Needless to say, the name Alan Arkin rang a bell, so his An Improvised Life: a Memoir came with a certain degree of familiarity, however, I was rather surprised at how few of his roles I remembered from his IMDB profile … admittedly, I'm hardly a movie buff, and I think I've seen only a handful of the dozens of films he's been in (including not seeing stuff like Argo or Gattaca that were pretty big). I guess a lot of that is because my “mental image” of him is his later-years manifestation, such as The Chief in the 2008 Get Smart movie, and not in his younger roles in things like 1970's Catch-22, or (a movie that I very much enjoyed as a 9-year-old) 1966's The Russians Are Coming The Russians Are Coming … an image not much shifted by the pic on the cover, which is him at about age 75.
One of the issues/problems I have with stuff that's not straight non-fiction, is that there tends to be a lot less “essential factoids” that will be screaming out for me to flag for future reference. In fact, it appears that I only stuck one of my little torn-paper bookmarks in this (which I'll quote from later), so I'm probably going to be doing more summarizing and paraphrasing in this review than usual. It was, frankly, a bit frustrating, as in numerous places he'd start with a couple of strong sentences towards a particular “bullet point” of a concept, but then take the text on a somewhat circuitous route (no doubt “the scenic route”, lending a lot more interest to the telling than what would have been convenient for my purposes) to get where he was going with it.
Arkin appears to be one of those rare people that knew what he wanted to do from his earliest years. He notes that, from about age 5, he had decided that he wanted to act, and was obsessed with playing roles from pretty much anything he encountered (spending months dancing to a record of a Stravinsky opera his aunt had taken him to – recreating every part). He focused on Charlie Chaplin for a while, and Danny Kaye after that. By age 8 he was even analyzing film, citing perceptions such as “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.”. His growth in this area is one of the most useful parts of this book … as he walks the reader though his engagement with the acting arts as his skills grew, and I'm looking forward to putting it into my actor daughter's hands as soon as I get done with posting the review of this. What is presented as a memoir might as well have been marketed as a workshop, as the practical advice given here (if in a narrative rather than a presentation) is well worth the price of admission (in this case, the cover price, since, hey, I got it for a buck!).
At the end of World War II, his family packed up and moved from Brooklyn to Los Angeles (preceding the Dodgers by a decade), his dad hoping to get work as a scenery painter in the film industry. Arkin was thrilled to be in Hollywood, and ended up in schools that had acting curriculums. Unfortunately, outside of the acting (which seems to have gone very well for him), the rest of his school experience was pretty horrible. In his senior year he began studying with a Benjamin Zemach (who had worked with Stanislavski), whose theories, at least as they were imparted to Arkin, are illustrated here. Again, where, in other contexts, the amount of reflecting on his inner reactions to stimuli and processing of events/instruction might have seemed fairly self-indulgent, here they provide a level of immersion in the art that I suspect would be useful to any aspiring actor.
In 1954 he got a call from a friend who had stumbled over a pretty amazing situation … a total free ride at the Bennington College, a girl's school which brought on a handful of guys to act in theater productions. He put together a bag of salami, cheese, and bread, and started to hitch-hike from L.A. to Vermont, just taking a (rather reasonable) week to get cross-country. His contact had disappeared, but the school still had his appointment on the schedule, and he was soon sent to interview with the head of the English department, future poet laureate consultant to the Library of Congress, Howard Nemerov. The two, according to Arkin, hit it off from the start, giving him a fairly secure base at the university. He credits the acting professors there with developing his art, one positively, one via conflict … unfortunately, his other school work was disastrous, and after a couple of years he parted ways with the college … partially due to his having recently married a dance student. At that point, Arkin and his new (pregnant) wife headed to New York, with no particular plan.
Being constitutionally unsuited for “jobs”, he ended up as part of a folk group called The Tarriers, which began to find some success, a recording contract (their albums are remarkably still obtainable ), and a European tour. However, mid-way through the tour he had a “What the hell is this? Who am I?” moment, realized that he really wanted to act and informed the rest of the band that he'd be moving on after the end of the tour. He parlayed his folk guitar chops into a role in an off-Broadway play that needed a lute player (a small part for which he got paid more than anybody else in the production, due to the relative strength of the musicians union contract) … that ran for over a year, but Arkin determined to drop music afterward.
A few months later, a contact from Bennington got a hold of him and offered him a spot that with an improvisational group that was being set up for a summer run in St. Louis. During that summer, Paul Sills came down from Chicago and liked Arkin's work well enough that he told him if he ever wanted a job in Chicago, to look him up. Arkin, however, returned to New York (and unemployment) after the St. Louis run, and had another kid. This (and the uncertainty of their existence) was too much for his wife, who took the kids and left him. He hung on for a year in New York, hoping for some break, but there was nothing, so in desperation (Chicago was a black hole for theater/movies/etc. back then) he called up Sills and got a job with a hole-in-the-wall theater called Second City.
Second City very quickly got national attention, and in the year Arkin worked there he says he “gained ten years worth of experience”. Part of Sills' plan was to open up an extension in New York, and Arkin was one of the main elements of that … they lasted on Broadway for only 3 months, but a restaurateur fan of theirs set up a club for the troop a block away from New York University, which was quite successful. One of the more charming stories in the book is of an evening when Groucho Marx came to the show, pretty much took it over (via audience suggestion elements), and hung out with the cast long into the night. The New York club was successful for a long time, and actors from it started to get offers for other work, and with their leaving (most of the original group were from Chicago) new blood came in, beginning the upward spiral as an “institution”. The one quote that I actually marked in here (largely as it parallels my own educational experience), is from his reflections on this (from a 40th reunion event):
In New York, Arkin bounced back and forth between Second City and Broadway productions, then he got his first break in film, and built a fairly substantial career in it. In this same time he discovered both therapy and meditation, and discusses what he learned from these … including a concept of chakras – which his meditation teacher congratulated him on when what he had thought was a heat attack was “actually” “his heart opening”. From this, he discovered the work of Michael Checkhov, an acting teacher who had a theory of psychic vortexes, which Arkin incorporated in his work. He also discusses working with other teachers, such as Uta Hagen, and how their theories influenced him.We had started out in Second City, all of us, because there was nowhere else to go. We were mavericks, misfits, almost unemployable. Most of the original members of the group had come out of the University of Chicago, where the dean had said publicly, “Get a general education. Don't specialize. You're all smart people; you'll end up on your feet.” They took him at his word and as a result the University of Chicago produced a generation of brilliant people who wandered and floundered without finding specific work to do, all of them prospective Second City cast members. I fit right in.
At this point (about half-way through the book), the narrative becomes somewhat less “life story” and moves more into “acting philosophy”, as Arkin shifts into directing, more high-profile projects, running workshops, etc. … and in each case looking deeply into his motivations, reactions, and experiments with the craft of acting. While this material is fascinating, it's also not particularly linear, and would be awfully involved to detail here.
Needless to say, there is a lot to link in An Improvised Life for anybody interested in the performing arts … plus it's a quite engaging tale in and of itself. This is a reasonably recent book, having come out in 2011, and it is still in print, available from the on-line big boys for about a third off of retail. However, as I noted at the start, this is kicking around in the dollar stores, so if you stumble across it in that setting, do add it to your cart … as a usual side effect of being in that channel, the new/used guys do have this (in “very good” condition) for as little as a penny (plus shipping, of course). I liked this a lot, felt that I learned quite a bit from reading it, and can't wait to get it to my daughter who's in this world. If you enjoy any of the component parts of this, I'm pretty sure you'll really like this, and recommend the heck out of it!