An Improvised Life

A Memoir


By Alan Arkin

Formats and Prices




$15.99 CAD



  1. ebook $11.99 $15.99 CAD
  2. Trade Paperback $19.99 $25.99 CAD

This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around March 1, 2011. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.

In a manner that is direct, down-to-earth, accessible, and articulate, Academy Award-winner (Little Miss Sunshine, Argo, The Kominsky Method) Alan Arkin reveals insights not only about himself (and his audience and students), but also truths for the rest of us about work, relationships, and sense of self.

Alan Arkin knew he was going to be an actor from the age of five: "Every film I saw, every play, every piece of music fed an unquenchable need to turn myself into something other than what I was." An Improvised Life is the Oscar winner's wise and unpretentious recollection of the process–artistic and personal–of becoming an actor, and a revealing look into the creative mind of one of the best practitioners on stage or screen.


Some years ago I did a film with Madeline Kahn. A lot of it was shot on location, and one day we found ourselves at a particularly beautiful spot overlooking a panoramic view of the Hudson Valley. During a lull in the shooting, while the cameras were setting up, we went out onto an extensive lawn and sat there for a while, lost in the scenery. While we were musing and chatting, I found myself thinking about Madeline's many gifts. She was a fine actress, an excellent pianist; she had an exquisite operatic voice with impeccable technique and she was also a brilliant comedian. I asked her which of her talents she considered to be her primary focus. She thought for a while and couldn't come up with an answer. I don't think she'd ever thought about it before. "Well, what did you start out wanting to do?" I asked. "What was your first impulse? Was it acting?" She shook her head "no," but she didn't seem sure.
"Playing the piano?"
"Did you want to be a comedian?"
"No, not really."
"Well, what was the first thing you thought of doing? There had to be something."
Again she tried to thread her way back to her childhood ambitions. "I used to listen to a lot of music." She paused, trying to find the words for what she was thinking. "And that's what I wanted to be," she finally said.
"I don't know what you mean," I said.
She answered, and it sounded as if she'd never formulated this thought before, as if it was news to herself.
"I wanted to be the music," she said.
It was a revelatory and somewhat disturbing moment. With that one statement I realized that what she'd said about herself was the impulse behind all of my own interests, all of my needs, all of my studying, compulsions, and passions, and had I been aware of that idea when I was starting out, had I been able to assimilate it, live within it, I would have saved endless years of frustration and work and confusion because that thought was at the very bottom of what I was looking for. So much had been invested in craft, in externalization, in looking for something solid out there that would fill the void, create a sense of flight, of getting out of the oppression of self.
We don't want to do it; we want to be it. Only we don't know it. No one tells us.
This is dedicated to everyone who wants to be the music.

