Alan Arkin, actor noted for Catch-22 who won an Oscar as the heroin-snorting grandpa in Little Miss Sunshine – obituary

Arkin in Catch-22: ‘consummate skill’
Arkin in Catch-22: ‘consummate skill’ - Alamy

Alan Arkin, the actor, who has died aged 89, could boast a film career spanning more than half a century; but he peaked early with films such as Catch-22 and seemed destined to languish in supporting roles, before in 2006, aged 72, he played the heroin-snorting grandfather Edwin in Little Miss Sunshine and won an Oscar.

Arkin’s first nomination at the Academy Awards was for his portrayal of a Russian submariner heading a landing party after becoming grounded off the United States in the Cold War comedy The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming (1966). Originally offered the lead role, Arkin preferred the subordinate one which required him to look, speak and act like a Russian (Peter Ustinov, the British actor of Russian descent, had been canvassed for the part).

Sporting a shaggy Stalin-style moustache, Arkin looked convincing enough, but to sound Russian he studied the language for three months in order to make a fist of his lines, a third of which were delivered in Russian. He proved a natural mimic and master of dialect.

Even before the film was released he was being tipped for stardom, and after seeing a preview, Mike Nichols booked him to play the airman Capt Yossarian, antihero of his black-comedy war film based on the Joseph Heller novel, Catch-22 (1970).

It is Yossarian, with all his insight and humanity, who articulates the famous “catch”, after he has asked to be relieved from combat, convinced that both sides are effectively attempting to kill him: “OK, let me see if I’ve 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.”

He won critical plaudits straightaway: for The Daily Telegraph’s Patrick Gibbs, he “beautifully underplay[ed] the clownish Yossarian” while Margaret Hinxman in the Sunday praised his “consummate skill”.

As the grandpa with Abigail Breslin in Little Miss Sunshine
As the grandpa with Abigail Breslin in Little Miss Sunshine - Alamy

Arkin had already impressed as the erudite villain stalking Audrey Hepburn in Wait Until Dark (1967), and was again nominated for an Oscar for playing John Singer, a deaf mute, in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (1968).

When this film was first mooted, Arkin, recently Oscar-nominated, had bearded the co-producer and screenwriter Thomas Ryan in a New York restaurant. “I’ve gone to all this trouble to become a star,” Arkin told him, “may I now please play Singer?”

Less successful was his attempt to replace Peter Sellers in Inspector Clouseau (also 1968), an aberration in the Pink Panther film canon which upset Sellers fans.

Where he might have carved a niche as an offbeat leading man in the mould of Dustin Hoffman, Arkin’s career settled during the 1970s and 1980s into a run of mostly supporting roles in minor movies, but there were highlights, among them Hearts of the West (1975), playing a film director; the part of Sigmund Freud in The Seven-Per-Cent Solution (1976); and a very funny teaming with Peter Falk in Arthur Hiller’s madcap comedy The In-Laws (1979).

He would again appear with Falk and In-Laws writer Andrew Bergman in the last film John Cassavetes directed, Big Trouble (1986), another comedy, though a flawed one.

As a stalking villain, with Audrey Hepburn, in Wait Until Dark, 1967
As a stalking villain, with Audrey Hepburn, in Wait Until Dark, 1967 - Moviepix/Silver Screen Collection/Getty

“I’m a character actor,” Arkin told an interviewer in 1991, “and they call if there’s a part I’m right for. The nice thing is, I always go on working.” Which certainly proved true for the next two decades and more, as he opened the 1990s by playing the deadpan dad and working man, Bill Boggs, in Tim Burton’s modern fairytale Edward Scissorhands. Later that decade he was gripping as the wretched salesman George in the film of David Mamet’s play Glengarry Glen Ross.

Career revival had been signalled in 1985 with Arkin’s role as Joshua’s gangster father Reuben in Joshua Then and Now, a Canadian film adapted by Mordechai Richler from his novel. Reuben was “completely amoral”, in Arkin’s words. The actor had a flair for tough guys – in Sidney Pollack’s Havana (1990), for example, and, years later, opposite Christopher Walken and Al Pacino in a black comedy about ageing hoodlums, Stand Up Guys (2012).

