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'Improvised Life': Arkin's Memoir About Making It Up

From the age of 5, Alan Arkin knew he was going to be an actor. He grew up a film junkie, and he spent a lot of time, as he puts it, "pretending to be a human being."

But despite his passion, Arkin struggled to find his feet as an actor. As Arkin describes in his book, An Improvised Life: A Memoir, he did stints in acting school, toured Europe with a folk band, and spent a year playing the lute in an off-Broadway play.

The turning point came in Chicago in 1960, when Arkin joined the nascent Second City improv comedy troupe. While the experience eventually launched Arkin's career — and sparked his lifelong passion for improv — he actually turned down Second City's first invitation.

"I said, 'Fat chance. I'm going to bury myself at a hole in the wall in Chicago? It would be the end of my career,' " Arkin tells NPR's Mary Louise Kelly. But he "starved for yet another year in New York, without being able to get any kind of work at all," he says, and ultimately decided moving to Chicago might be his only chance at a steady paycheck. He made the move "with my heart in my mouth, thinking that my life was over."

Cover of An Improvised Life: A Memoir

On the surface, Arkin's new life was no more glamorous than the one he'd left behind in New York. He spent his first six months living in a 10-foot-by-10-foot room with a shared bathroom down the hall. But despite the lack of creature comforts, Arkin says he "was happier than I'd ever been. The minute I got there I realized I'd found a home."

Arkin's experience with Second City was not his first brush with improv — he had tried it a year before with The Compass Players in St. Louis. But "I didn't think I was terribly good at it," he says, and that lack of confidence persisted through his early months with Second City. "I was terrible ... I thought I was going to get fired," he says. "I started looking at waiters longingly."

But soon, Arkin "found a character that ... worked, and I just hung on to him like a life preserver."

Even so, the unpredictable nature of improvisation meant Arkin had to learn to accept that not every sketch would be a hit — and that bombing onstage wasn't necessarily a bad thing. "It's improvisation, and some are terrific, and some are terrible," he says. "The ability to fail was an extraordinary privilege and gift. ... You don't learn anything without failing."

I was terrible ... I thought I was going to get fired ... I started looking at waiters longingly.

Arkin's early love for improv stands in marked contrast to his more tepid enthusiasm for theater acting. He starred in several Broadway and off-Broadway hits in the 1960s and early 1970s, including a Tony Award-winning performance in the 1963 comedy Enter Laughing. But despite his success onstage, he likened his first theater roles to "torture."

"You're not encouraged to experiment or play very much," says Arkin. "The play gets set the minute opening night is there and ... you're supposed to do exactly that for the next year. And I just am constitutionally unable to just find any kind of excitement or creativity in that kind of experience."

Luckily for Arkin's fans, his aversion to the stage did not carry over into acting on film. Arkin has acted in more than 80 films, been nominated for several Academy Awards, and won an Oscar for his role in the 2006 film Little Miss Sunshine.

Improvisation has remained an important aspect of Arkin's film career, as well. "Very often a scene will not be working. You rehearse it once or twice, you realize something's missing," says Arkin. "So I'll play with it until it makes sense. ... If I have a chance of enhancing what I feel the language to be, then I'll jump."

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