Alan Arkin death: Oscar-winning Little Miss Sunshine and Argo actor dies, aged 89

The actor, who won an Oscar and a Tony, began his career in the 1950s, and appeared in films ‘Catch-22’, ‘Edward Scissorhands’, ‘Grosse Pointe Blank’ as well as TV series ‘The Kominsky Method’

Jacob Stolworthy
Friday 30 June 2023 17:03 BST
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Hollywood star Alan Arkin, who won an Oscar for playing a cantankerous grandpa in the 2006 comedy Little Miss Sunshine, has died aged 89.

The news was announced by his sons Adam, Matthew and Anthony, who shared a joint statement on behalf of the family.

They told People: “Our father was a uniquely talented force of nature, both as an artist and a man. A loving husband, father, grand and great grandfather, he was adored and will be deeply missed.”

He died at his home in Carlsbad, California, on Friday (30 June).

Arkin’s illustrious career began in 1957, with his first notable screen credit arriving in Norman Jewison’s 1966 Best Picture nominee The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming.

For the film, he received his first of two Oscar nominations for Best Actor, the second of which followed in 1969 for The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter.

Speaking of Arkin, director Jewison said: “Alan’s never had an identifiable screen personality because he just disappears into his characters. His accents are impeccable, and he’s even able to change his looks. He’s always been underestimated, partly because he’s never been in service of his own success.”

Arkin would have to wait almost 40 years for his next nomination, for Best Supporting Actor for the comedy drama Little Miss Sunshine (2006). Arkin won the trophy, as well as a Bafta, and received a fourth Oscar nomination in 2013 for Ben Affleck’s Argo.

In the 1960s, Brooklyn-born Arkin, who first started taking acting lessons age 10, was a member of the Second City comedy troupe, and made his debut on Broadway in a production of From the Second City. He also received a Tony nomination for his role of David Kolowitz in Joseph Stein’s 1963 comedy Enter Laughing, and tormented Audrey Hepburn in the psychological thriller Wait Until Dark (1967). He once said of his co-star: “She was an exquisite lady, so being mean to her was hard.” In 1968, he took over as Inspector Clouseau in the third Pink Panther film, titled Inspector Clouseau, when Peter Sellers quit the role.

Alan Arkin in ‘The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming’ (United Artists/Kobal/Shutterstock)

His high-profile credits in the 1970s included an adaptation of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 (1970), in which he played Captain John Yossarian, and comedy film The In-Laws (1979), in which he starred alongside Peter Falk. In 2012, Arkin admitted that the financial disappointment of Catch-22 had a detrimental impact on his career, explaining: “[It] was a huge failure, and it rubbed off on everybody connected to it. I had a bunch of lean years where I had to do things, a lot of which I wasn’t wildly enthusiastic about.”

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This plateau was at least made easier due to Arkin’s spiritual awakening, with his early years in Hollywood coinciding with his embrace of eastern philosophy. “Some miraculous things were going on as a direct result of meditation,” he told The Guardian in 2020. “It saved my life. I couldn’t throw it out. If I threw it out, then suicide would have been the only viable alternative.”

In 1987, Arkin earned an Emmy nomination for his role in the made-for-TV film Escape from Sobibor, which told the story of a mass escape from a Nazi concentration camp. It led to a career revival, and by the Nineties, he had become one of Hollywood’s go-to actors for playing authority figures and stern yet compassionate fathers. In Tim Burton’s Edward Scissorhands (1990), he played dad to Winona Ryder’s Kim Boggs, who falls in love with Johnny Depp’s titular humanoid. Other credits around this time included cult Disney film The Rocketeer (1991), as well as the film adaptation of David Mamet’s play Glengarry Glenn Ross (1992) starring Jack Lemmon, Al Pacino and Kevin Spacey. In 1997, he appeared opposite John Cusack and Minnie Driver in comedy Grosse Pointe Blank, and Uma Thurman and Ethan Hawke in the science-fiction drama Gattaca. In 1998, he played the father to Natasha Lyonne in the indie coming-of-age comedy Slums of Beverly Hills.

After winning his Oscar for Little Miss Sunshine in 2007, a moment that saw him become the sixth oldest Best Supporting Actor recepient, 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.”

Alan Arkin winning his Oscar for ‘Little Miss Sunshine’ in 2007 (Sipa/Shutterstock)

In the film, he played the foul-mouthed father of Greg Kinnear’s Richard, who drives his dysfunctional family on a road trip so that his daughter (Abigail Breslin) can compete in a child beauty pageant.

Shortly after his role asthe Hollywood agent Lester Siegel in Affleck’s Best Picture winner Argo, Arkin found more success on TV. He voiced JD Salinger in Netflix’s acclaimed adult animation BoJack Horseman, and received two Emmy nomintions for his role in comedy series The Kominsky Method.

His voice will be known to a younger generation for playing Wild Knuckles in Despicable Me spin-off Minions: The Rise of Gru (2022). The film reunited him with Little Miss Sunshine’s Steve Carell, who he also worked with on 2008’s Get Smart and 2013’s The Incredible Burt Wonderstone. “I love him,” Carell said in 2022. “I have several messages that I save on my phone, and I would say five of them are from him. Just as a keepsake, because they’re so funny. He’s so funny. He’s one of my favourite people, and I would work with him at the drop of a hat. He’s one of my idols.”

Alan Arkin in ‘The Kominsky Method’ (Netflix)

During his lifetime, Arkin, who also wrote and performed as part of a folk group, married three times: Jeremy Yaffe (1955-1961), with whom he had sons Adam and Matthew; Barabara Dana (1964-1994), with whom he had son Anthony; and, most recently, psychotherapist Suzanne Newlander, whom he married in 1996.

In 2007, Arkin said of his career during an interview with Associated Press: “I used to think that my stuff had a lot of variety. But I realised that for the first 20 years or so, most of the characters I played were outsiders, strangers to their environment, foreigners in one way or another.”

He continued: “As I started to get more and more comfortable with myself, that started to shift. I got one of the nicest compliments I’ve ever gotten from someone a few days ago. They said that they thought my characters were very often the heart, the moral centre of a film. I didn’t particularly understand it, but I liked it; it made me happy.”

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