As well as his Oscar (and Bafta) for best supporting actor for his masterly turn as the foul-mouthed grandpa in Little Miss Sunshine, he was nominated in the same category in 2012 after contributing welcome comic relief (playing a film producer) to Ben Affleck’s otherwise tense historical drama Argo.

This was the period when, as the critic David Thomson put it, Arkin’s “understated sourpuss act became increasingly winning – he is our best sour geezer now”. Bookish-looking and introspective, Arkin regarded acting as a form of therapy for his obsession with themes of success and failure, and excelled at playing dislocated people caught in a web of absurd events.

Mike Nichols, who once rated him the best actor in America, noted his ability to “become any person he’s observed, and to make it both real and a comment on the person at the same time”.

Arkin and Peter Falk in a scene from Big Trouble
Arkin and Peter Falk in a scene from Big Trouble - Columbia Pictures/Getty Images

The son of Jewish immigrants from Russia and Germany, Alan Wolf Arkin was born in Brooklyn on March 26 1934. When he was 11 his parents moved to Los Angeles, but a Hollywood strike during the McCarthy era in the 1950s cost his father his job as a film set designer when he refused to answer questions about his Communist sympathies. Although he challenged the dismissal, he was vindicated only after his death.

As a boy Alan enjoyed music and acting, taking classes from the age of 10. From the Benjamin Franklin High School he graduated to Los Angeles City College to study drama. Winning a scholarship to Bennington College for women in Vermont, he took the male leads in student plays but left without taking a degree.

Grubbing bit parts on television and on stage, and finding scarcely steadier work as an odd job man, pot washer and babysitter, he formed a folk music group, the Tarriers, in which he was the lead singer and played guitar. To his surprise they scored a Top 10 hit with their version of The Banana Boat Song, a Jamaican calypso folk number which climbed to No 4 in the Billboard chart in 1956. For 10 years from 1958 he performed and recorded with the children’s folk group the Babysitters.

The Daily and Sunday Telegraph gave Arkin rave reviews for his role in Catch-22
The Daily and Sunday Telegraph gave Arkin rave reviews for his role in Catch-22 - Moviepix/Getty

His acting career surged forward in 1961 when he appeared on Broadway in a revue called From the Second City, having joined the Second City improvisational comedy group in Chicago to work on his technique. That led to a part as a teenaged delivery boy in the Broadway farce Enter Laughing (1963), being promoted to star billing when reviewers declared him the hit of the play. It earned him a Tony award as the year’s best dramatic actor.

In 1964 he co-starred with Eli Wallach in Luv, working for the first time with Mike Nichols, who directed the play. Her was in the middle of Luv’s run when Norman Jewison, producer and director of The Russians Are Coming, who liked his work, called him for a screen test. He agreed on condition that he could improvise – and he got the part.

Arkin made his debut at stage directing in 1966 – brought in with only two weeks to go after two previous directors had walked out – with Eh?, starring the newcomer Dustin Hoffman: it became an off-Broadway hit, as did his direction of the 1969 revival of Jules Feiffer’s black comedy Little Murders, which The New York Times hailed as “fantastically funny”.

With Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine in Going in Style (2017)
With Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine in Going in Style (2017) - Alamy

Two years later he was persuaded by Elliot Gould to direct a film version, with Gould in the lead role of a photographer grappling with his emotions. Vincent Canby’s rave review in The New York Times was typical of US critics: “The extraordinary achievement of Little Murders is that although it is outrageous, it’s never absurd. Part of the reason is the absolute accuracy of the performances that Arkin has gotten from his cast.”

Arkin’s latest screen success with both audiences and critics was in seasons one and two of the poignant Netflix comedy series The Kominsky Method (2018-19), as the agent to Michael Douglas’s acting coach. Last year he was the voice of Wild Knuckles in Minions: The Rise of Gru. He also published several books, including a memoir, An Improvised Life (2011).

He was thrice married, first to Jeremy Yaffe, with whom he had two sons. He had another son with his second wife, the actress and screenwriter Barbara Dana, whom he married in 1964. All three of his sons are actors. In 1996 he married a psychotherapist, Suzanne Newlander.

Alan Arkin, born March 26 1934, died June 29 2023