Hey, I will pull this truck over right now.

BIANCULLI: Terry Gross interviewed Alan Arkin in 1989. He told her why he likes to work in different media.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

ARKIN: I keep thinking that when I change media, something new and wonderful is going to happen, and I'm going to break through the limits of my own personality, and it never seems to happen. I look at my writing, and I see the same kind of things I like about my acting and the same kind of things I dislike about my acting. And I feel like my direction has the same assets and liabilities as everything else I do.

TERRY GROSS: Has that been one of the difficult things about performing - learning to figure out and then to accept what your limitations are?

ARKIN: Yeah. I never realized that until recently, but I think that, well, for me, one of the goals is to be something more than what I am. And no matter how far afield I think I'm going, in retrospect, I look back and all I see is me. Even - no matter how many hats I change, no matter how many limps I affect or speech patterns I change, I almost invariably only see me. Actually, that hasn't - there have been a couple of times when I feel like I've transcended my own identity. And those were really enormously exciting times for me.

GROSS: What's wrong with seeing yourself in a role, though?

ARKIN: That's not the idea of doing it. I think originally that is. People - I guess people want to perform initially because they want to be seen - hey, look at me. Look what I'm doing. But then once in a while, you reach something - and it's not just performing, it's almost any field - which is a kind of a epiphany where you're no longer there.

And I achieved that for the first time when I was about 19 or 20, and when I was - had been studying acting fervently. And I wasn't on stage for about 20 minutes. I disappeared. And the - I was - it's as if I was watching myself play the character, and it was the most exhilarating thing I'd ever experienced up until that time. And for the next 20 years or so, I became a junkie to that experience.

Athletes have that experience. They have a term for it now. It's called being in the zone. And once you've experienced that, nothing else will satisfy you anymore.

GROSS: Do you think that the impulse to act comes in part from wanting to get out of yourself, transcend yourself?

ARKIN: Oh, yeah. I think for a lot of people. I don't think they phrase it that poetically initially. I think it's - I think it a lot of times comes out of a kind of self-loathing that a lot of people aren't really aware of at the time - wanting to be any - it certainly was in me. And I see it in the work of a lot of other people too - a desire to be anybody else but who you are.

It also can come out of a kind of a childish thing of imitating other people, wanting to be - seeing your father and imitating him, seeing other people around that look interesting, as if they have interesting attributes you want to adopt and affect. It's - I think that's another way of...

GROSS: When you were growing up, was there anyone in your family or in your neighborhood who was theatrical in the way they live their life? I don't mean that they were necessarily on the stage, but they had this sense of the theater of life.

ARKIN: Yeah. Oh, very much so. There was a guy named Sam Kennedy (ph) who was the husband of my mother's best friend, who was the most flamboyant character I'd ever met. He was right out of Sean O'Casey. And he wore black turtleneck sweaters, woolen ones, without any underwear underneath, and jeans, in the days when nobody was doing things like that - in the '40s and late '30s. And he was about 6'4" and had a mustache and was a merchant seaman and a sculptor and a guitarist and drank like a fish. And he was the most flamboyant person I think I'd ever met. And...

GROSS: You liked that?

ARKIN: Oh, yeah, yeah. But it was very organic. There was nothing artificial about it. It came right from the heart of him.

GROSS: Any really colorful speakers?

ARKIN: Speakers?

GROSS: Mmm hmm.

ARKIN: Well, him. My father was always very good verbally, and my grandfather was - made speeches for the Masons, so he was very literate. I have a vivid memory of him reading a speech, tears streaming down his face, to a plumber who was - the two of them were in the bathroom, and the plumber - all you could see was his feet sticking out from under the bathtub. And he was paying absolutely no attention to my grandfather.

GROSS: (Laughter).

ARKIN: And there he was, reading this passionate speech with tears streaming down his face.

GROSS: So here you were with all of this interest in theater. And when you got - I think it was when you get out of college in around 1956, you were part of the pop folk group the Tarriers.

ARKIN: Yeah.

GROSS: And they had a hit that made it onto the charts, actually, of "The Banana Boat Song" and - what? - "Cindy, Oh Cindy."

ARKIN: Yeah.

GROSS: It seems - it almost seems like you were miscast in that group.

ARKIN: Oh, yeah. Oh, yes. I felt so myself. I ended up after about two years being on stage at the Olympia Theater in Paris to an audience of about 3,000. We were singing our hearts out. And I looked down at myself and there I was in black satin pants and a sport shirt open to my navel, practically.

GROSS: (Laughter).

ARKIN: And I said, who am I? What am I doing here? And I quit that night and went back to what I wanted to do, which was be connected with film and theater.

GROSS: How did you get into the detour of folk music to begin with?

ARKIN: Well, I had gotten out of college, and I had gotten married and had a small child at the age of 22. And I needed something to do to just get us going. And there was this group that started, and I thought it would only take up my weekends periodically, and we'd make a little spare change to just survive on. And within three months we had an enormous hit on our hands. And so we traveled around the world with that for about two years.

And it just seemed to me that it was the logical thing to do at the time. And I also thought, in my naive fashion, that would be an entree into film and theater, which it wasn't.

