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Who Says You Have to Be a Star?

Perhaps the versatile, adaptable character actor Alan Arkin isn't A-list because he's just so good at what he does.

January 25, 1998|Kristine McKenna | Kristine McKenna is a regular contributor to Calendar

The problem with being a great character actor is that nobody recognizes you from one performance to the next. It's hard for an actor to build up much movie star momentum when he virtually evaporates into every character he plays--which brings us to Alan Arkin.

"Alan's never had an identifiable screen personality because he just disappears into his characters," says Norman Jewison, who directed Arkin in his 1966 film debut, "The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming!" "His accents are impeccable, and he's even able to change his look--but oddly enough, this gift has worked against him. He's always been underestimated, partly because he's never been in service of his own success, which is one of the things I love about him. Alan's just so cool!"

Other directors must be realizing that, because Arkin's turned up with increasing frequency of late. Featured in the Bruno Barreto film "Four Days in September," which opens Friday, he recently completed work on "Jakob the Liar," a comedy co-starring Robin Williams, and co-starred with Marisa Tomei in "The Slums of Beverly Hills."

Arkin's recent resume also includes performances in the 1990 films "Edward Scissorhands" and "Havana," 1992's "Glengarry Glen Ross" and "'Mother Night" in 1996. Last year, he played a detective in the sci-fi thriller "Gattaca" and did a dazzling turn as a terrified psychoanalyst in "Grosse Point Blank."

"Alan's one of the great American actors and I've loved him forever, so having him in 'Grosse Point Blank' was a dream come true," says John Cusack, who co-wrote, co-produced and starred in the film. "If an actor wants a modern tutorial on the art of listening, just watch Alan in 'Glengarry Glen Ross'; he does more just listening than most actors can do with several pages of dialogue.

"He challenged our script for 'Grosse Point Blank' because he felt that it didn't go far enough--and that thrilled me, of course, because it meant that we wound up with three new pages of dialogue co-written with Alan Arkin," adds Cusack, who's collaborating with Arkin on the development of "Arigo," a film about a Brazilian peasant healer that Arkin's been trying to get off the ground for 19 years. (At this point, "Arigo" will be produced by Cusack, who hopes that Arkin will both direct and star in it.)

In the meantime, "Four Days in September"--which is based on a true story--finds Arkin cast as Charles Elbrick, the American ambassador to Brazil who was kidnapped by a group of Brazilian radicals and held for four days in 1969.

" 'Four Days' is an ensemble piece that doesn't allow much time for setting up the characters in terms of back story, so I needed an actor who could introduce Elbrick as a fully fleshed person in the very first scene," says Barreto of the casting of Arkin. "Alan can communicate volumes of information with the subtlest of gestures--and, of course, you tend to like him the minute he appears on screen."

As to why he took the part, Arkin says, "I was struck by the fact that you end up caring about everybody in the film. You understand that, regardless of how misguided they might be, these people are doing the best they can.

"I had one of the most difficult days I've ever had as an actor on 'Four Days,' " adds the 63-year-old actor during an interview at a Beverly Hills hotel. "The film was shot out of sequence, and on my first day we did a scene where I'm led to a bathroom after having soiled my pants, then I sit on the toilet and cry my eyes out. To jump into a character at such a pivotal moment felt strange, and I have no idea what the scene looks like."

It happens, in fact, to be Barreto's favorite moment in the film. "Alan brought me to tears when we shot that scene, and I've cried every time I've seen it since," he confesses. "Alan's extremely quiet and he kept to himself on the set, but he had a wonderful relationship with the Brazilian actors. They all knew and admired his work, and on days off they'd take Alan around and cook for him--it made me jealous because they never invited me!"

Arkin, born in New York City in 1934, recalls, "My father was a painter and a writer, but he couldn't make a living doing those things, so he worked as a teacher, as did my mother.

"When I was 5, I confided in my father that I was going to be an actor when I grew up, and though he was sure I'd grow out of it, I didn't. To decide on something at the age of 5 and stick to it comes from a very neurotic place; with me, that neurosis was rooted in the fact that the only time my parents paid attention to me was when I was performing."

Thus is the life of a red diaper baby. "My parents were communists, and that had a big effect on my childhood because it isolated me from the outside world," says the actor, who has two younger siblings. "I was a self-confident child until I was about 8, which is when they told me of their political beliefs. After that, I felt suspicious of the world and retreated into my imagination."

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