Actors who are serious about their craft mainly for the artistic rewards it can bring are a rare breed. If you’re good at what you do and find success, there is always a temptation to let the trappings of fame overshadow what is most important: the quality of work that brought you to this point. Those trappings don’t seem to have lessened Alan Arkin’s respect or enthusiasm for what he does. Acting, (please excuse the hackneyed phrase), is his life. He has played characters as diverse as the maniacal killer in Wait Until Dark to the beleguered dentist in the original and best version of The In-Laws.
In his book, An Improvised Life, Arkin reveals what it was like knowing from the age of five that he wanted to be an actor. He became obsessed with films, with role-playing, with becoming someone else. “Every film I saw, every play, every piece of music fed an unquenchable need to turn myself into something other than what I was". As he grew older, this became somewhat problematic. “I felt that I had no real identity without putting on the mask of another person. I felt a power in that containment, and pretty lost and rootless in my walking around life". It was after years of self scrutiny that living an “examined life” became his main goal, and acting became an expression of that pursuit.
An Improvised Life is not a career spanning biography in the strictest sense. Arkin rarely discusses specific films he’s made or roles he’s played. He focuses more on how his experiences in the world of theater and film affected his personal growth. The exception is his work with Chicago’s Second City improvisation group, which he takes time to detail early in the book. This is where the “serious start” of his professional life began.