PART one

My father said that at the age of five I asked him if he could keep a secret. He said yes he could, so I told him I was going to be an actor when I grew up. At five, acting was already a fever in my blood, and somehow I knew, even then, that the decision was made and there would be no turning back. My father took my declaration with a grain of salt, knowing that children change their minds a dozen times before committing to something. I never changed my mind. My father had dreams of being a painter and a poet; and living with the ache of not having achieved his dreams he was keenly aware of the pitfalls involved in trying to have a career in the arts, so he mostly hoped I'd grow out of the idea. But my fate had been sealed before I had any notion of what I was letting myself in for, and my father bit his tongue.
Every film I saw, every play, every piece of music fed an unquenchable need to turn myself into something other than what I was. An aunt took me to see the ballet Petrouchka, and for months I became Stravinsky's marionette. I played the music on the phonograph over and over again, dancing every part. I was Petrouchka, the bears, the jugglers, the moor, my fantasy life so intense that I sometimes literally gave myself a fever in the process. The next year I was Louis Hayward in the film The Man in the Iron Mask, fighting, swaggering, swashbuckling, and finally escaping torture at the hands of my evil twin brother. The following year I became Charlie Chaplin. I remember having a temper tantrum when I wasn't allowed to sit through The Great Dictator for the third time, throwing myself on the floor of the movie theater, screaming bloody murder, and creating an embarrassing scene until my babysitter relented and sat back down, a hostage to my obsession. For months I tried to walk like Chaplin. I spent hours in front of a mirror pursing my mouth to the side, trying desperately to smile with that horizontal crease he had in his upper lip. I put on roller skates and swooped precariously on the edge of things. I performed endless imitations of Hitler through the filter of Chaplin's genius. Then, the following year, I became Danny Kaye, spending hour after hour in front of a mirror trying in vain to make my eyes turn down at the corners. I threw water on my hair to try and make it shake like his. I tried to scat-sing as fast as he could. Away from the mirror, I imitated anyone and everyone. Outside in the street, if I'd see someone with an interesting walk, in half an hour I'd made it my own. Any exotic behavior was fair game: a limp, an accent, a nervous tic, anything to turn myself into someone other than me. One day I was playing in the backyard with my cousins and my aunt overheard me say, "Let's play circus. I'll be everything."
I grew up in Brooklyn, and every Saturday afternoon, for years, I would drag my reluctant mother to acting classes at the Academy of Music, making her sit in dark, empty hallways while I studied whatever children worked on in those days. I was incorrigible. By age seven or eight I was completely obsessed with performing. Theater, movies, music—I was obsessed by all of them. At school my main activity was staring out the window and daydreaming about being other people in other times, other places. How I got through even grammar school remains a mystery.
I have two important memories from those early years. Both were small events, really, and neither took place in school. But both changed how I thought about theater and acting.
The first occurred when I went to a film with my father. I was around eight years old, but he took me to a movie for grown-ups, in black and white, with a lot of adult talk and not much action. In one scene a couple of actors were in a living room engaged in an intimate, intense dialogue about something or other, and I watched for a while, trying hard to keep up with their situation, which was too sophisticated for me. It was rare that anything on a movie screen ever bored me, but this was starting to do the trick, so to keep myself entertained I pretended I was there with them watching the scene from inside a closet. Where the impulse came from I don't know, but I held a hand up to my face and made a small opening in my fist so I could watch everything through the keyhole of an imaginary door. All of a sudden the acting, which had seemed real enough a moment ago, looked false, and the scene turned stale and lifeless. I was amazed. It was as though a veil had been lifted from my eyes. In an instant, the actors were no longer cinema gods with huge heads, the idols I had been imitating for years. They'd lost their sense of authority and importance. In fact, at this moment they no longer existed in any reality at all. The scene had instantly turned false, and I had the distinct feeling that the performances of the two people in the scene were no longer directed at each other but toward some anonymous audience. "But who is their audience?" I wondered. "There's no one in the room with them. They don't know I'm here, in the closet. They don't know anyone is watching. Who are they focusing on? Not me. Not any other living soul."
I immediately felt that it would have been more appropriate for them to be focusing on each other, which is what people did in real life, when no one was watching. But they weren't doing that. They were talking to no one and for no purpose.
This strange moment for me was simultaneously disillusioning and enlightening. It had come from a simple childhood trick, but it completely changed my view of acting, and for the first time gave me a perspective and a value system by which to gauge a performance. It was also the beginning of a kind of method for me, and its validity sustained me for about a decade. At least while watching other people's work. Gauging the truth of my own work was something that had to come later.
