Alan Arkin: an improvised life

Though it took me years to forgive Alan Arkin for terrorizing Audrey Hepburn in Wait Until Dark (1967), he's been one of the most reliable and resourceful screen presences ever since he made his screen debut in The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming (1966).

I'm charmed by his new memoir, An Improvised Life (just released by Da Capo), and am delighted to report he has the same gravity and levity as a writer that he has as a performer in such indie must-sees as Little Miss Sunshine (2006), The Private Lives of Pippa Lee (2009) and 13 Conversations About One Thing (2001). Each of his deceptively fluffy anecdotes comes with a substantial filling.

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Alan Arkin in "Gattaca" (1997)

Arkin recalls his first brush with Groucho Marx: Arkin was onstage as Khruschev speaking gibberish Russian with the improvisational troupe Second City; Groucho, perhaps American comedy's best improviser, was in the audience, strafing the improvisers with questions, breaking up Arkin and his co-stars.

He remembers making a movie with Madeline Kahn (probably Simon from 1980), having the what-brought-you-to-acting conversation. When she replied "I wanted to be the music," at first Arkin was confused. Then he realized, "We don't want to do it, we want to be it. Only we don't know it. No one tells us this." He dedicates his book "to everyone who wants to be the music."

Read the book. Then treat yourself with an Arkin film. May I suggest The Seven Per Cent Solution (1976), where he's Dr. Freud treating the cocaine-addicted Sherlock Holmes? You'd suggest?

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