Billed as a memoir, Alan Arkin’s An Improvised Life is something wispier: a series of discrete anecdotes from across his career, meant to point toward larger truths about acting and life. If Arkin has something negative to say about anyone, he omits name, time, and place. Even if his intentions are benevolent, details can be fuzzy: He notes “a film where an old friend and I were playing the leads,” which he believes is “one of the best things I ever did.” Beyond that, apparently no more need be said.
For all its vagaries, An Improvised Life is a brisk, under-200-page dispatch that can easily be knocked back in an hour or under; for anyone curious about the thought processes of one of America’s finest working character actors, it’s worth a breezy look. The memoir’s novel aspects include Arkin’s relentlessly modest, even gloomy tone: Writing about 1979’s The In-Laws, he Eeyorish-ly admits, “I found myself having a good time while working [and] there was nothing I could do about it.” Refreshingly, he prefers film to theater: “There was none of the terrible pressure of working in front of an audience and none of the endless grind of a long run. We’d work on one scene until it felt right and then go on to the next one.”
What Arkin prefers to everything, though, is talking about his Zen meditative practices, the many improvisatory workshops he’s led, and the way both inform his life. The tone is somewhere between the familiar (actor waxing spiritual) and the mundanely practical. Arkin is particularly sharp on his time with Second City in Chicago and New York, and the ways improvisation loosened him up. Unlike many actors, Arkin takes the ineffability of his work seriously rather than preciously, trying to concretely describe his responses and thoughts, even if he can’t explain them.
The book’s second half abandons Arkin’s acting almost entirely, instead telling stories from his workshops. While his doggedly modest, self-effacing tone remains an asset, there’s no way to get around it: You’re reading about exercises involving people pretending to be interlocking parts of a machine, trying to extrapolate larger lessons for life itself. “Acting is nothing more than a metaphor for life, and a pretty transparent one at that,” Arkin notes. It’s hard to argue, but with luck, he’ll someday write a proper memoir, with all the stories and name-dropping that come with the terrain. His career deserves one.