The second experience happened in the living room of our apartment. I was playing on the floor while my mother was consoling a friend who was in the middle of some kind of personal crisis. My mother listened patiently while the woman sat there crying her eyes out. I was halfway across the room, now pretending to read a book, but of course I was much more engrossed in the drama being played out in front of me. I watched the woman pouring her heart out to my mother and found myself slightly revolted. "I'm not moved by her performance," I thought. "What is she doing wrong?" I examined her clinically as she tried to get her story out through her pain and tears, and I finally came to the conclusion that I wasn't moved by her situation because she was crying too much. If she wanted to interest me, I thought, she'd better cut back on the tears a little and leave some room for me and my feelings. Of course, what I was watching was not a performance; this was real life. But life, even at age eight, was merely food for my obsession with acting. For me, theater was more important than life, more educational than life, and certainly more moving than life.
As I look back, I think what irked me about the woman's outpouring was that it was filled with self-pity, not an attractive quality on or off stage. Had I been more emotionally engaged at the time, or perhaps a few years older, I might have realized this, but I was too deeply into "all the world's a stage," so I was precocious in one way, not so much in another.
Many years later, at a time when I had become more connected to my own emotional life, I had an experience with an actress that gave me my first warning of what the craft of acting could do to people if they weren't careful. I was working on a television show that was not going well, and a couple of weeks in I was informed that one of the actors had been fired. This actor was loved by the whole cast, and for some reason it became my job to inform the other actors in the company.
The first person I told was a regular on the show, a woman I had worked with for some time. She was a fine actress and a lovely person. "I have bad news," I said to her, as gently as I could, trying to brace her. "So and so's been fired." The woman's jaw fell open and she froze for a few seconds while she kept looking at me. Then she said, "Can you see the look on my face?" She pointed to her face and held the expression. I knew immediately what she was doing. She'd had a spontaneous reaction, but it was too good to just feel and let go, so she was taking note and filing it away for future reference. It might be useful later on, in some performance. She wanted me to notice it, too. I could see her checking my reaction to her now-frozen expression, paying careful attention to how much I was moved by it, which would let her know if the look was effective.
I fell into immediate despair. Not just for her, but for myself too, because I had done the same thing on countless occasions. It is a habit that now fills me with revulsion—a habit perhaps valuable for the actor, and for his craft, but not so good for the human being living inside.
From my earliest memory I had the strong sense that every character trait, every emotional condition possessed by the personalities I saw on screen, was accessible to me. In some deep place I always believed that what anyone else was feeling or doing, whether it be an act of heroism or cowardice or compassion or greed or villainy or anything in between, whatever the characters were going through emotionally was possible for me. I sensed that the entire range of emotions possessed by one human being was universal and available to everyone. Each of us had our own emphases and proclivities, but I intuitively believed that all of us were possessed of the entire spectrum of human feelings, and nothing that I've seen or felt since has convinced me otherwise.
Further, I had an instinct, even in those early days, that art was the direct injection of the artist's experiences into the audience, and that this transfusion was the highest purpose of all the arts. I felt that the epiphanies I'd had as a result of seeing other people's work, of exposure to other people's imaginations, whether through their acting or music or literature or painting, is what made the artists' experiences my own. I knew that these emotional adventures, transmitted from other people's triumphs or failures, were as real and tangible to me as a mathematical equation or a physics experiment. The artists' mastery of their craft gave them an invisible hypodermic injection that when inserted into me made me more than what I was. I could feel their essence working in my blood, and I knew myself to be capable of all manner of great and courageous things as a result of the art I'd been exposed to. The problem with these feelings, induced through the art of others, was that as real as they were, they didn't last. As I'd put down the book I was reading, or come out of the theater with my heart pounding and my imagination racing, there was no question that I could perform the same acts of transcendent courage or self-sacrifice that I saw and felt performed by the heroes whose lives I had become enmeshed in. But as the day wore on and my own daily activities and relationships came back into focus, the images and feelings inspired by whatever art form had riveted me would fade away and I'd be faced with my own fears and my own inadequacies. It was a deeply frustrating problem and one that I struggled with for years. What I realize now is that this is a good and healthy problem because it forces us, if we take the arts seriously, to constantly pit our own range of emotions and abilities against those behaviors that we can now feel are possible if we work on ourselves with patience and diligence.
At that time in my life I was unaware that I had any materials within me to work on. I had no sense that I myself was a work in progress, and that I was as malleable and formable as any character in a book or any piece of music or theatrical performance that I'd ever witnessed. It was an idea that had to wait many years for me to encounter consciously, and then many more years to embrace and work on. In short, at a very young age I'd become an addict. A film junkie. With all the dangers found in any other type of addiction. And like many addictions it pointed the way to something real and beautiful, but it also ran the risk of ruining my life.

