One of our favorite character actors, Alan Arkin is best-known for his energetic comedic roles in such films as The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming!, Catch 22 and The In-Laws. But a consummate, versatile performer of both stage and screen, Arkin has played villains, tragic underdogs and even a deaf-mute. Beyond his work as an actor, Arkin has written and directed for stage and screen, has penned children’s books and has written hundreds of songs, not the least of which was the Harry Belafonte hit, “Banana Boat (Day-O).”
Alan Arkin began his career learning the craft of improvisation under director Paul Sills and Viola Spolin at The Second City Theater in Chicago. Returning to the theater to celebrate The Second City’s 40th Anniversary, Arkin discussed how he came to work there and the impact it has had on his life.
On how he came to work with The Second City…
(Director) Paul (Sills) had asked me to come and join Second City when I was in St. Louis. I smiled and said, “Fat chance. I’m not gonna bury myself in Chicago for 90 bucks a week.”
Since I was five all I wanted to do was act and do movies and stuff. I had done this show with David Tucker in St. Louis. But I couldn’t get arrested in New York! I went back to New York after St. Louis and felt total despair. I thought my life was personally over.
I starved to death for another year and then in total despair--I felt like my life was gonna end--Paul said come out here and work for 90 bucks a week and I did, and it gave me, for the first time in my life, an opportunity to really work.
This is a wonderful anecdote… People said Leonard Bernstein had a tremendously difficult father who didn’t encourage him to be a musician. They finally asked Leonard Bernstein’s father many years later, “How could you not encourage this man grow up to be this incredible musician?” And his father said, “I didn’t know he was gonna be Leonard Bernstein.”
On life in the theatre…
I would get here at nine o’clock in the morning, wait for the workshop, do whatever workshop was going on, spend the whole day waiting for somebody to talk to or improvise with, do the show, and then go out and talk about the show afterwards. So for the first time in my life-- I was 28!-- I had an opportunity to do what I always to do. And I thought it. I breathed it and ate it. I got up early every morning and went to bed late at night. And it saved my life. I think it literally saved my life.
On the differences between The Second City of 1959 and 1999…
The differences between Second City forty years ago and now? There was no sexual material at all when we did it. There was an occasional homosexual reference which would titillate everybody on Sundays. They didn’t express sex with the language. There was no language, no sh*ts or f*cks.
You wanna talk about sex… I feel there was nothing more moving than Severn (Darden) and Barbara (Harris) doing the Father-Daughter Scene where she has questions about what it was like having her first sexual experience and the way in which he replies to it, it was all quite touching. We did what were called “people scenes.” When we dealt with sexuality, it was in that sort of situation, with the same kind of treatment as Father-Daughter. It was very sensitive.
There was a lot of political material and there was an attitude, you know, that we were gonna save the world. I felt very strongly that that this thing we were doing was gonna make some enormous contribution. I didn’t know it was gonna be big, you know, this legacy, but I felt we had something to do and something important to say. And then about fifteen years later, I came back for the twenty-year reunion. I felt that it had turned into kind of a rowdy, cacophony of just selfishness onstage and that people were just making jokes and screaming and being rude, and I didn’t understand it and I didn’t have any feeling toward it.
Coming back now, I feel that it’s gotten an extraordinarily high degree of professionalism, of technique, of literacy that I find astounding… and it feels a little impersonal. And that’s a reflection of what’s going on in the world around us. I feel like with us it was, the first few years, like we were bringing not only our sensibilities but our souls into it in some way. I felt like, in the first few years, you could see a scene or two and immediately know who a person was. I didn’t, by and large, feel that with what I saw the last few nights. What I did get was a high degree of professionalism, but I thought it was almost intent not to bare your souls in the work. I don’t know what other people felt.
On what makes The Second City special…
I have noticed that The Second City attracts a certain type. All the mavericks and displaced people of the world come here--in the best sense of the word. It’s the place for when you don’t fit into a tightly structured, well-organized society. I’m glad I belonged here.
Can I add to that? One of the things that’s really important to me is that it’s an arena in which the audience comes realizing that part of what you’re doing is going to fail. And there’s no place in the country where you can do that. Anywhere! There’s no arena anywhere in the country where the performers and audience accept that.