GROSS: Well, I think one of your entrees into film and theater was Chicago's Second City group.

ARKIN: Yeah. It was my entree into everything. I feel like I got born there.

GROSS: Second City was an improvisational theater and comedy group. Were you surprised that you were good at improvisation?

ARKIN: Very. Yeah. I had no idea I had any abilities in that area at all. In fact, it took me a month to be funny. I would work out with David Shepherd in the group, and I wasn't funny. Nothing I did was funny.

And then finally, I hit upon one character that was funny. So I just played that character for a long time. No matter what I did as that character, people laughed. And so I said, well, I'll stick with that.

GROSS: What was the character?

ARKIN: I don't remember. It was one ethnic type or another. I don't remember exactly who it was. But then I started adding to that character. I started adding other characters to that character. And I ended up with a library of characters that I played, that I - each of which I felt were very far from what I was as a person, only to find out 10 years later in looking back that they were all exactly like me - every one of them.

GROSS: Who were some of the characters?

ARKIN: Well, I had a Puerto Rican kid, a sensitive Puerto Rican kid who considered himself unable to do anything in society, played guitar. I had an ancient Jewish pretzel vendor who was modeled after my grandfather. I had an Italian laborer. I had a Chinese chef. That was the first four, I think. But I tried to use them in everything. I tried to squeeze them in every conceivable kind of place because they were the only things I felt comfortable with for a long time.

GROSS: So at what point were you ready to, like, leave those characters aside and play comedy yourself?

ARKIN: Well, it was a long time. It really started when Mike Nichols cast me as Yossarian in "Catch-22." And I kept looking at the character and looking at it, and I said, well - I finally asked him, who do I play him like? Who is he - who should I model him after? He said, he's you. Mike said, he's you.

And I thought to myself, well, what does he mean, me? There isn't any me. There's going to be a blank on the screen if I just do me. They won't - nobody will show up. And he finally convinced me that I just had to be myself in that situation. And I had great trepidation about it. I didn't know how to do that.

But I tried it, and I went to the dailies for a week or two with a lot of anxiety, thinking that there was going to be a blank hole in the screen where I was. And to my surprise, and finally, I had to admit, delight, there was somebody there. And I said, hey, there is a me. And I guess in a lot of - in most ways, that was a real transition for me, and seeing that I had an existence, that I did have some weight as myself and that I could afford to let go of those - a lot of the places that I was hiding under.

BIANCULLI: Alan Arkin speaking to Terry Gross in 1989. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAVE BRUBECK'S "IT'S A RAGGY WALTZ")

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's 1989 interview with Alan Arkin. The actor and director died last week at age 89.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: Let's talk a little bit about your first feature film, "The Russians Are Coming." Earlier you said that when you looked back on this role, you didn't feel like you saw yourself. You saw the character. I want to play a short clip from the movie. And this is a scene from early on, after the Russians have landed in New England, and you've knocked on the door of a family. Carl Reiner's the husband, Eva Marie Saint is the wife. And you're taking them at gunpoint into their home and hoping that they'll help you find a boat.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE RUSSIANS ARE COMING, THE RUSSIANS ARE COMING")

ARKIN: (As Rozanov) All forgiven. Come, please. I repeat, no harm is coming. All are please being seated.

CARL REINER: (As Walt Whittaker) It's all right, honey. Just take it easy now. Pete, boy, don't be scared. There's no need to be scared.

SHELDON COLLINS: (As Pete Whittaker) I'm not scared.

ARKIN: (As Rozanov) Good. Good boy. Now, to answer some few questions very quickly, please. So that there is no necessity howsoever (ph)...

REINER: (As Walt Whittaker) Whatsoever.

ARKIN: (As Rozanov) Whatsoever, howsoever - so that there is no necessity howsoever for everybody in such a nice American family should get shot to little pieces. You understand? Yes. Good. Now, what else people are in this house?

GROSS: So that's your first feature role. What stage were you in acting then? How did you prepare for that role?

ARKIN: Well, how did I prepare? It was mostly in learning how to speak Russian and thinking a lot about what I wanted to do. I didn't do any research because I didn't know how I could do any research. I wanted this - I wanted to play - I wanted to be very comfortable. It was important to be comfortable. It was my first feature, and I knew I was going to be panic-stricken because it's something I'd wanted to do for 25 years. And it was a big - it was just too big a hunk of my life to relax about.

GROSS: So you actually studied Russian for the part?

ARKIN: Yeah, for months, I studied Russian with an old woman in New York. Nobody had told me what to do or how to do it. I was left to my own devices. So I worked for months with this woman, trying to get the sound. And I was pretty good at languages, but there were sounds in Russian I could not hear. And then finally, after several months, I began to hear the sounds. And I got the lines down in Russian. And I went on the set, and I said my first line in rehearsals proudly. And there were a lot of real Russians on this set. Nobody understood a word I was saying.

GROSS: (Laughter).

ARKIN: And it turned out I was speaking a Russian that no one had spoken for about 50 years. It was totally archaic. And I had to, on the set, start over again from the very beginning, which was very unnerving.

