Acting Magic: Alan Arkin (1934-2023) | Tributes

Although he is often remembered for his comedies, Arkin was a remarkable dramatic actor as well. In “Wait Until Dark” he oscillates between his breezy persona and shocking bursts of violence as a home invader terrorizing a blind Audrey Hepburn—a movie I watched with my mother perhaps far too often. In the Emmy nominated TV movie “Escape from Sobibor,” he tapped into his Jewish roots to play Polish resistance leader Leon Feldhendler. Arkin channels Feldhendler’s deep sorrow and rage through soft spoken monologues, finding power in raw human emotion.

Perhaps the greatest surprise in his career was his Oscar-nominated turn as John Singer, a deaf-mute in the 1968 adaptation of Carson McCullers’s “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter.” Arkin has no dialogue in the film. His performance is built on glances and gestures, and as such he wears all his emotions on his face and in the way he holds his body. Arkin’s externalization of John’s internal journey, his sorrows and his joys, is a masterclass in range.

He used this range throughout his career, but especially towards the latter half of his career in which he appeared often in movie-stealing supporting roles. As an elder-millennial, the earliest live action films I saw him in were Tim Burton’s “Edward Scissorhands,” as frazzled suburbanite Bill Boggs, and Billy Campbell’s mustachioed partner-in-aviation A. “Peevy” Peabody in “The Rocketeer.” Both films are prime examples of the lovely acerbic curmudgeon that he slowly perfected throughout the decade. See, also “Grosse Pointe Blank” and “Slums of Beverly Hills” for further riffs on his unforgettable persona.

His slew of memorable, movie-stealing supporting roles, cultivated throughout the decades, spurred Arkin’s unexpected return to his early Oscar-nominated beginnings. In 2006, he found himself not only nominated, but winning the Oscar for the indie breakout “Little Miss Sunshine.” The role of foul-mouthed, drug-snorting Edwin Hoover feels like a culmination of everything Arkin was known for as an actor. Although Edwin is loud and combative, Arkin quietly calibrates his big performance to fit within the quirky ensemble, crafting a dynamic chemistry with Abigail Breslin as his precocious granddaughter Olive. In his acceptance speech, Arkin said, “acting for me has always been, and always will be, a team sport. I cannot work at all unless I feel a spirit of unity around me.” This was surely a feeling he brought to all those he worked with as well.