My uncle Sandy was a fighter pilot during World War II. He flew a P-38, and between combat missions he wrote letters to my father saying, "If I make it through this war alive I'm going to buy a car and we're all going to move to California." Sandy made it through the war alive, came home with a chest full of medals, and immediately went out and bought a car.
I don't remember any of the arrangements, how we got past my parents quitting their jobs, what happened with the furniture and all our belongings, how they found a place to move to, the many good-byes, all of which were a blur for me, but in what seemed like just days I found myself squashed in the back seat of a sedan with my mother and brother, Sandy up front driving, my dad acting as copilot, and all of us heading to a new life in California. Through another uncle, who had written songs for several major films, my father had an introduction to someone in one of the film studios who could possibly help him to get work as a scene painter.
Consistent with a lot of my father's luck, the job didn't pan out. The week we arrived in Los Angeles a strike was called in the studios that lasted six months, and my father's first and only opportunity in the movie business dried up, but I was in heaven. We were in L.A. The golden land. The place where all my dreams would come true. We were in the movie capital of the world and I knew I'd be discovered within ten minutes of arriving.
Our first home was in the hills directly above Hollywood Boulevard, and every day after school I'd hike down to that magic street in the hopes that something major and life-changing would happen to me. Once I saw Sidney Toler, the actor who'd played Charlie Chan, and another time I passed Charlie Ruggles striding briskly down the boulevard, dressed to the teeth. Other than knowing they were professionals, I barely knew who they were, and I wasn't a fan of either actor, but seeing them in person, two honest-to-God, real-life movie stars, walking down the street just like ordinary people, thrilled me more than if I'd seen the president of the United States. There they were in three dimensions, real and tangible people. Their heads were no larger than mine, no matter how big they'd seemed in the movie theaters. It gave me hope.
I enrolled in junior high and found that miraculously there was a course called acting in the curriculum. It was taught by a warm, wonderful woman named Mrs. Lewis, who enjoyed her students and loved the process of putting on plays. We felt safe with her, and we all took chances, and had a terrific time. I felt nurtured and cared for and appreciated in school for perhaps the first time in my life. Her class was virtually the only thing I remember from junior high.
In high school things weren't as promising. The drama teacher was a failed actor with a lantern jaw and long grey hair. He looked like a cliché from a third-rate Shakespearean touring company, which is exactly what he'd been. His primary activity was telling us endless stories of his triumphs in little theaters around the country. Back then, we were properly impressed. The one comment I can remember his making about my work, probably casual on his part, seared me like a branding iron. "You might end up being a comedian," he said, "but you'll never be an actor." His remark was tossed off, something he probably forgot the minute he said it, but now fifty years later it still lives with me. Without his help or encouragement I auditioned for all the school plays and got leads in every one. There was also a course in radio broadcasting taught by a wonderful woman named Lucy Assadorian. She was a tiny, immaculately dressed, beautiful woman who was worshipped by every boy in the class. With her encouragement, along with the radio plays we put on in her class and the stage plays I was cast in, I managed to survive high school.
Throughout the entire four years, I don't believe I ever opened a work of nonfiction. I cut every possible class to hang out in the theater, forging the names of teachers and my parents whenever I had to. The teachers used to say to me on a regular basis, "Alan, you could do so much for this school if you put your mind to it." I didn't want to put my mind to it. I didn't want to do anything for the school. It wasn't doing much for me and I thought it only fair to reciprocate. How I graduated remains a mystery.
Chorus was of some interest to me. So was a class in ceramics run by a Miss Beatty, a wonderfully imaginative, eccentric, and completely unappreciated woman who at one point literally chased me around her studio with a glaze pot in an attempt to have me at least try to work with the stuff. I refused. All of my ceramics remained rough terra cotta. I also remember one history teacher, Mr. Engles, a thoroughly decent man with a passion for history so great that he allowed us to approach the subject from any vantage point that made sense to us, and in any form that we could identify with. In his classroom I wrote my first play. It was on the topic of slavery in the United States. I think I got an A. Probably the only grade above a C I received in my four years there.
High school consistently made me feel as if I were in prison, but being in plays sustained me. I lived for the rehearsals and performances. It was the only arena in which I felt that I had any identity and any purpose. As I write this it seems strange to think that for so many years my sense of comfort and identity was secured only when I was being someone else, but I think this is true of many actors. My own unformed personality found grounding and shape in the words and actions of the characters in the scripts, and I would turn into the characters during rehearsals and stay within them until long after the plays had finished their runs.
It was around this time that I began to study guitar. Like most of my hobbies, playing the guitar began as an attempt to keep my mind off acting, and gave me something to occupy my mind when I didn't have a part in a play. I worked hard at the guitar, and soon got good enough to perform at functions around L.A. I masqueraded as a folk singer, but I was a maverick within the folk scene because folk music wasn't a particular passion of mine. I was more interested in jazz, but wasn't disciplined enough to learn jazz guitar.


