Born March 26, 1934 in Brooklyn, NY, Arkin was raised by his father, David, and his mother, Beatrice, both of whom were teachers. When he was 11, his family moved across country to Los Angeles, where his father was promised a job as a set painter by his uncle, a successful film composer. But as soon as the Arkins arrived, the studios went on strike for a year and a half. To fill the void, Arkin's father began teaching in the L.A. school system, but soon found himself out of work again, thanks to the Red Scare of the 1950s. Both of Arkin's parents were communist, but refused to acknowledge their political affiliations, resulting in both losing their jobs. From then on, the family struggled mightily to stay afloat. Eventually, Arkin graduated from Franklin High School in 1951 and tried to break into acting - a dream he had held since he was just five years old. But Arkin struggled to find work and instead decided to study theater, first at L.A. City College, followed by at L.A. State College and finally Bennington College in Vermont.
In 1955, Arkin dropped out of Bennington to join a folk group, The Tarriers, with whom he recorded several albums while making his film debut in "Calypso Heat Wave" (1957). After making his off-Broadway debut as a singer in "Heloise," Arkin left The Tarriers in 1959 to continue pursuing acting, though his struggles eventually tore apart his first marriage in 1960. During a stint in an improvisation group at the Crystal Palace in St. Louis, MO, he was discovered by theater director and improv teacher Paul Sills, who invited Arkin to join the original cast of The Second City, a Chicago-based improvisation group that was later famous as a breeding ground for "Saturday Night Live" (NBC, 1975- ) players. Though Arkin never considered himself to be much of a comedian, he nonetheless joined the troupe, mainly for a lack of something better to do. Second City proved to be a major turning point in his life and the catalyst for what became a vibrant career in comedy. After two years, however, he left to perform on Broadway in "Enter Laughing" (1963), which co-starred Barbra Dana, whom he married later in 1965.
After receiving good reviews for "Enter Laughing," Arkin followed with Murray Schisgal's "Luv," which was directed by Mike Nichols. Luckily for Arkin, director Norman Jewison was among the audience members who took notice of the comedic actor. Stunned by Arkin's brilliance on stage, Jewison cast the unknown actor in his Cold War spoof "The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming" (1966), earning the newcomer a Best Actor Oscar nomination and a Golden Globe for his hilarious portrayal of Lt. Rozanov, a Russian officer trying to help get his submarine back in the water after it runs aground near a small New England town, touching off madcap chaos and nearly World War III. He demonstrated his dramatic range as the psychopathic killer opposite Audrey Hepburn in "Wait Until Dark" (1967), then reinvented himself again as the sensitive, deaf-mute protagonist of "The Heart is a Lonely Hunter" (1968), for which he received a second Academy Award nomination for Best Actor. Arkin took on yet another ethnic identity for his hysterical starring turn in Arthur Hiller's "Popi" (1969), playing a Puerto Rican father struggling against big odds to make a better life for his family.
Arkin followed with perhaps his highest profile role, playing Captain Yossarian in Mike Nichols' adaptation of Joseph Heller's antiwar novel, "Catch-22" (1970). Although it eventually acquired a following, the movie initially failed to live up to expectations. Because of the underwhelming response to "Catch-22," Arkin's career hit a rough patch throughout the 1970s. Resigned to such mediocre fare as Deadhead Miles (1982), "Last of the Red Hot Lovers" (1972) and "Freebie and the Bean" (1974), Arkin transitioned to television, appearing in "Love, Life, Liberty & Lunch" (ABC, 1976), before playing a patient at a mental institution who tries to win his release after witnessing brutal attacks by security guards in "The Other Side of Hell" (NBC, 1978). Back on film, he gave an impressive turn as Sigmund Freud opposite Nicol Williamson's Sherlock Holmes in "The Seven-Per-Cent Solution" (1977), then pushed his way back into the limelight opposite Peter Falk in "The In-Laws" (1979). Unpredictably wacky from start to finish, "The In-Laws" cast Arkin as a mild-mannered dentist and respectable family man who gets pulled into the wacky international intrigue of his daughter's soon-to-be father-in-law (Falk), setting off a series of hilarious globetrotting misadventures.
Once the 1980s had arrived, Arkin was well-established as a comedic leading man who could occasionally cross over to give a strong performance in supporting dramatic roles. In Simon (1980), a comedy by Woody Allen's longtime co-writer, Marshall Brickman, Arkin gave a bizarrely funny performance as a professor who gets duped by a group of scientists conducting experiments to make him believe that he is an alien from outer space. He then teamed up with Carol Burnett on "Chu Chi and the Philly Flash" (1981), based on a script written by then-wife Barbara Dana and his son Adam, playing a former baseball player suffering from alcoholism who joins forces with a has-been entertainer (Burnett) after finding a mysterious briefcase that contains secret documents. After forgettable performances in "Improper Channels" (1981) and Larry Cohen's teenage werewolf comedy Full Moon High (1981), Arkin turned in a terrific performance as James Woods' colorful dad in Joshua Then and Now (1985) and was particularly memorable leading an escape from a death camp in the riveting historical drama, "Escape from Sobibor" (1987), playing a Jewish man imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp who leads 300 of his fellow captives to freedom in a daring escape. The film was based on true events revolving around one of the largest and most successful escape operations of its kind during World War II.
