For a guy who doesn't really believe in awards — "I don't believe in competition between artists; I believe it is a lot of stuff in order to generate business" — Alan Arkin has a rich Oscar history. He's been nominated for three Oscars and won once as a supporting actor, playing the foul-mouthed, drug-fueled grandfather of a dysfunctional family in 2006's "Little Miss Sunshine."
With tongue firmly in cheek, Arkin recalled what it was like to live through awards season back then.
"I remember it vividly because I wasn't there," he said. "The minute I heard I was nominated, I left my body and somebody took over. He's told me a lot about what went on."
Which is more than he can say about what it was like at the 1967 Oscar ceremony, when he was nominated for lead actor that year playing a Russian submarine officer in the comedy "The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming."
"I vaguely remember being in the limo," said the 77-year-old-actor with a wry smile. "That's all I remember."
Arkin, who splits his time living with his third wife in Santa Fe, N.M., and San Diego, was in town recently to chat about his new film, "Thin Ice," which opens Friday. The dark, "Fargo"-esque comedy reunites him with his "Little Miss Sunshine" son Greg Kinnear. In this outing, Kinnear is a small-town insurance agent eager to reinvigorate his career; Arkin is an elderly farmer with a priceless violin who just may be his ticket to the big time.
He did "Thin Ice" not just because he wanted to collaborate again with Kinnear. "I was looking for a job like everyone in the business," he said, spreading jam on his toast at a Beverly Hills hotel. "But one of my favorite things has been to work with people again."
During his six-decade-long career, in films, on stage and TV, Arkin has delivered many memorable performances. One of his most acclaimed also earned him an Oscar nomination as the solitary, hearing-impaired mute John Singer in "The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter," the poignant 1968 adaptation of Carson McCullers' novel.
"I got a fan letter from somebody," he laughingly recalls. "It was one of the best fan letters I've ever gotten — 'Dear Mr. Arkin. I recently saw 'The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter.' Your performance is one of the greatest performances I have ever seen. I was so deeply moved by your performance and the movie that I am never going to see you again in anything you ever do!'"
He was sent the screenplay by screen adapter Thomas Ryan before Arkin made "Russians Are Coming." Ryan wanted him but because Arkin had no starring film credits, the producers went with Montgomery Clift. "They couldn't clear him, though, because of the health, so the movie just lay in wait for about three years," said Arkin. "Then I did 'Russians Are Coming' and soon after that 'Wait Until Dark.' I called Ryan back and said how about now. Do I have enough cachet?"
This time he did. But Arkin and the racially mixed cast were worried about the film's location — Selma, Ala. It had only been six months since the famous civil rights march there. "We vowed whatever happened we were not going to split up," Arkin said.
"We were going to find a place where we could all live together. We had no idea what was going to happen. We went down holding our breath and by some miracle there was a Holiday Inn down there that allowed us to stay together. It was one of those times where it felt like the film really meant something."
Norman Jewison, who directed "Russians Are Coming," "ruined it for the next 10 movies for me," said Arkin. "Working with him was such an extraordinary lesson. In the first place, he loves actors. He wants creative contribution from the actors. He embraced the entire town of Fort Bragg [Calif.], where the movie was shot]. Everyone in the town was in the movie."
There was also a strong sense of community on "Little Miss Sunshine."
"But the feeling was little bit closer to 'Heart is a Lonely Hunter' than 'Russians,'" he said of "Sunshine." "It was a comedy, but it was a very realistic comedy. There were no jokes and no gags. So it was a very quiet set because I think everybody was sensing the potential and we didn't want to tamper with the tone."