Alan Arkin is the male Meryl Streep. He does accents (The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming) and ethnicities (Popi), has played a deaf person (The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter), is adept at both comedy (The In-Laws) and drama (Glengarry Glen Ross), can sing (he started his career with the folk group the Tarriers) and collects accolades the way some actors collect residuals (a Tony Award for Enter Laughing, a Golden Globe for The Russians ..., four Emmy nominations and two Oscar nominations).
He's also a director, musician and published science-fiction and children's book author. His four-decade career has included adapting the folk hit "The Banana Boat Song," improv work with Mike Nichols, Elaine May and others in the fledgling Second City, films, theater and TV (the Sidney Lumet series 100 Centre Street).
Small wonder that the Film Society of Lincoln Center honored him last month with a tribute and a screening of the indie hit Little Miss Sunshine (which recently came out on DVD), in which Arkin, 72, inhabited the wholly original role as a bitter but Bacchanalian grandfather who loves both his granddaughter and his heroin. It's a role that many critics say deserves an Oscar nomination. The Brooklyn, N.Y., native, who lives in New Mexico with his wife, Suzanne, alternately grumbled and twinkled across breakfast with Frank Lovece.
Critics all loved your work in Little Miss Sunshine, but to everybody's surprise you didn't get a Golden Globe nomination.
I try not to think about it. The only reason I have to think about it is that people are calling me all the time, "Hey, you gonna get the blah-blah-blah?"
How about "The Banana Boat Song"? Are you afraid of getting asked for the millionth time about adapting "The Banana Boat Song"?
Yes! There's only a limited number of answers I can give! We combined two songs! We put two songs together and wrote new lyrics.
At the Lincoln Center tribute, they showed a clip of your Soviet sub commander from The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming, and afterward the entire audience was saying, "My God! Borat was doing Alan Arkin!"
Oh, yeah, I know! [laughs] Well, my kids think he was!
Is your middle name really Wolf?
Yeah. But also recently I was given an Indian name by some Native American friends in Santa Fe (N.M.). It was Grey Wolf. And not only that, but I bonded with some wolves a couple of years ago, so I have some connection with wolves somehow.
How does one bond with wolves?
I was at a zoo in Mobile, Ala., that mainly took in animals that had been abandoned. And they [the proprietors] said, "You want to hang out with a couple of wolves for awhile?" I said yeah. I'd heard stories that they're formidable but not as bad as people make out. For example, there's no reported evidence of anybody ever having been hurt by a wolf. In history. ... So they put me in this enclosure with these two wolves who come bounding over to me and start licking me and are all over me, like the friendliest dogs I'd ever met in my life. I have pictures of them all over me.
Frank Lovece wrote this article for Newsday.