After rounding out the decade with the family drama, "Necessary Parties" (PBS, 1988), which he co-wrote with wife Barbara, Arkin started out the 1990s with a strong supporting role in Tim Burton's dark satire Edward Scissorhands (1990). Following more supporting turns in Havana (1990) and The Rocketeer (1991), Arkin delivered one of his finest performances in Glengarry Glen Ross (1992), playing a beaten-down salesman who easily goes along with anything his more aggressive coworker (Ed Harris) says. Though Arkin was extraordinary, he was largely overshadowed by the tour de force performances of Alec Baldwin, Jack Lemmon and Oscar nominee, Al Pacino. He next starred as a bitter former baseball player in "Cooperstown" (TNT, 1993), then made a return to television for the anthology miniseries, "Picture Windows" (Showtime, 1994), playing a clown who falls in love with a married woman. More forgettable comedies like Steal Big, Steal Little (1995) and The Jerky Boys (1995) were added to his resume, which he thankfully washed away with a vivid supporting role in Mother Night (1996).
In 1997, he appeared in two very different projects; "Grosse Pointe Blank" featured Arkin in some hilarious scenes as a psychiatrist counseling a hit man (John Cusack), while the futuristic sci-fi thriller "Gattaca" saw the actor portray a detective tracking a killer. For the Oscar-nominated foreign film based on real-life events, Four Days in September (1998), Arkin played the American ambassador to Brazil who was kidnapped and held hostage by rebels in 1969. He then gave a strong supporting turn as a poor, divorced father struggling to keep his family - which includes two young sons and his outspoken daughter (Natasha Lyonne) - inside the Beverly Hills school district by moving everyone into a one-bedroom apartment in the indie hit The Slums of Beverly Hills (1998). After a surprisingly convincing performance as a mob enforcer in "Blood Money" (TMC, 1999), he co-starred opposite Robin Williams in Jakob the Liar (1999), a bungled attempt to bring light humor to the Holocaust. Arkin then made the rare choice to become a season regular on the ensemble drama "100 Centre Street" (A&E, 2001-02), playing a judge whose criticized by many of his colleagues for being soft on criminals, leading to the embarrassing nickname "Let 'em go, Joe."
Arkin returned to the big screen with Thirteen Conversations About One Thing (2002), an ensemble drama that emerged from the 2002 Sundance Film Festival about a group of people living in New York City who live separate lives, completely unaware of the subtle interconnections that bring them together. Arkin played a pessimistic insurance company manager troubled by his ex-wife and delinquent son who enjoys deflating his more cheery employees. In "The Pentagon Papers" (FX, 2003), a made-for-cable-TV movie about former Defense Department employee Daniel Ellsberg and his struggle to leak top secret military secrets about the Vietnam War to The New York Times, Arkin played Ellsberg's Rand Corporation boss, a role that earned the actor an Emmy Award nomination for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Miniseries or a Movie. That same year, Arkin was seen in another cable movie, "And Starring Pancho Villa as Himself" (HBO, 2003), a true-life telling of the famed Mexican revolutionary (Antonio Banderas) and his outrageous offer to allow Hollywood to make a movie of his exploits while using the money he made to fund his war efforts. He followed with supporting turns in Eros (2005), Noel (2004) and "Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause" (2006).
Arkin had a strong 2006, starting with a brief appearance in the heist thriller, Firewall (2006), starring Harrison Ford as a grizzled security specialist forced to help a group of thieves rob a bank he helped build the security system for. He then had a raucously funny supporting role in the surprise indie comedy hit Little Miss Sunshine (2006), playing the foul-mouthed, heroin-snorting grandfather of a young girl (Abigail Breslin) taken on a road trip by her dysfunctional family (Greg Kinnear, Toni Collette, Paul Dano and Steve Carell) so she can compete in a fiercely competitive beauty contest for seven-year-old girls. Though he was snubbed by the Hollywood Foreign Press at the 2007 Golden Globe Awards, Arkin was honored at long last by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences with an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, beating out favorite to win, Eddie Murphy for "Dreamgirls" (2006). After appearing as a U.S. senator in the topical political thriller, Rendition (2007), Arkin delivered another scene-stealing performance in the big screen adaptation of Get Smart (2008), playing The Chief to Steve Carell's bumbling agent Maxwell Smart. He went on to portray Owen Wilson's boss in "Marley and Me" (2008), the father of Amy Adams and Emily Blunt in Sunshine Cleaning (2009), the much older husband of Robin Wright Penn in The Private Lives of Pippa Lee (2009), and Ryan Reynolds' father in The Change-Up (2011).
From there, he reunited with Kinnear for the independent comedy-drama Thin Ice (2012), which was generally well-received following its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival. Arkin returned the following year with a supporting role in one of the surprise critical darlings of the year, director-star Ben Affleck's based-on-fact Iranian Hostage Crisis drama, Argo (2012). Cast as jaded Hollywood producer Lester Siegel, Arkin's character was a darkly comic highpoint of the film, as he assists CIA operative Tony Mendez (Affleck) in concocting a phony movie production to be filmed in Iran, which in reality is a cover for a daring rescue operation. As Affleck and "Argo" basked in critical praise and mounting awards speculation, Arkin was rightfully nominated for a Golden Globe and an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.
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