'Improvised Life': Arkin's Memoir About Making It Up

Academy Award winner Alan Arkin has appeared in more than 80 films, but he credits his early years in improvisational theater for his successful acting career. i i

Academy Award winner Alan Arkin has appeared in more than 80 films, but he credits his early years in improvisational theater for his successful acting career. Sean Kernan/Da Capo Press hide caption

itoggle caption Sean Kernan/Da Capo Press
Academy Award winner Alan Arkin has appeared in more than 80 films, but he credits his early years in improvisational theater for his successful acting career.

Academy Award winner Alan Arkin has appeared in more than 80 films, but he credits his early years in improvisational theater for his successful acting career.

Sean Kernan/Da Capo Press

From the age of 5, Alan Arkin knew he was going to be an actor. He grew up a film junkie, and he spent a lot of time, as he puts it, "pretending to be a human being."

But despite his passion, Arkin struggled to find his feet as an actor. As Arkin describes in his book, An Improvised Life: A Memoir, he did stints in acting school, toured Europe with a folk band, and spent a year playing the lute in an off-Broadway play.

The turning point came in Chicago in 1960, when Arkin joined the nascent Second City improv comedy troupe. While the experience eventually launched Arkin's career — and sparked his lifelong passion for improv — he actually turned down Second City's first invitation.

"I said, 'Fat chance. I'm going to bury myself at a hole in the wall in Chicago? It would be the end of my career,' " Arkin tells NPR's Mary Louise Kelly. But he "starved for yet another year in New York, without being able to get any kind of work at all," he says, and ultimately decided moving to Chicago might be his only chance at a steady paycheck. He made the move "with my heart in my mouth, thinking that my life was over."

Cover of An Improvised Life: A Memoir
An Improvised Life: A Memoir
By Alan Arkin
Hardcover, 224 pages
Da Capo Press
List price: $17

Read An Excerpt

On the surface, Arkin's new life was no more glamorous than the one he'd left behind in New York. He spent his first six months living in a 10-foot-by-10-foot room with a shared bathroom down the hall. But despite the lack of creature comforts, Arkin says he "was happier than I'd ever been. The minute I got there I realized I'd found a home."

Arkin's experience with Second City was not his first brush with improv — he had tried it a year before with The Compass Players in St. Louis. But "I didn't think I was terribly good at it," he says, and that lack of confidence persisted through his early months with Second City. "I was terrible ... I thought I was going to get fired," he says. "I started looking at waiters longingly."

But soon, Arkin "found a character that ... worked, and I just hung on to him like a life preserver."

Even so, the unpredictable nature of improvisation meant Arkin had to learn to accept that not every sketch would be a hit — and that bombing onstage wasn't necessarily a bad thing. "It's improvisation, and some are terrific, and some are terrible," he says. "The ability to fail was an extraordinary privilege and gift. ... You don't learn anything without failing."

Arkin's early love for improv stands in marked contrast to his more tepid enthusiasm for theater acting. He starred in several Broadway and off-Broadway hits in the 1960s and early 1970s, including a Tony Award-winning performance in the 1963 comedy Enter Laughing. But despite his success onstage, he likened his first theater roles to "torture."

"You're not encouraged to experiment or play very much," says Arkin. "The play gets set the minute opening night is there and ... you're supposed to do exactly that for the next year. And I just am constitutionally unable to just find any kind of excitement or creativity in that kind of experience."

Luckily for Arkin's fans, his aversion to the stage did not carry over into acting on film. Arkin has acted in more than 80 films, been nominated for several Academy Awards, and won an Oscar for his role in the 2006 film Little Miss Sunshine.

Improvisation has remained an important aspect of Arkin's film career, as well. "Very often a scene will not be working. You rehearse it once or twice, you realize something's missing," says Arkin. "So I'll play with it until it makes sense. ... If I have a chance of enhancing what I feel the language to be, then I'll jump."

Excerpt: 'An Improvised Life: A Memoir'

Cover of An Improvised Life: A Memoir
Alex/Da Capo Press
An Improvised Life: A Memoir
By Alan Arkin
Hardcover, 224 pages
Da Capo Press
List price: $17

My father said that at the age of five I asked him if he could keep a secret. He said yes he could, so I told him I was going to be an actor when I grew up. At five, acting was already a fever in my blood, and somehow I knew, even then, that the decision was made and there would be no turning back. My father took my declaration with a grain of salt, knowing that children change their minds a dozen times before committing to something. I never changed my mind. My father had dreams of being a painter and a poet; and living with the ache of not having achieved his dreams he was keenly aware of the pitfalls involved in trying to have a career in the arts, so he mostly hoped I'd grow out of the idea. But my fate had been sealed before I had any notion of what I was letting myself in for, and my father bit his tongue.

Every film I saw, every play, every piece of music fed an unquenchable need to turn myself into something other than what I was. An aunt took me to see the ballet Petrouchka, and for months I became Stravinsky's marionette. I played the music on the phonograph over and over again, dancing every part. I was Petrouchka, the bears, the jugglers, the moor, my fantasy life so intense that I sometimes literally gave myself a fever in the process. The next year I was Louis Hayward in the film The Man in the Iron Mask, fighting, swaggering, swashbuckling, and finally escaping torture at the hands of my evil twin brother. The following year I became Charlie Chaplin. I remember having a temper tantrum when I wasn't allowed to sit through The Great Dictator for the third time, throwing myself on the floor of the movie theater, screaming bloody murder, and creating an em­barrassing scene until my babysitter relented and sat back down, a hostage to my obsession. For months I tried to walk like Chaplin. I spent hours in front of a mirror pursing my mouth to the side, trying desperately to smile with that ­horizontal crease he had in his upper lip. I put on roller skates and swooped precariously on the edge of things. I performed endless imitations of Hitler through the filter of Chaplin's genius. Then, the following year, I became Danny Kaye, spending hour after hour in front of a mirror trying in vain to make my eyes turn down at the corners. I threw ­water on my hair to try and make it shake like his. I tried to scat-sing as fast as he could. Away from the mirror, I imitated anyone and everyone. Outside in the street, if I'd see someone with an interesting walk, in half an hour I'd made it my own. Any exotic behavior was fair game: a limp, an accent, a nervous tic, anything to turn myself into someone other than me. One day I was playing in the backyard with my cousins and my aunt overheard me say, "Let's play circus. I'll be everything."

