Actor Alan Arkin to deliver keynote talk at Book Festival


Alan Arkin-actor, director, author, musician, singer and teacher-has written a delightful book about his work in all those disciplines. More important, Arkin has written a profound book on the meaning of life.

In “An Improvised Life” (Da Capo Press, $17), Arkin, 77, notes that Webster’s definition of the word “improvise” is to create something on the spur of the moment with whatever material is at hand. “That’s what we’re all doing, all the time, whether we know it or not,” he writes.

On Sunday, Nov. 6, Arkin will give the keynote presentation of the 33rd annual Jewish Book Festival. Charles Brennan, a KMOX radio host, will interview Arkin, who has appeared in more than 80 movies and won an Oscar, a Tony, a Golden Globe and numerous other awards. He is best known for his work in “Little Miss Sunshine,” “Marley & Me,” “Edward Scissorhands,” “Glenngarry Glen Ross,” “Wait Until Dark,” and “Catch-22.”

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., Arkin moved with his family to a suburb of Los Angeles when he was in junior high school. The father of three grown sons, Arkin now lives in Santa Fe with his wife, Suzanne Newlander.

More than 55 years ago, Arkin spent a summer in St. Louis. He talked about that-and much more-in a recent phone interview.

After you spent a year playing a lute in an off-Broadway play and before you moved to Chicago to become a founding member of Second City, you moved to St. Louis in the mid-1950s to work in Gaslight Square. Please talk a bit about that.

I was part of the Compass Players at the Crystal Palace. It was the first improv group I was involved with, and I found it very challenging. It was hard for me to be loose, to have fun with it. I do remember the Landesmans were terrific bosses- warm, congenial and more interested in having a good time than in being bosses.

When you were 5, you told your father you wanted to become an actor and you took acting classes on Saturdays in Brooklyn. When you were a senior in high school, you took acting classes with Benjamin Zemach in Los Angeles; classes that you say in the book changed your life forever. Where did this interest in the performing arts come from?

At the age of 5, it couldn’t have been an intellectual decision. My father, who was a painter and a poet, said that was fine, and then bit his tongue as time went on. I knuckled down though, making the decision stick as a teen and as a young adult. Still, I didn’t make a living at it until I was 28.

Did you encourage your sons to follow you into careers in the arts?

I didn’t discourage them, but they all are in the business, coming at it from different angles. Adam, the oldest, is a wonderful actor. Matthew, my middle son, became a lawyer but three years in, he hated it. He teaches in Los Angeles and is waiting to hear about a television part. Tony, my youngest son, is writing, acting, directing and editing.

Do you have grandchildren?

I have four. My 23-year-old granddaughter just produced a movie, my 13-year-old grandson is writing a novel, my 6-year-old grandson just made three short films and my 6-year-old granddaughter is interested in dance, so they all have the bug, too.

You write in the book that the characters you created while working at Second City were all “foreigners and misfits,” and that you figured out years later that was how you saw yourself. Then you began to study Eastern philosophies. What impact did that have on your career and otherwise in your life?

It had and continues to have an effect so dramatic that it would take another book to talk about it. Most importantly, I love my life now and I approach my work with a lightness, a buoyancy that is good for me and good for audiences.

Writing about your appreciation for the here and now, you say, “If this present moment is lived whole-heartedly and meticulously, the future will take care of itself.” Is that something that clicked right away or must you re-learn it from time to time?

You have to go back to it and back to it, until it starts “doing” you.

While you filmed “Catch-22,” Tony Perkins approached each take with “Oh God, where did I go wrong?” In “Glengarry Glen Ross,” Jack Lemmon’s approach was, “It’s magic time!” What about you?

I tended more toward Tony’s approach until I was in my late 30s. My prayer before every shot of every take was “Please, God- let this not be a disaster.” But when I worked on “The In-Laws,” all of a sudden everything lightened up and the work started becoming fun and enjoyable. I was confused by that. It didn’t feel right, but I couldn’t stop myself from having a good time.

You have led improvisational workshops with your wife, a psychotherapist, all over the country with all kinds of people, people not in the acting business. Talk about that a bit.

The response has been amazing, full of surprises. We did one in Santa Fe four or five months ago with 20 lawyers. I thought they might be smart alecks, but they were the most engaged group we’ve ever had, deeply interested in revealing themselves and sharing their experiences. That said, I think I will stop offering them after the next three.

You write in the book that you have come to treasure the approach of “looking through the new eyes of a beginner” and that you need the possibility of internal growth, of surprise, and of complete spontaneity off stage as well as on. Is that why you will end the workshops?

We have reached a point where the formula for the workshops works so well that it’s boring me. It’s also exhausting. After a two-day workshop, it takes a week to recover. I have to find something new.

What are you working on now?

I’m writing something, something that seems to be a series of essays. I’m also doing some speaking in different places, and I enjoy that, so I may do more. And I just finished working on “Argo,” Ben Affleck’s new film that Ben produced, wrote, directed and stars in. John Goodman is in it, too.

What do you like to do in your leisure time?

My wife and I have a good time. We travel. We meditate a lot. We do our own cooking, and I take pictures-I’m very interested in photography. We also take long walks.

At the Jewish Book Festival, you will be interviewed during your appearance.

Will you prepare for that-or improvise?

I have never prepared for an interview in my life.

Alan Arkin

BOOK: “An Improvised Life: A Memoir”

SESSION: 7 p.m. Nov. 6