Stream On: Rest, finally, at peace, Alan Arkin

By on July 6, 2023

Alan Arkin as, from left, Lieutenant Yuri Rozanov, John Singer, and Captain John Yossarian

Last week we lost one of Hollywood’s best character actors, who also had his share of memorable starring roles, Alan Arkin (Little Miss Sunshine). Moviegoers first saw him in 1966, in the cold-war comedy The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming, as a set-upon Soviet naval officer whose submarine is grounded off New England. Arkin had a look of near-desperation that served him well in comedies—but he was a great dramatic actor, too. Here are three of his best movies: the above comedy; a tragedy; and a comic tragedy.


/Amazon /Streaming /Trailer /🍅86%🍿75% /1966 /TVPG

“I know that everyone on this island is complete and total crazy!” (Lieutenant Yuri Rozanov)

Alan Arkin, who began his career with the sketch comedy group The Second City, had already won a Tony Award on Broadway when he was cast as part of a brilliant ensemble including Carl Reiner, Jonathan Winters, Theodore Bikel, and Eva Marie Saint (whose 99th birthday was on this last fourth of July) in this adaption of Nathaniel Benchley’s comic novel The Off-Islanders.

The Soviet Navy submarine Спрут (“Octopus”) draws too close to the New England coast when its captain (Theodore Bikel) wants to take a look at America, and runs aground on a sandbar near Gloucester Island, population about 200. Rather than radio for help and risk an embarrassing international incident, the captain sends a nine-man landing party, headed by his political officer, Lieutenant Yuri Rozanov (Arkin), to find a motor launch to help free the submarine from the bar on the quiet.

This is a big-hearted, hilarious comedy of errors populated with a telephone operator who loves to gossip, marginally competent local police including a manic Jonathan Winters, a vacationing New York City playwright (Carl Reiner, The Dick Van Dyke Show) and his family. The landing party want no trouble, but the crusty rustic locals panic. As islanders with hundreds of sunken U-boats off our own shores, we easily get the concept. Imagine the hijinks that a shore party of friendly enemies would cause on, say, Ocracoke Island!

And movie audiences first met Alan Arkin, who was always simply electric onscreen. As in his best performances, he’s hanging on by a thread here!



/Amazon /Streaming /Trailer /🍅100%🍿86% /1968 /G

Green wind from the green-gold branches, what is the song you bring?
What are all songs for me, now, who no more care to sing?
Deep in the heart of Summer, sweet is life to me still,
But my heart is a lonely hunter that hunts on a lonely hill.
(from “The Lonely Hunter,” William Sharp)

22-year-old Carson McCullers wrote her partly autobiographical debut novel about a character to whom others turned, and through whom we learn their stories. When published in 1940, the novel rose to the top of the bestseller lists; it was seen as giving voice to the rejected, forgotten, mistreated and oppressed. Alan Arkin was the first actor chosen for the 1968 film version: he would play John Singer, the empty vessel at the center of the stories.

John Singer will not speak. He is deaf, and can vocalize, but when his simple-minded friend and roommate, Spiros Antonapoulos (Chuck McCann), another deaf-mute, is put into an insane asylum away from town, Singer moves, alone, into a new room near the asylum, and falls silent.

Arkin’s wide-eyed look was that of one straining to hear information; as Yuri Rozanov in The Russians Are Coming, he strained to take in enough English to save his submarine. Here, that expectant look compels the other characters to open up to him. They are shy Mick Kelly (Sondra Locke, in her debut), the teen-aged daughter of the couple from whom he rents his new room, Jake Blount (Stacy Keach, The New Centurions), a semi-alcoholic drifter, and Dr. Copeland (Percy Rodriguez), an embittered African American physician who is secretly dying of lung cancer. What these people have in common is John, but does he make an impression on them? In 2005 Renata Adler wrote in The New York Times that Arkin’s performance was “extraordinary, deep and sound.”


/Amazon /Streaming /Trailer /🍅81%🍿76% /1970 /R

The Arkin look also suggested a deer in the headlights, and I consider Alan’s turn as Captain John Yossarian in the first adaption of Joseph Heller’s 1961 absurdist satire to be peak Arkin.

Yossarian is apparently the only sane man on a World War II Mediterranean airbase and he’s in mortal danger: Mess Lieutenant Milo Minderbinder (Jon Voight, Ray Donovan) has bartered Yossarian’s parachute for fresh eggs—Milo bartered everybody’s parachutes in fact, but no-one else seems to care.

Major Major Major (Bob Newhart, Newhart et al.), the squadron’s operations officer, is promoted to squadron commander without ever having flown in a plane, and refuses to see anyone in his office while he’s in, instructing his aide that visitors can only see him when he’s not there.

Lieutenant Edward Nately (Art Garfunkel) dies as a result of an agreement between Milo and the Germans, trading surplus cotton in exchange for the squadron bombing its own base. While on a pass, Yossarian shares this news with Nately’s whore, who then tries to kill him.

When Yossarian tries to get out of flying deadly missions by pretending to be crazy, he learns of “catch 22”: An airman would have to be crazy to fly more missions, and if he were crazy, he would be unfit to fly. But if an airman refused to fly more missions, this would indicate that he is sane, which would mean that he would be fit to fly the missions. Yossarian runs around the film desperately trying to make sense of everything until he really snaps.

Thomas Hobbes argued (poorly) for monarchy in Leviathan, writing that natural life is “nasty, brutish, and short.” I always took that as “nasty and brutish—but too short! [rim-shot!]” We didn’t ask to be born; what are we doing here? But we don’t want to die! This is Alan Arkin’s John Yossarian.

(Pete Hummers is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to earn fees by linking Amazon.com and affiliate sites. This adds nothing to Amazon’s prices.)

Click here for more Stream On: What to watch on TV columns by Pete Hummers. Columns are archived and updated when necessary on Substack.


Barnhill Contracting Company will receive sealed proposals for Manns Harbor – EMS/Fire Facility (EMS-8), Kitty Hawk – EMS/Fire Facility (EMS-9), Manteo – Youth Center on January 09, 2024. Times to be given on via addendum #01. See the following SCOPE OF WORK: BP 100 – General Trades, BP 105 – Final Cleaning, BP 205 – Demolition, BP 390 – Turnkey Concrete, BP 400 – Turnkey Masonry, BP 500 – Turnkey Structural Steel & Misc. Steel, BP 505 – Light Gauge Metal Trusses, BP 740 – Roofing, BP750 – Siding, BP 790 – Caulking/Sealants, BP 800 – Turnkey Doors/Frames/Hardware/Toilet Specialties/Accessories/Division 10, BP 840 – Curtainwall/Storefront/Glass/Glazing, BP 925 – Drywall/Framing, BP 960 – Resilient Flooring/Carpet/Base/Epoxy, BP 980 – Acoustical Ceilings, BP 990 – Painting and Wall Coverings, BP 1230 – Finish Carpentry and Casework, BP 1250 – Window Treatments, BP 2100 – Fire Protection, BP 2200 – Plumbing, BP 2300 – HVAC, BP 2600 – Electrical, BP 3100 – Earthwork/Turnkey Site, BP 3213- Site Concrete, BP 3290 – Landscaping. Scopes of work may be added and/or deleted at the discretion of the Construction Manager.

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