Alan Arkin – a Colorful Octagenarian

Alan Wolf Arkin (born March 26, 1934) is an American actor, director and screenwriter. With a film career spanning six decades, Arkin is known for his performances in Popi; Wait Until Dark; The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming; The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter;  Catch-22; The In-Laws; Edward Scissorhands; Glengarry Glen Ross; Thirteen Conversations About One Thing; Little Miss Sunshine; and Argo.

He received several nominations for an Academy Award and won once for his performance in Little Miss Sunshine. Arkin was born in Brooklyn, New York City on March 26, 1934, the son of David I. Arkin, a painter and writer, and his wife, Beatrice (née Wortis), a teacher. He was raised in a Jewish family with “no emphasis on religion”. His grandparents were immigrants from Ukraine, Russia, and Germany. His parents moved to Los Angeles when Alan was 11, but an 8-month Hollywood strike cost his father his job as a set designer. During the 1950s Red Scare, Arkin’s parents were accused of being Communists, and his father was fired when he refused to answer questions about his political ideology. David Arkin challenged the dismissal, but he was vindicated only after his death.

Arkin, who had been taking acting lessons since age 10, became a scholarship student at various drama academies, including one run by the Stanislavsky student Benjamin Zemach, who taught Arkin a psychological approach to acting. Arkin attended Los Angeles City College from 1951 to 1953. He also attended Bennington College. With two friends, he formed the folk music group The Tarriers, in which Arkin sang and played guitar.

The band members co-composed the group’s 1956 hit “The Banana Boat Song“, a reworking, with some new lyrics, of a traditional, Jamaican calypso folk song of the same name, combined with another titled “Hill and Gully Rider“. It reached #4 on the Billboard magazine chart the same year as Harry Belafonte’s better-known hit version.

The group appeared in the 1957 Calypso-exploitation film Calypso Heat Wave, singing “Banana Boat Song” and “Choucoune”.

From 1958 to 1968, Arkin performed and recorded with the children’s folk group, The Baby Sitters.

He also performed the role of Dr. Pangloss in a concert staging of Leonard Bernstein’s operetta Candide, alongside Madeline Kahn’s Cunegonde. Arkin was an early member of the Second City comedy troupe in the 1960s. Arkin is one of only six actors to receive an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor for his first screen appearance (for The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming in 1966). In 1968, he appeared in the title role of Inspector Clouseau after Peter Sellers dissociated himself from the role, but the film was not well received by Sellers’ fans. Arkin and his second wife Barbara Dana appeared together on the 1970–1971 season of Sesame Street as a comical couple named Larry and Phyllis who resolve their conflicts when they remember how to pronounce the word “cooperate.”

His role in Little Miss Sunshine, as Grandfather Edwin, who was foul-mouthed and had a taste for snorting heroin, won him the BAFTA Film Award for Best Actor in a Supporting Role and the Academy Award for Best Actor in a Supporting Role. On receiving his Academy Award on February 25, 2007, Arkin said, “More than anything, I’m deeply moved by the open-hearted appreciation our small film has received, which in these fragmented times speaks so openly of the possibility of innocence, growth, and connection”. At 72 years old, Arkin was the sixth oldest winner of the Best Supporting Actor Oscar.

On Broadway, Arkin starred in Enter Laughing (for which he won a Tony Award) and Luv. He also directed The Sunshine Boys, among others.


In 1969, Arkin’s directorial debut was a 12-minute children’s film titled People Soup, starring his sons Adam and Matthew Arkin. Based on a story of the same name he published in Galaxy Science Fiction in 1958, People Soup is a fantasy about two boys who experiment with various kitchen ingredients until they concoct a magical soup which transforms them into different animals and objects.


Arkin is the author of many books, including Tony’s Hard Work Day (illustrated by James Stevenson, 1972), The Lemming Condition (illustrated by Joan Sandin, 1976), Halfway Through the Door: An Actor’s Journey Toward Self  (1979), and The Clearing (1986 continuation of Lemming). In March 2011, he released his memoir, An Improvised Life.

Personal life

Arkin has been married three times. He and Jeremy Yaffe (m.1955–1961) have two sons: Adam Arkin, born August 19, 1956, and Matthew Arkin, born March 21, 1960.

He was married to actress-screenwriter Barbara Dana from 1964 to the mid-1990s. They lived in Chappaqua, New York. In 1967, they had son Anthony (Tony) Dana Arkin.

In 1996, Arkin married psychotherapist Suzanne Newlander. They live in Carlsbad, California. Arkin’s most recent work was a collaborative movie endeavor with Samuel Jackson in 2017, “Going in Style”. It was well received and you can still rent or buy it locally. As an octogenarian, he represents someone who is poised, confident, and setting a standard for staying vitally involved.

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