  • “Who would've thought one of the best books of the year would be written by an actor?...For the aspiring actor, it provides inspiration as well as clear-eyed instruction, and for the cinephile, it provides insights into what makes actors stand out.”

    ForeWord, July/August 2011
    “Much like some of his personas on screen, Arkin is charming and warm in these personal recollections…The advice he offers can extend into anyone's life and help them to be more flexible and open to whatever changes might arise. To improvise, Arkin believes, is to grow closer to the self in an authentic way, and for him, that growth has led to a type of clarity and serenity that's inspiring.”
    San Francisco Book Review, 7/25/11
    “This intimate look into the life of Alan Arkin…is a creation well worth exploring. It not only brings the reader into Arkin's professional life, but shares glimpses into his personal life that will resonate with the reader.”

    Albuquerque Journal

    “More a musing on a life in acting than an autobiography…Arkin comes across as wry, sometimes brusque, but earnest almost to the point of nurturing. The book is less a celebrity memoir than a serious look at the principles of acting and improvisation that have driven his life.”

  • Los Angeles Times, “Jacket Copy” Blog, 4/1/11
    “A charming little book that throws open the door to improvisational theater, inviting us all to engage in a little ‘make believe'…An unassuming, self-effacing book.”, 3/29/11

    “Alan Arkin brings as much truth to his autobiography as he does to his work as an actor.”

    Reference and Research Book News, April 2011

    “Arkin takes readers along on a journey through his career and the discoveries he made about acting and life along the way.”
    New York Post, 5/29/11
    “It's hard to read [Arkin's] memoir without hearing his voice—gruff, semi-sarcastic but wise—in every sentence.”

    Times Literary Supplement (UK),

    “[Arkin] employs his anecdotal discoveries with elegance and his observations are sharp and unrelenting…For the layman there is an unflinching glimpse into the creative process. For the professional it confirms the simplest of rules: stick to the basics—to the truth of the moment.”

    Book Review, June-August 2011
  • Bookgasm, 3/14/11
    “[A] wise and unpretentious recollection of the process—artistic and personal—of becoming an actor, and a revealing look into the creative mind of one of the best practitioners on stage or screen. In a manner that is direct, down-to-earth, accessible and articulate, Arkin reveals insights not only about himself, but also truths for the rest of us about work, relationships and sense of self.”
    Richard Crouse, noted Canadian film critic, 3/18/11
    “Anyone who is an actor or who has ever thought of becoming an actor should read this candid, fascinating book.”
 , 3/21/11

    “[Arkin] establishes himself fully as an intelligent man, serious but not pretentious, who writes with graceful honesty and a welcome economy. He has things to say—from both sides of the camera—about performance as a vehicle for emotional reality, and its attendant effects on the performer's psyche, that even the casual film fan can recognize as valid.”
  •, March 2011
    “Arkin, unlike many actors, has an intellect that takes in more than just acting.”
    Albuquerque Journal
    “Stimulating, thoughtful and instructive. Readers familiar with Arkin from his recent, rather brusque comedic roles may be somewhat surprised by the earnest, introspective, circumspect character on these pages, but the warmth of the real man emerges in his intimate sharing of something he so obviously and deeply treasures—his life's work.”
    Local IQ (Albuquerque)

    “An uncommonly well written and thoughtful memoir by an actor with a career that speaks for itself.”

