Alan Arkin, who passed away last week at age 89, has been many fathers. Younger viewers know the incredibly versatile Jewish actor mostly as paternal figures from iconic movies and shows — Amy Adams’s and Emily Blunt’s widowed father in “Sunshine Cleaning,” a surly grandfather and dance coach in “Little Miss Sunshine,” a guiding parental figure in the adorable “Marley & Me,” and most recently, a Jewish dad in “The Kominsky Method,” for which he was nominated for two Emmys.
In a lot of movies, he read as a quintessential Jewish father: kvetchy, witty, wise. Maybe it was the Brooklyn native’s voice, or his incredibly familiar feeling face. In so many of his roles, you might have wished Arkin was your father, even if he didn’t always play the most sympathetic of characters.
Yet what has been so special to see in the days after his passing is how much he took his position as the veteran actor and paternal authority on set seriously. Arkin was not always known for being the easiest actor to direct, and was often self-critical about his roles, but he still showed care and vulnerability to the younger actors that he worked with.
“Love this sweet brilliant man very much, favorite movie dad and all time hero,” wrote Natasha Lyonne, who played Arkin’s daughter in the very Jewish “Slums of Beverly Hills,” in her Instagram story, sharing pictures of Arkin. Jewish actor David Krumholtz, who played Natasha’s brother in the movie, wrote a longer ode to the actor, who he idolized prior to their work together. He recounted how Arkin taught him an invaluable acting lesson one day when he was struggling on set. “JUST SAY THE LINE,” Arkin had told him, reminding Krumholtz to just be in the moment and in service of the script. He also recalled how complex and wonderfully human he was. “Alan made me laugh uncontrollably. He would get angry at times, and I’d have to hide my gut busting laughter from him. He was a deeply feeling man. It seemed to me to be his blessing and his curse,” he wrote.
“When an actor plays your parent, they mean more to you,” Krumholtz added, writing that Arkin left an “indelible mark” on him and that his memory will always be in his heart.
“I feel so fortunate to have worked with the amazing, hilarious, (and hilariously ornery) Alan Arkin,” Lisa Edelstein, who played his daughter in “The Kominsky Method,” shared on Instagram, while Debra Messing reminisced about her time together with the actor, writing that she had “the great honor and privilege of having Alan Arkin play Grace’s father on ‘Will & Grace.'”
“This kind, funny, brilliant legend brought joy to all of us on the show,” Messing continued, thanking him for his “lifetime of art that has touched all of our lives.”
Perhaps the loveliest ode was for the role that Arkin won an Oscar for in 2007, playing actress Abigail Breslin’s grandfather — who still had Nazi bullets stuck in his head — and who reminded us that “a real loser is somebody that’s so afraid of not winning they don’t even try” in the film “Little Miss Sunshine.” Breslin, who recently had a very Jewish wedding, called Arkin “one of the kindest, wittiest and most lovely human beings I have had the privilege of working with.” She recalled how, when they shot the “Am I pretty?” scene of the movie and Abigail started crying, Arkin immediately yelled cut and called for her mother, worried for her well-being.
“I said, ‘No, Alan I’m acting!’ and he cracked up. I love that story because that’s who Alan was. He cared deeply about his work, but above all and most importantly, he was a genuinely kind and thoughtful man,” she wrote.
“Although we were not related in real life, you will always be ‘Grandpa’ in my heart,” she added.
Outside of sets, Arkin was a father of three sons, Adam, Matthew and Anthony, who goes by Tony, as well as a grandfather of four. All three of his sons are actors, and Tony appeared in the off-Broadway show “Power Plays,” directed by Elaine May, alongside Alan.
”I had to overcome the fear of competing with my father and older brother,” Matthew, who got into acting later in life after a career as a lawyer, told the New York Times in 2000. One day, unbeknownst to him, Alan went to see a show that he was acting in and asked to come backstage. “I didn’t know he was there,” Matthew recounted.
They then had a wonderful conversation. “He told me: ‘I never knew you were interested. You never used me as a resource. You never asked me.’ And here I spent my childhood getting up at 6, watching him like a hawk from the time I was 7. I immersed myself and he thought I didn’t care, and he was wondering why I was throwing away a law career. ‘I learned most of what I did from watching you work,’ I told him. It was a great moment for us.”
Arkin also acted opposite son Adam, known for his many iconic TV roles. He guest starred as Adam’s character, Aaron Shutt’s, lost father in “Chicago Hope.” In one scene, a long-haired Arkin insists on kissing his son on the lips, much to his consternation, because it’s how Europeans do it. “Aaron,” he says to his son, using the Hebrew pronunciation of the name, “I am proud of you. You’re a good son, Aaron. Don’t look for all the answers, this is it,” he tells him, a loving message from a father immortalized on screen.
Arkin is also survived by his wife, Suzanne Newlander. When he had to film a love scene with actress Jane Seymour for “The Kominsky Method,” he invited the actress to a meal with Newlander — to get his wife’s approval for the risque scene.
“So it was the cutest thing,” Seymour recounted. “We went out for brunch. Suzanne’s lovely! She gave me the OK. And then we would giggle about Alan. And… I really watched how she was with him and her kind of way of dealing with him — because the character he plays is not far off from who he is. It might be who he is!”
Arkin was also the author of many books, including the children’s book “The Lemming Condition,” a story that emphasizes the importance of asking questions and going against authority, values that were perhaps instilled in Arkin by his own Jewish father, David Arkin, a leftist activist who lost his job due to McCarthyism.
“Our father was a uniquely talented force of nature, both as an artist and a man,” his family shared in a statement after his death. “A loving husband, father, grand and great grandfather, he was adored and will be deeply missed.”
He will, undoubtedly, continue to make us laugh and think through his many movies and TV shows for decades to come. May his memory be a blessing.