Alan Arkin etched galore indelible performances complete his agelong profession successful movies. From heroin-snorting grandfathers (“Little Miss Sunshine”) to ornery movie producers (“Argo”) to harried dentists (“The In-Laws”), Arkin, who died connected June 29 astatine nan property of 89, played an bonzer scope of roles pinch awesome gusto.
But it’s adjacent to opportunity that nary of it would person been imaginable were it not for 1966’s “The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming,” a Cold War drama that marked Arkin’s first awesome surface role. It’s nan movie that earned him nan first of 4 Oscar nominations (he’d triumph for 2006’s “Little Miss Sunshine”) and a portion that launched his profession arsenic a shape-shifting characteristic actor.
And it was Norman Jewison, riding precocious connected nan occurrence of “The Cincinnati Kid,” who took a stake that Arkin, a talented Broadway character but movie novice, could make nan modulation from shape to screen. He plays a Russian “political officer” who takes a mini unit of men into a sleepy land organization successful nan United States aft their submarine runs aground. Jewison says that Arkin was specified a chameleon, galore viewers were stunned to find retired that nan Brooklyn-born character wasn’t, successful fact, Russian. Jewison said pinch Variety astir moving pinch Arkin connected nan drama masterpiece and his boundless acting abilities.
Alan was a adjacent friend, arsenic good arsenic 1 of my champion performing actors. When I recovered retired that he had died, I started reasoning astir nan first clip we met. I was successful New York, and he was successful a play that Mike Nichols directed called “Luv” pinch Eli Wallach and Anne Jackson. He had specified a gift for accents.
When I was getting fresh to make “The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming,” I remembered that and I called him up and said, “I request personification who tin play a Russian and beryllium wholly believable.” He came complete to nan workplace — I don’t deliberation he’d ever made a movie earlier — and we did immoderate improv. I had him play a KGB personnel who was walking pinch nan Bolshoi Ballet while they were successful America to make judge they didn’t get into immoderate trouble. He was conscionable perfect.
The workplace didn’t want him, but it’s ne'er easy to find nan correct character for a part, truthful I conscionable pushed it. I told them that they already had Eva Marie Saint and Carl Reiner and different well-known actors, and truthful we stayed beardown and made it happen.
To hole for nan role, he recovered this Russian, a diplomat aliases something, from nan southbound of Russia. I deliberation he was from Tbilisi successful Georgia, truthful he had benignant of nan Russian type of a Southern accent. And they worked connected nan lines, peculiarly nan Russian translations. It was breathtaking to spot really immersed he sewage successful nan part.
Because he had that training from his clip astatine Second City, he was specified a talented improviser. He and Carl would fundamentally propulsion nan book away. They were conscionable brilliantly funny. Alan was caller to film, but it didn’t show. He was relaxed connected set. He didn’t look to beryllium tense astatine all. I ever spot that assurance successful really awesome improvisational actors.
There’s a segment towards nan extremity of nan movie wherever he’s getting successful nan submarine and saying goodbye to nan Americans he’s gotten truthful adjacent to, and he conscionable breaks your heart. When we changeable it, Alan was connected this styrofoam submarine that my accumulation designer had created. It looked existent astir of nan time, but if location were a batch of waves nan full point would crook and commencement to autumn apart.
Maybe it’s bully that he wasn’t a well-known character astatine nan time, because group accepted his superb capacity to nan constituent wherever they believed he was Russian. That’s not easy for an American character to propulsion off. But nan astir important point for an character is believability, and you ever believed Alan erstwhile he was connected screen. I ended up showing nan movie successful Moscow to nan Russian Film Workers Union and they said, “Oh, he’s really from Georgia. He sounds for illustration he’s from Tbilisi.” So they besides believed wholly successful his performance. And that was ever existent of Alan, from “Little Miss Sunshine” to “Popi,” wherever he plays a Puerto Rican man, you conscionable accepted him arsenic genuine erstwhile he was connected screen.
When nan movie came out, it was nan tallness of nan Cold War, truthful it was arguable to beryllium making nosy of each that. But it conscionable took off. And Alan, who was nan centerpiece of nan film, sewage an Academy Award information for nan performance. It benignant of clicked disconnected his career.
We stayed close, but I ne'er had nan opportunity to activity pinch him again. I conscionable ne'er had a portion that I thought was correct for him. When I nonstop a film, I’m ever powerfully supportive of my actors. Alan appreciated that. Years later, he told me, “I deliberation I enjoyed making ‘Russians Are Coming’ much than thing I’ve ever done.” And he looked astatine maine and said, “That movie worked because of you.” And I said, “No Alan, it was because of your talent. You are a gifted, talented man.”