In PLAYING the Chief, head of the super-secret spy agency CONTROL in the new movie version of the classic spoof TV show "Get Smart," Alan Arkin naturally endures his share of exasperation with the disaster-prone newbie Maxwell Smart (Steve Carell) under his wing. But he also gets his own comically tinged heroic moments, from flying a plane to the rescue to -- his personal favorite -- righteously decking an officious civil servant.
"I must say, there's a particular satisfaction in beating up somebody in the government," Arkin says.
He says he never watched the original series, on which Edward Platt made being boss to a dope an exquisite form of comic resignation. But as Arkin read the contemporized script, he saw the Chief as a tough, take-charge guy. "He's a very good principal of a crappy grade school," is how Arkin described him during a recent interview at the Four Seasons Hotel. "And 10% raving lunatic himself."
For this 74-year-old veteran of character comedy, the key to making people laugh is to approach silly with seriousness, whether it's playing a soldier working out the insanity of war ("The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming," "Catch-22"), a salesman surreptitiously moving his family around like nomads ("Slums of Beverly Hills") or a prosperous dentist reluctantly drawn into espionage ("The In-Laws"). "The more legitimate you make it, the funnier it is," says Arkin, who earns some of the biggest laughs in "Get Smart" with lines that show off his well-honed gift for understatement and droll timing. "I love insane, stupid comedy, but I can only make it work if it's a character I can give some history to and make real. Like the guy I played in 'Little Miss Sunshine.' He's a maniac, but to me he was absolutely believable."
The hilariously degenerate yet moralistic and protective grandfather in that sleeper indie hit of 2006 won the actor some of the most laudatory reviews of his long career, triggering a wave of Arkinlove that culminated in a supporting actor Oscar last year. The outpouring of congratulations from old friends and colleagues the next day, he says, was the best part of the experience. "I tend to dismiss other people's affection, and the amount was such a wave even I couldn't ignore it," he says, his notoriously stoic-looking features softening with a gentle laugh. "I was deeply moved."
Carell, who was also in "Little Miss Sunshine," calls Arkin one of his biggest idols and says acting with him twice may not be enough. "I've been looking for things for the two of us to do together," Carell says. "He's one of a kind, and I would love to be in everything he ever did for the rest of his life. Seriously!"
Arkin, whose sons Adam, Matthew and Anthony all act, lives in New Mexico with his wife, Suzanne, and has made staying away from the industry aura of Hollywood work for him. Indeed, his career is enjoying a healthy upswing -- after "Get Smart," he's got a handful of movies awaiting release -- but today's been a rough one emotionally. Mere hours ago he heard of the passing of Paul Sills, the founder of Chicago's Second City, who in 1960 recruited Arkin to be an original member of the now-legendary improvisational company. "I hold him totally responsible for whatever career I have," Arkin says. "He was a maniac, he was impossible, but he was the heart and soul of the place."
Arkin recalls the strange feeling when he and his inaugural troupe-mates got a standing ovation at the 40th anniversary of Second City in 2000. "Our memory of ourselves is that we were there because we had nowhere else to go," says the Brooklyn-born Arkin of those struggling days scrounging for work as a part-time actor and folk singer (his group, the Tarriers, had a hit version of "The Banana Boat Song"). "When I got to Second City, I thought I was going to get fired because I wasn't funny. I didn't know how to do it. But [Paul] saw something in me and kept encouraging and encouraging me."
The number of lessons he gleaned are "incalculable," he says, but perhaps the biggest was to accept failure. "The audience came in knowing a lot of what they saw was going to fail, and it was OK," he says. "Now if you fail, it's a moral issue, bad for the numbers crunchers. But one of the things I learned from improvising is that all of life is an improvisation, whether you like it or not. Some of the greatest scientific discoveries of the 20th century came out of people dropping things."