Alan Arkin: the actor is a Renaissance man
New York — `I GUESS I was never terribly interested in limiting myself,'' says Alan Arkin, who means what he says. And who has the versatile career to prove it. Within the past few months, this busy actor has played leading roles in three movies, including the critically praised ``Joshua Then and Now'' and the current ``Big Trouble,'' co-starring Peter Falk and directed by John Cassavetes.
He has also starred in a TV movie about toxic wastes, directed a couple of plays -- a hit Off Broadway comedy and a regional production in Florida -- and published his fourth book.
And he's a family man whose wife, Barbara Dana, and children are often included in his projects.
How does he find the time and energy for so much activity? Enthusiasm is a big factor.
``I'm excited about seeing how far one can push oneself in many different areas,'' he told me during a recent interview, speaking in warm but always businesslike tones. ``None of us know what we can or can't do.''
The idea of expanding one's abilities in many directions -- and not accepting conventional limitations -- is a big issue for Mr. Arkin, who has earned Oscar nominations as an actor (for ``The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming'' and ``The Heart is a Lonely Hunter'') and an Obie Award for stage directing, among other honors.
``We set limits on what we can think about,'' he says, ``and what we're capable of doing. . . . But that's a self-definition. It has nothing to do with who you really are.
``I'm interested in finding out someday what I really am,'' he adds. ``I believe strongly there is something within each of us that goes way past what our vision is -- something infinitely more exciting than what we conceive ourselves to be.''
Arkin has explored ``how far we can dig into ourselves, and what we can come up with,'' largely through the arts. This dates back to his choice of the acting profession, which took place so early he can hardly remember it. He has ``vague memories'' of being about five years old and letting his father in on ``a secret'' he had. ``I said I'm going to be an actor when I grow up. He thought I'd grow out of it -- but I didn't, until relatively recently!'' A few years after his ``secret'' was revealed, Arkin started his formal training -- which consisted of ``whatever I could get, from anyone who would have me.'' He got ``scholarships all over the place'' in his teens and 20s. Eventually he want to Bennington College, in Vermont, ``and stayed there a few years.''
Even as he delved into the secrets of acting, however, Arkin discovered he had other talents, too. Music was one. ``I got fascinated by the guitar in junior high school,'' he recalls, ``and taught myself how to play. My family didn't have any money, so in order to survive, I started to play at social clubs and meetings.''
On leaving college he joined a folk-music group, expecting only ``to earn a couple of bucks on the side.'' The group was called the Tarriers, and within months it had turned a couple of tunes called ``Cindy, Oh Cindy'' and ``The Banana Boat Song'' into smash hits. Arkin made ``enough money to coast for a couple of years'' and decided to go back to his first love, acting. But the time wasn't right, and his popularity wasn't exactly huge. ``I couldn't get arrested,'' he reports with a smile.
So he developed yet another talent. He ``started scribbling stuff with a pencil,'' and before long had completed a couple of science-fiction stories. He sold them to Galaxy magazine and launched his subcareer as a writer, which still keeps him busy between acting and directing assigments. He also began writing songs, and some were performed by such stars as the Weavers, the Limelighters, and Mary Travers of the Peter, Paul, and Mary group.
``I started developing all kinds of skills I had no idea I had, or even thought about much,'' says Arkin, recalling this period of his life. Yet acting remained his ``first and most important passion.'' Finally he broke into the theater world, through the improvisational Second City troupe, and traveled to Broadway and Hollywood.
Now that he's very much in demand, how does Arkin go about choosing roles in movies or plays? ``I've never been good at `career decisions,' and I don't tend to believe in them much,'' he answers. ``What it boils down to is that I want to be moved by the script. If it's a comedy, I have to laugh. If it's a tragedy, I have to get a tear in my eye. Then the money or where it's going to play doesn't make any difference. ''
In a word, it's a matter of instinct. ``I don't know what else to go by,'' says the star.
Despite all his creative activities, one of Arkin's highest priorities is family closeness. Hence he confines his acting to four or five months a year. He has also retreated from the music scene -- partly for reasons of time, and partly for reasons of modesty. ``I love music too much to inflict my playing on it,'' he says, grinning. He also works with family members whenever it's possible. ``My wife and I have written several things together,'' he notes, ``and we've acted together many times. I've directed all my kids, and I've acted with them, too.
``We don't go to cocktail parties,'' he adds, ``so we don't waste a lot of time. We spend more time with our kids than virtually any family I know.''
Arkin's sense of family is very strong. ``I just did a film in Spain,'' he says, ``and I looked in wonder at families. They were out together, and, not only that, they were enjoying each other's company -- laughing, listening to each other. I sat there with my mouth open, realizing that I don't see this [in the United States] anymore. . . . Here, we decide what our life style must be, and that takes precedence over any responsibilities. . . . Responsibility has become looked on as a burden -- not a thing that liberates, which ultimately it does.''
Arkin states his concept of professional responsibility with a mixture of pride and humility. ``I don't feel as if I have a mission to save the world,'' he says. But he adds, ``I believe that everything I do is a reflection of what I am. I feel I have a responsibility to be the best person I know how to be. If I'm doing that, everything is going to reflect it one way or another.''
And the same goes for other people. ``I believe it's man's natural state to be creative,'' Arkin explains. ``The aberration is not being creative. It's walls that we put up in order to stifle ourselves. We're afraid of what's going to come out if we let go -- if we start dancing!''
When people knock down those walls -- or avoid building them in the first place -- the rewards of self-expression come naturally to anyone who seeks them, in his view.
``Everybody has talent for everything,'' says Alan Arkin with conviction. ``I know it sounds like a Pollyanna-ish thing to say. But it's what I think!''