Serpentine, Serpentine: RIP Alan Arkin

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 30, 2023)

“Well, he died. You can’t get any older than that.”

– Alan Arkin as “Yossarian” in Catch-22

One by one, the acting heavyweights of my lifetime are diminishing and going into the West. This happens, of course, to every generation at some point; and I’ve been advised by some even more ancient than I that “you get used to it”. I’m not quite there yet, because this one hurts.

Sure, Alan Arkin was 89, but he didn’t burn out …nor did he fade away (sorry to blow your theory, Neil). As recently as 2021, he was garnering accolades and acting nominations for his wonderful work alongside Michael Douglas in the fourth season of the Netflix dramedy The Kominsky Method (if you are unacquainted, do yourself a favor).

I’d venture to say Arkin invented “dramedy”, with his penchant for delivering performances that could be intense, deeply affecting, wry, understated, and riotously funny all at once. As all great actors do, he effortlessly embodied the whole of human expression – and (as the song goes) all he had to do was act naturally.

The Brooklyn native also produced and directed on occasion, and (in his spare time?) taught acting classes. He was also a musician and a songwriter. In the mid-50s he sang lead and played guitar in a folk music group called The Tarriers (his film debut was in an appearance by the band in the 1957 film Calypso Heat Wave, although Arkin was uncredited). Here’s a mind-blower: he co-wrote “The Banana Boat Song”, which was a monster hit for Harry Belafonte.

But his most lasting legacy will be his film work; so in tribute I thought I’d share a few quick thoughts regarding my top four favorite Arkin performances. You may note that only one of them is a leading role; but just having him on board kicked any production up a notch. Rest well, sir.

Hearts of the West – Jeff Bridges gives a winning performance in this 1975 charmer as a rube from Iowa, a wannabe pulp western writer with the unlikely name of “Lewis Tater” (the scene where he asks the barber to cut his hair to make him look “just like Zane Grey” is priceless.)

Tater gets fleeced by a mail-order scam promising enrollment in what turns out to be a bogus university “out west”. Serendipity lands him a job as a stuntman in 1930s Hollywood westerns.

The film features one of Andy Griffith’s best screen performances, and Alan Arkin is a riot as a perpetually apoplectic director (he handily steals every scene he’s in). Excellent direction by Howard Zieff, tight screenplay by Rob Thompson. Also with Donald Pleasence, Blythe Danner, Richard B. Shull, and Herb Edelman.

Catch-22 – Yossarian: 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.

Dr. ‘Doc’ Daneeka: You got it, that’s Catch-22.

Yossarian: Whoo… That’s some catch, that Catch-22.

Dr. ‘Doc’ Daneeka: It’s the best there is.

Anyone who has read and appreciated the beautifully precise absurdity of Joseph Heller’s eponymous 1961 novel about the ugly and imprecise madness of war knows it is virtually “un-filmable”. And yet Mike Nichols knocked it out of the park with this 1970 film adaptation…and Buck Henry did a yeoman’s job of condensing the novel into a two-hour screenplay (although arguably some of the best exchanges in the film are those left virtually unchanged from the book).

Of course, it didn’t hurt to have such a great director and an outstanding cast: Alan Arkin, Martin Balsalm, Richard Benjamin, Art Gafunkel, Jack Gilford, Bob Newhart, Anthony Perkins, Paula Prentiss, Martin Sheen, Jon Voight, Orson Welles, Charles Grodin, Bob Balaban, et. al., with Henry playing the part of “Colonel Korn”. I think this 50+ year-old film has improved with age.

Little Murders – This dark, dark comedy from 1971 is one of my all-time favorite films. It was directed by Arkin and adapted by Jules Feiffer from his own self-described “post-assassination play” (referring to the then-relatively recent murders of Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy). That said, it is not wholly political; but it is sociopolitical (I see it as the pre-cursor to Paddy Chayefsky’s Network).

Elliot Gould is at the peak of his Elliot Gould-ness as a nihilistic (and seemingly brain-dead) free-lance photographer who is essentially browbeaten into a love affair with an effervescent sunny side-up young woman (Marcia Rodd) who is bound and determined to snap him out of his torpor. The story follows the travails of this oil and water couple as they slog through a dystopian New York City chock full o’ nuts, urban blight, indifference and random shocking acts of senseless violence (you know…New York City in the 70s).

There are so many memorable vignettes, and nearly every cast member gets a Howard Beale-worthy monologue on how fucked-up American society is (and remember…this was 1971). Disturbingly, it remains relevant as ever. But it is very funny. No, seriously. The cast includes Vincent Gardenia, Elizabeth Wilson, Doris Roberts, Lou Jacobi (who has the best monologue) and Donald Sutherland. Arkin casts himself as an eccentric homicide investigator-and he’s a hoot.

The Seven-Per-Cent Solution – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s super sleuth Sherlock Holmes has weathered an infinite number of movie incarnations over the decades, but none as fascinating as Nicol Williamson’s tightly wound coke fiend in this wonderful 1977 Herbert Ross film.

Intrepid sidekick Dr. Watson (Robert Duvall), concerned over his friend’s addiction, decides to do an intervention, engineering a meeting between the great detective and Dr. Sigmund Freud (Arkin). Naturally, there is a mystery afoot as well, but it’s secondary to the vastly entertaining interplay between Williamson and Arkin.

Screenwriter Nicholas Meyer (who adapted from his own novel) would repeat the gimmick two years later in his directing debut Time After Time, when he placed similarly odd bedfellows together in one story by pitting H.G. Wells against Jack the Ripper.

More recommendations: Wait Until Dark, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, Simon, The In-Laws, Glengarry Glen Ross, Edward Scissorhands, Little Miss Sunshine, Argo.

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