Alan Arkin once said of himself that he would not have gotten an Oscar nomination for Wait Until Dark, no matter how good his performance was, because people don’t get Oscar nominations for threatening Audrey Hepburn. He was right; he didn’t. But he had already gotten an Oscar nomination for his first credited film role, in The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming. It would be forty years before he would actually win an Oscar. Mostly, I think this goes back to the fact that people don’t win Oscars much if they’re character actors unless they’re old and the Academy feels the need to honour them before they die.
Which is, of course, what I’m doing here, and the reason we’re getting to him as quickly as the third installment in this series is that his health is not great. He’s 81, and he had a heart attack recently. I, like the Academy, am thinking that I’d better honour him quickly if I’m going to honour him while he’s still alive.
I’m not sure a lot of people would think of him when deciding to pay tribute to the greats. On the other hand, he’s one of those people who livens up all kinds of movies with his appearance. Yes, he largely plays the Cranky Old Guy these days, but he plays the character awfully well, after all. I’m not sure if he deserved the Argo Oscar nomination, and I’m not sure he deserved the Little Miss Sunshine win, but he’s still someone to talk about.
When I think of him, I tend to think of four comic roles. My mom owned Russians, there, on VHS when I was a kid, and I watched it many, many times. I’m also pretty well exactly of the age to remember him in Edward Scissorhands, where he’s the mellow suburban husband to Dianne Wiest’s eager Avon lady Peg. I’m also one of those rare people with a personal fondness for So I Married an Axe Murderer, wherein he played a sweet, lovable man trying to be a curmudgeonly one simply because he felt it’s what police captains should be like. And, yes, he’s the terrified psychologist treating John Cusack’s Martin Blank in Grosse Pointe Blank.
It’s not everyone, in short, who has stolen scenes from Carl Reiner, Johnny Depp, Mike Myers, and John Cusack, but there we are. Not to mention Jennifer Connelly, Robin Williams, Ben Affleck, and of course Audrey Hepburn. He’s never been a leading man, but he’s always had enough presence so that I think he could, with a good script.
His sons are older than I am, so I suppose it’s not surprising that he started playing curmudgeons by the time I became aware of him; the first movie of his I saw was The Rocketeer, where he plays Cranky Old Mechanic Peevy. On the other hand, Peevy is also similar to many of his other roles in that Peevy’s not a bad guy once you get to know him. He’s old and doesn’t much like what’s going on, but he’s also Our Hero’s mentor and always friendly to the lovely Jenny. And the only reason he doesn’t steal a scene from Timothy Dalton is that they never appear in any scenes together.
Actually, it’s as far back as The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming that he started playing characters who are just tired all over from dealing with other characters’ stupidity. He’s played a wider range than that—we are, after all, talking about a man who menaced Audrey Hepburn and was in turn menaced by John Cusack. He tried to help Johnny Depp lead a normal life, possibly something he might consider trying again. He’s a true character actor; I’m not sure I’ve seen a movie where I thought he was miscast. There are higher praises of someone’s films, but not many.