Alan Arkin was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar for his first major film role—in 1966's The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming—but even before that, he'd amassed an impressive career in multiple media. He co-wrote "The Banana Boat Song"—a huge hit for Harry Belafonte—in addition to performing in various folk groups. In the '60s, he was a founding member of Chicago's Second City comedy troupe, whose alumni list reads like a veritable who's who of comedy superstars. A slew of memorable performances followed The Russians Are Coming, including a turn as the heavy in 1967's Wait Until Dark, another Oscar-nominated role in 1968's The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter, the lead in Mike Nichols' star-studded adaptation of Catch-22, and 1976's The Seven-Per-Cent Solution. Arkin has also branched out into directing, most notably with the pitch-black 1971 cult comedy Little Murders. In connection with his scene-stealing part in Little Miss Sunshine, a dark but surprisingly warm comedy about a prepubescent beauty-pageant contestant, The A.V. Club recently spoke with Arkin about his first film, Second City, playing Inspector Clouseau, and why 1972's Terrence Malick-scripted Deadhead Miles was never released.
The A.V. Club: In Little Miss Sunshine, you play a sex-crazed, heroin-snorting grandfather. How do you prepare for a role like that? Do you go around to nursing homes trying to score smack?
Alan Arkin: [Laughs.] I just live my daily life just the way I ordinarily do, and they just put a costume on me.
AVC: Do you have a backstory for your character?
AA: I like to keep it my own secret. I don't think it does the audience any good to know what I do to prepare. It keeps it more of a surprise. I don't feel like it has to be a mystery.
AVC: Your Little Miss Sunshine co-star Steve Carell is also a Second City alum. Do you relate better to actors who share that background and training?
AA: I like actors who've had some improvisation training. I'm very comfortable with actors who are comfortable in doing that.
AVC: How did you come to be in Second City in the '60s?
AA: I wasn't getting anywhere in New York. I was 28 and I had no career whatsoever. No prospects of any work coming in. I had been offered a job by Paul Sills in Chicago with a little tiny improvisational company. I thought, "Fat chance, I'm not going to bury myself in Chicago and starve for the rest of my life." But with the prospect of starving for the rest of my life staring me in the face, I took him up on the offer, thinking it was going to be the end of my career. Six months after I got there, it was Second City, and six months after that, we started getting national attention. And instead of it being the end of everything, it was the beginning of everything.
AVC: What was it like at Second City back then?
AA: It was wonderfully free and experimental. It was a place where we were allowed to fail and fall on our faces. The audience expected that to happen. It was a place to take chances and try things. It felt like we were making statements about the culture in those days. It was wonderfully liberating. It was the essence of all the '60s. What you hear about the '60s.
AVC: You were a musician before that, right?
AA: I played guitar. I've always considered myself an actor, but I wasn't making a living as an actor. So I was in a couple of folk groups that managed to keep me in underwear and burritos.
AVC: What attracted you to folk music as a genre?
AA: Nothing. The fact that I was capable of doing it.
AVC: The Internet Movie Database says your first movie appearance was in Calypso Heat Wave.
AA: Yeah, I'm afraid it's true. I thought it would be my entry into the movies, but it wasn't. It was an entry into nothing much.
AVC: What do you remember about making Calypso Heat Wave?
AA: I remember thinking "I finally made it." I was in a movie.
AVC: We recently interviewed Stephen Colbert, who said he wound up playing the same kind of character all the time at Second City. Was that your experience too?
AA: I went all over the map. I played old people, I played young people, I played every conceivable kind of nationality, emotional type. I went everywhere.
AVC: From there, your first big movie was The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming. You got nominated for an Academy Award. Was it kind of intimidating starting out on such a huge note?
AA: I think it was very intimidating. I don't think it did me a lot of good for a long time. It intimidated me. It made me feel like I had something to live up to. It put me under a lot of pressure.
AVC: Your next significant role was as a villain in Wait Until Dark with Audrey Hepburn. Was it strange to be terrorizing America's sweetheart?
AA: I hated it. I just thought she was terrific. I had an enormous amount of regard for her. I didn't like being cruel to her. It made me very uncomfortable.
AVC: Do you generally dislike playing villains?
AA: Yeah, I don't like it.
AVC: You made some short films in the '60s. How did that evolve into directing Little Murders?
AA: I felt like I got my chops on a few shorts. They offered me Little Murders and I did it.
AVC: Did Little Murders reflect your comic sensibility?
AA: I'd have to say that my favorite kind of film is serious comedy. Comedy with serious underpinning. Little Miss Sunshine is like that. That's my fave genre, if I had to pick one.
AVC: On the page, Little Miss Sunshine is a farfetched comedy, but it's almost played as a drama. Was that intentional?
AA: Absolutely. Everybody was on the same page right from the first day as to exactly what kind of movie they wanted to make.
AVC: You were in another movie called Deadhead Miles, which Terrence Malick wrote. But there isn't much information about it out there.
AA: It never got released.
AVC: How does a movie written by Terrence Malick not get released?
AA: Because it wasn't any good. It was a weird road movie with completely insane characters.
AVC: What did you play?
AA: A weird guy on the road.
AVC: Little Miss Sunshine has an amazing cast, as did Glengarry Glen Ross and Catch-22. Does being surrounded by so many gifted actors force you to step your game up?
AVC: I certainly hope so. I had that experience a couple of times with musicians. Over the years, I played with a couple of spectacular guitar players, and playing with them has made me play better than I knew how to play. I hope the same thing is true with acting.
AVC: Jack Lemmon said the cast of Glengarry Glen Ross was the best he'd ever been a part of. Do you agree with that?
AA: Until now, yeah.
AVC: In Little Miss Sunshine, you're a mentor to a child performer. Did you grow up in a creative household?
AA: My father was a painter. There was a lot of singing. We hung around with a lot of folk musicians. My family knew a lot of great folk musicians of the time, like Woody Guthrie, Paul Robeson, Leadbelly. They were all people we knew.
AVC: You were the first actor other than Peter Sellers to take over the role of Inspector Clouseau. What that intimidating?
AA: I was one of the many people to fail at that.
AVC: Why did you take the role? What was the appeal?
AA: At the moment, I thought I could do something with it.
AVC: Have you seen the other non-Peter Sellers Pink Panther movies?
AA: I've seen a couple of them. They don't really work, do they?
AVC: What would you say is the most important thing you learned at Second City?
AA: I learned so many things, I wouldn't know how to begin to isolate them. I learned an enormous lot about a lot of different things.
AVC: Does any specific skit you did there stand out in your mind as being especially inspired?
AA: There's one I did with Barbara Harris that people still talk about, a museum piece that still gets shown to new people coming in there 40 years after the fact. That one is pretty much a standout.
AVC: What's its premise?
AA: I was a beatnik looking for a place to stay for the night. It took place at the Chicago art museum. She's a very uptight Chicago girl on a tour. We start a conversation, and I try to hit on her, and it's my attempt to have a relationship with this girl. Very simple premise: using art as a way to have a relationship with her.
AVC: Of all the things you've accomplished in your career, what are you proudest of?
AA: You're asking me all these definitions. I try not to make any kind of definitions that you're looking for, because they keep changing all the time. I don't know what I'm proudest of. The fact that my kids still talk to me.