My son graduates from college next month. Because I am the target of his college’s marketing campaigns, I know that one of its famous alums is Alan Arkin.
Maybe it was because I was feeling sentimental about Emmet’s impending graduation that I was inspired to read Arkin’s An Improvised Life: A Memoir. It’s not what I expected. That’s a good thing. Arkin leads us through his career as an actor with little bravado and plenty of candor. His re-telling of the Second City days offers a window into how new genres break through from the imaginations of people willing to take risks with their egos.
The humor is dry and delivered sparingly, so I found myself enjoying a few full-throated laughs. For instance, he recounts how he, a young man with failing grades, won an acting scholarship to Bennington College. By interviewing with part-time admissions counselor and English faculty Howard Nemerov, who would later be named poet laureate of the United States, the two bonded over multiple martinis. With a handshake, Arkin was in. When his dismal transcripts arrived from Los Angeles County Community College two weeks later, the admissions office exploded. But it was too late. “By then the professor and I were drinking buddies. I was Nemerov’s guy.”
The book’s a fast, fun read. Dialogue is thankfully quick and sparse, helpful for internet-addled brains like mine that find it harder and harder to read dialogue in print. I especially recommend the book for aspiring creative types who’ll benefit from having a glimpse into the profound amount of work and perseverance it takes to be Alan Arkin.