GROSS: Alan Arkin, let's jump ahead to 1985, to your role in the movie "Joshua Then And Now." And you starred along with James Woods in this movie. You played James Woods' father, a small-time Jewish gangster and bootlegger. And I want to play an excerpt from a flashback scene in which you're in a gym with your young son. And you're teaching him about the Ten Commandments.

ARKIN: OK.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "JOSHUA THEN AND NOW")

ARKIN: (As Reuben) What do we got here? Quote, "thou shalt have no other gods before me," unquote. Yeah, you see, there was a lot of contenders in those days - other gods, mainly no-account idols, bums of the month - until our God, Jehovah, came in and took the title outright. He made a covenant with our people.

ERIC KIMMEL: (As Joshua) Yeah, I know.

ARKIN: (As Reuben) OK, where was I? Yeah. Thou shalt not commit adultery. That's, well - thou shalt not steal.

KIMMEL: (As Joshua) Thou shalt not steal?

ARKIN: (As Reuben) Yeah, well, you know, there's Ten Commandments. It's like an exam, right? I figure you get eight out of 10 right, you're pretty much at the top of the class, aren't you?

GROSS: Was there anyone you knew in life that you could pattern this character on?

ARKIN: Not a soul, no, nobody I knew. I loved that character. I just - the minute I read the script, I knew exactly what I wanted to do with him, and that was it. I told Ted Kotcheff, the director, who was wonderful to work with - I told him what I wanted to do. And he said, fine, go ahead. That sounds good. And that's what I did. I worked out a lot. I got myself in pretty good shape for it, and scenes they never ended up using so I got into good shape for nothing, for nothing.

GROSS: (Laughter) What a waste of time.

ARKIN: Yeah, it was terrible.

GROSS: (Laughter). I have read about you that in the late '60s or early '70s that you started yoga and also found someone who was something of a guru figure for you. What brought about that change?

ARKIN: What brought about the change was seven years of analysis, on which I worked very hard and which I feel like I really needed. I was very unhappy. And I came to a point where analysis - where I was coming to the end of my analysis, by both my doctor's recognition and my own, and feeling like I'd passed the course and having him say akin to I never promised you a rose garden. And I found myself getting furious at that idea because I saw that there were people that had rose gardens, and I wanted one.

And if analysis wasn't going to do it for me, particularly in some - since I had worked very, very hard at it and had accomplished a lot of what my doctor felt was to be accomplished from it, I felt like I had to look elsewhere. And I started working with somebody who turned out - who I knew immediately was the best person I had ever met. He was the wisest and kindest person I'd ever met. And initially, I didn't know he was a yogi. He was my stand-in on a film, "Popi." And...

GROSS: And he was playing an extra, is that - oh, he was playing your stand-in?

ARKIN: He was my stand-in, which is not a terribly exalted job, as everybody knows. And after about 3 1/2 weeks, I could sense very clearly that he was the center of the entire film. It's not as if he was loud or pushy or taking over anything, but he just radiated something that people gravitated towards. And it annoyed me. So I said, here I am. I have everything. I'm the star. I got 10 times as much money as he's got. I got more attention. And he's the center of this thing. It's not right. So I tried to find out who and what he was.

And he finally revealed the fact that he was a - guru is - has got terribly convoluted connotations this day. We've twisted around and almost destroyed the meaning of that word. Everybody who knows something is now called a guru, which is not what the word means by any stretch of the imagination. It means slayer of darkness, which is ultimately what analysis tries to do and doesn't do. It knocks off a piece of it, but it doesn't get the whole thing. And a great spiritual teacher knocks off your darkness, which is the thing that is keeping you from functioning fully and wholly and completely and lovingly.

GROSS: Can I relate this back to acting and ask you if it's changed the way you act or changed how much you act or the kinds of roles you take?

ARKIN: Yeah, to a degree. It depends on how much money I've got in the bank, in part, I mean...

GROSS: Sure, yeah.

ARKIN: If I'm feeling pretty flush, then I feel more comfortable in turning down things that I don't want to do. But if I'm behind a payment on the house, then I got to be a little bit more generous in my assessment of something. But, yeah, I don't want to play horrible people anymore. I don't want to - it's no fun. There was a time when I had so little sense of myself that getting out of my skin and being anybody else was a sigh of relief. But I kind of like myself now a lot of the times. And I don't see any real necessity or value in playing people that I find abhorrent anymore. That's No. 1. And No. 2, I like to think, if I possibly can be in situations like it, I want my work to be connected with things that somehow serve people in some way.

GROSS: Well, Alan Arkin, I thank you so much for talking with us. Thanks.

ARKIN: Thank you. You're wonderful to talk to.

GROSS: Oh, thanks. I really enjoyed this very much.

ARKIN: You're very easy.

BIANCULLI: Alan Arkin speaking to Terry Gross in 1989. He died last week at age 89. After a break, we listen back to an archive interview with Ringo Starr, who turns 83 years old today. And movie critic Justin Chang reviews the new comedy film "Joy Ride." I'm David Bianculli and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEVOTCHKA AND MYCHAEL DANNA'S "WE'RE GONNA MAKE IT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.