Book Review: "An Improvised Life: A Memoir" by Alan Arkin

Posted by: Aaron Graham  //  May 9, 2011 @ 4:21am

Maybe the first success story from Chicago's legendary Second City comedy enterprise, Alan Arkin has been a fixture in American film ever since his break-out role in Norman Jewison's The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming.

But here in his new memoir -- whether you want to chalk it up to modesty or insistence on practical advice -- there's seldom discussion of the actual films that have made up his decades-spanning career. If you're hoping for his thoughts on his villainous turn in the Audrey Hepburn-led thriller Wait Until Dark, you'll be disappointed to not spot a mention; and there are but brief, non-enlightening references to classics (even if initially perceived as failures) such as Catch-22 or Little Murders.

As you make your way through, you'll realize that this especially doesn't bode well for idiosyncratic, forgotten gems like the film adaptation of Neil Simon's play, Last of the Red Hot Lovers.

Instead, after a cursory childhood introduction that fixates on early artistic leanings, Arkin changes tack to focus on lessons learned from a series of informal improv workshops he's hosted. In the last decade-and-a-half, they've sprung up everywhere from a small class of beginners in New Mexico (where Arkin resides) to a roomful of more advanced performers at Vermont's Bennington College.

Arkin, together with third wife Suzanne Newlander, have taught the classes to further instill confidence and skill in performers, enabling them to think quickly on their feet, sometimes thanks to childhood games that seem to successfully open the floodgates of imagination.

Anecdotal material does enter into it: Groucho Marx turning up to a Second City show in the early 1960s and having a delightful time, to Arkin's dealings with fame. Maybe his greatest role –- in the Andrew Bergman-scripted The In-Laws –- is (thankfully) brought up in this context, in terms of a sentence that's been uttered the most by strangers on the street: to paraphrase, "Everybody looks like they've had so much fun while making it." You'll be happy to read that the answer is a definite yes

Although it may be slight if you're hoping for unprecedented candor in relation to his prolific film career, "An Improvised Life" still has lots to recommend for aspiring actors hoping for insight into a master improviser's established, clearly valuable techniques.

Tags: Alan Arkin, An Improvised Life, Second City, book review, acting

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