    A.V. Club, The Onion, 3/10/11
    “For anyone curious about the thought processes of one of America's finest working character actors, it's worth a breezy look.”

    New York
    Journal of Books, 3/1/11
    “[Arkin] communicates his philosophy and principles of acting articulately and clearly. His easy-going prose is entertaining to any reader, but to those with a deeper interest in theater, the book contains valuable gems.”
  • Kirkus Reviews, 1/1/10

    “Arkin's approach to autobiography is a bit unexpected—the intensely earnest, verging-on-New-Age tone is distinctly at odds with his familiar brusque, comedic persona—but rewarding, as the author illustrates the principles of his acting philosophy with a wealth of concrete details taken directly from his experience, resulting in a coherent and provocative manifesto…He also displays a refreshing lack of egocentrism…Earnest, intelligent and well-observed—less a celebrity memoir than a serious consideration of the principles of acting and improvisation.”

    Publishers Weekly, 1/10/11
    “More a reflection on acting than a straightforward memoir, Academy Award-winner Arkin's musing on the creative process is a welcome window into the mind of an artist…[An] engaging and instructive book.”

    Library Journal (starred review), 2/15/11

    “A profoundly honest and revelatory reckoning of an artistic and personal awakening…As honest and truthful a story of a life journey and arc toward artistic freedom as you are likely to find. All artists would benefit from Arkin's accrued insights and wisdom.”
    Village Voice “La Daily Musto” blog, 2/23/11
    “A great read—probing, educational, and wise.”
  •, 3/11/11
    “Arkin tells his story simply, easily drawing the reader into his world. At only 191 pages, An Improvised Life is not a long book but there is a wealth of life experience in those pages. If you are at all interested in reading about the craft of acting from the point of view of one who values it above fame, you'll want to read Alan Arkin's An Improvised Life.”

    Globe & Mail, 3/5/11
     “A memoir of an acting life, full of inside details.”

    Philadelphia Inquirer, FLICKgrrrl Blog, 3/8/11

    “I'm charmed by [Arkin's] new memoir, An Improvised Life, and am delighted to report he has the same gravity and levity as a writer that he has as a performer…Read the book. Then treat yourself with an Arkin film.”

    Washington Post, 3/13/11
    “[An] uncompromising, thoughtful and surprising book.”
  • Huffington Post, 3/21/11
    “[A] thoughtful look back at a long and distinguished career…Fans and admirers of the Academy Award-winning star will enjoy An Improvised Life for the insight to be gained from this personal visit with an actor who proves to be quite deft with a pen. Those who share Arkin's interest in the acting life will find a great deal to like here, as well.”

    , 3/21/11

    “[A] thoughtful look back at a long and distinguished career…Fans and admirers of the Academy Award-winning star will enjoy An Improvised Life for the insight to be gained from this personal visit with an actor who proves to be quite deft with a pen. Those who share Arkin's interest in the acting life will find a great deal to like here, as well.”

    Massachusetts Daily Collegian, 3/24/11
    “This pleasure read does not require sitting with an encyclopedia or Google search open, simply an interest in the mind's workings of an icon in the arts.”

    Kingman Daily Miner
    , 3/25/11

    “A lot of food for thought…Highly recommended.”

    Total Film, UK, May 2011

    “A readable look at how the young New Yorker found his way to Chicago's Second City improv troupe and made the most of the opportunities it opened up for him.”


On Sale
Mar 1, 2011
Page Count
224 pages
Da Capo Press

Alan Arkin

About the Author

Academy Award-winning actor Alan Arkin starred and appeared in more than eighty films and was also a director, musician, and children's book author. 

Learn more about this author