I grew up in Brooklyn, and every Saturday afternoon, for years, I would drag my reluctant mother to acting classes at the Academy of Music, making her sit in dark, empty hallways while I studied whatever children worked on in those days. I was incorrigible. By age seven or eight I was completely obsessed with performing. Theater, movies, music — I was obsessed by all of them. At school my main activity was staring out the window and daydreaming about being other people in other times, other places. How I got through even grammar school remains a mystery.

I have two important memories from those early years. Both were small events, really, and neither took place in school. But both changed how I thought about theater and acting.

The first occurred when I went to a film with my father. I was around eight years old, but he took me to a movie for grown-ups, in black and white, with a lot of adult talk and not much action. In one scene a couple of actors were in a living room engaged in an intimate, intense dialogue about something or other, and I watched for a while, trying hard to keep up with their situation, which was too sophisticated for me. It was rare that anything on a movie screen ever bored me, but this was starting to do the trick, so to keep myself entertained I pretended I was there with them watching the scene from inside a closet. Where the impulse came from I don't know, but I held a hand up to my face and made a small opening in my fist so I could watch everything through the keyhole of an imaginary door. All of a sudden the acting, which had seemed real enough a moment ago, looked false, and the scene turned stale and lifeless. I was amazed. It was as though a veil had been lifted from my eyes. In an instant, the actors were no longer cinema gods with huge heads, the idols I had been imitating for years. They'd lost their sense of authority and importance. In fact, at this moment they no longer existed in any reality at all. The scene had instantly turned false, and I had the distinct feeling that the performances of the two people in the scene were no longer directed at each other but toward some anonymous audience. "But who is their audience?" I wondered. "There's no one in the room with them. They don't know I'm here, in the closet. They don't know anyone is watching. Who are they focusing on? Not me. Not any other living soul."

I immediately felt that it would have been more appropriate for them to be focusing on each other, which is what people did in real life, when no one was watching. But they weren't doing that. They were talking to no one and for no purpose.

This strange moment for me was simultaneously disillusioning and enlightening. It had come from a simple childhood trick, but it completely changed my view of acting, and for the first time gave me a perspective and a value system by which to gauge a performance. It was also the beginning of a kind of method for me, and its validity sustained me for about a decade. At least while watching other people's work. Gauging the truth of my own work was something that had to come later.

The second experience happened in the living room of our apartment. I was playing on the floor while my mother was consoling a friend who was in the middle of some kind of personal crisis. My mother listened patiently while the woman sat there crying her eyes out. I was halfway across the room, now pretending to read a book, but of course I was much more engrossed in the drama being played out in front of me. I watched the woman pouring her heart out to my mother and found myself slightly revolted. "I'm not moved by her performance," I thought. "What is she doing wrong?" I examined her clinically as she tried to get her story out through her pain and tears, and I finally came to the conclusion that I wasn't moved by her situation because she was crying too much. If she wanted to interest me, I thought, she'd better cut back on the tears a little and leave some room for me and my feelings. Of course, what I was watching was not a performance; this was real life. But life, even at age eight, was merely food for my obsession with acting. For me, theater was more important than life, more educational than life, and certainly more moving than life.

As I look back, I think what irked me about the woman's outpouring was that it was filled with self-pity, not an attractive quality on or off stage. Had I been more emotionally engaged at the time, or perhaps a few years older, I might have realized this, but I was too deeply into "all the world's a stage," so I was precocious in one way, not so much in another.

Many years later, at a time when I had become more connected to my own emotional life, I had an experience with an actress that gave me my first warning of what the craft of acting could do to people if they weren't careful. I was working on a television show that was not going well, and a couple of weeks in I was informed that one of the actors had been fired. This actor was loved by the whole cast, and for some reason it became my job to inform the other actors in the company.

The first person I told was a regular on the show, a woman I had worked with for some time. She was a fine actress and a lovely person. "I have bad news," I said to her, as gently as I could, trying to brace her. "So and so's been fired." The woman's jaw fell open and she froze for a few seconds while she kept looking at me. Then she said, "Can you see the look on my face?" She pointed to her face and held the expression. I knew immediately what she was doing. She'd had a spontaneous reaction, but it was too good to just feel and let go, so she was taking note and filing it away for future reference. It might be useful later on, in some performance. She wanted me to notice it, too. I could see her checking my reaction to her now-frozen expression, paying careful attention to how much I was moved by it, which would let her know if the look was effective.

I fell into immediate despair. Not just for her, but for myself too, because I had done the same thing on countless occasions. It is a habit that now fills me with revulsion — a habit perhaps valuable for the actor, and for his craft, but not so good for the human being living inside.

From An Improvised Life: A Memoir by Alan Arkin. Copyright 2011 by Alan Arkin. Reprinted courtesy of Da Capo Press.

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