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In Appreciation: Alan Arkin

Alan Arkin, who won a Tony Award for his first lead role on Broadway, received an Academy Award nomination for his first feature film, and went on to have a long and diverse career as a character actor who specialized in comedy but was equally adept at drama, died on Thursday in San Marcos, Calif. He was 89.

His son Matthew Arkin said that Mr. Arkin, who had heart ailments, died at home.

Mr. Arkin was not quite a show-business neophyte when he was cast in the 1963 Broadway comedy “Enter Laughing,” Joseph Stein’s adaptation of Carl Reiner’s semi-autobiographical novel about a stage-struck boy from the Bronx. He had toured and recorded with the Tarriers, a folk music group, and he had appeared on Broadway with the Second City, the celebrated improvisational comedy troupe. But he was still a relative unknown.

He did not stay unknown for long.

In a cast that included established professionals like Sylvia Sidney and Vivian Blaine, Mr. Arkin stole the show and won the hearts of the critics. “‘Enter Laughing’ is marvelously funny, and so is Alan Arkin in the principal role,” Howard Taubman wrote in The New York Times.

Mr. Arkin won a Tony. The show ran for a year and made him a star.

Reviewers were again enthusiastic, and Mr. Arkin again found himself in a hit show, when he returned to Broadway in 1964 as a woebegone misfit in Murray Schisgal’s absurdist farce “Luv,” staged by Mike Nichols and co-starring Eli Wallach and Anne Jackson. With two Broadway triumphs under his belt, it was a confident Mr. Arkin who moved from the stage to the screen in 1966.

“I never had any doubts about making it in movies,” he told The Daily News a year later. “I just knew I had to, because there was no alternative.”

His confidence proved justified. He was nominated for an Oscar for his first feature film, “The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming,” an offbeat comedy about the hysteria that ensues when a Russian submarine runs aground on an island in Massachusetts. As the frantic leader of a landing party sent ashore to find a way to refloat the vessel, he earned a place in cinema history with a riotous scene in which he teaches his non-English-speaking crew to say “Emergency! Everybody to get from street!”

That led to a series of roles that established him as a man of a thousand accents, or close to it. He played a French detective in “Inspector Clouseau” (1968), putting his own spin on a role created (and subsequently reclaimed) by Peter Sellers; a Puerto Rican widower in “Popi” (1969); a Lithuanian sailor in the television movie “The Defection of Simas Kudirka” (1978); and many other nationalities and ethnicities.

But he soon became even better known for playing likably hapless Everyman characters. The ultimate Arkin Everyman was Captain Yossarian in “Catch-22” (1970), Mike Nichols’s film version of Joseph Heller’s celebrated World War II novel.

“Catch-22” received mixed reviews and was a disappointment at the box office, but Mr. Arkin’s performance as Yossarian, a panicky bombardier constantly looking for ways to avoid combat, was widely praised. In his Times review, Vincent Canby said of Mr. Arkin that “because he projects intelligence with such monomaniacal intensity, he is both funny and heroic at the same time.”

By that time Mr. Arkin had also successfully ventured outside the realm of comedy, establishing a lifelong pattern. In “Wait Until Dark” (1967), a suspense drama starring Audrey Hepburn as a blind woman who is terrorized by drug dealers looking for a secret stash of heroin, he was convincingly evil as the dealer in chief.

In “The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter” (1968), based on the novel by Carson McCullers, he played a deaf man drawn to help the disadvantaged in a racially divided Southern town. That performance earned him his second Oscar nomination.

It would be almost 40 years before his third nomination, and his only Oscar, for his portrayal of a crusty and heroin-habituated grandfather in the indie comedy “Little Miss Sunshine” (2006). His fourth and final nomination was for his role as a cynical movie producer in “Argo” (2012), Ben Affleck’s based-on-a-true-story account of the made-in-Hollywood rescue of hostages in Iran.

The years between nominations were busy ones.

Alan Wolf Arkin was born on March 26, 1934, in Brooklyn to David Arkin, a painter and writer, and Beatrice (Wortis) Arkin, a teacher whom he later remembered as “a tough old Depression-style lefty.” The family later moved to Los Angeles, where his father lost his job as a schoolteacher when he refused to answer questions about his political beliefs.

Mr. Arkin studied acting at Los Angeles City College and later at Bennington College in Vermont, which was a women’s school at the time but accepted a few male theater students.

His first professional experience, however, was not as an actor but as a singer and guitarist with the Tarriers, a folk group that had hits with “The Banana Boat Song” and other records.

“I thought it was going to be an entree into an acting career, like the naïve young man that I was,” Mr. Arkin said in 2020 when he and his son Adam were guests on “Gilbert Gottfried’s Amazing Colossal Podcast.” “It didn’t, so I quit them after two years.”

His first notable work as an actor was with the Second City in Chicago, which he joined in 1960. “I took the Second City job because I was failing in New York,” he told The Times in 1986. “I couldn’t get arrested. When I got there I wasn’t funny at all. But slowly I built one character, then another, and the audience helped teach me what was funny and what didn’t work.”

He made his Broadway debut in 1961 in the company’s revue “From the Second City.” From there, it was a short step to “Enter Laughing.”

It was also a relatively short step from acting to directing. In 1966 he directed the Off Broadway play “Eh?,” which featured a young Dustin Hoffman. In 1969 he directed a successful Off Broadway revival of Jules Feiffer’s dark comedy “Little Murders.”

He also directed the 1971 movie version, which starred Elliott Gould and in which Mr. Arkin played a small role. It was one of only two feature films he directed. Neither “Little Murders” nor “Fire Sale,” released in 1977, was a hit.

By far the most successful of his dozen or so stage directing credits was the original Broadway production of the Neil Simon comedy “The Sunshine Boys” (1972), which starred Jack Albertson and Sam Levene as two feuding ex-vaudevillians reunited against their will, and for which he received a Tony nomination.

But he continued to stay busy in the movies. His memorable roles in the 1970s included a sympathetic Sigmund Freud coping with the drug-addicted Sherlock Holmes (Nicol Williamson) in “The Seven-Per-Cent Solution” (1976), and a mild-mannered dentist — another quintessential Arkin Everyman — dragged into an insane adventure by a mysterious character (Peter Falk) who may or may not be a C.I.A. agent in “The In-Laws” (1979).

Among his later film roles were a worn-out real estate salesman in the film version of David Mamet’s play “Glengarry Glen Ross” (1992), a psychiatrist treating a professional hit man (John Cusack) in “Grosse Pointe Blank” (1997) and an overprotective father in “Slums of Beverly Hills” (1998). But from the 1980s on, much of his best work was done on television.

“There was a period of a year or two when I wasn’t getting many good offers,” he said in 1986. “And a television show came along that I thought was exceptional, and within two weeks there was another one.” He added, “Although I’m more impressed by movies, I find I’m more moved by television.”

In addition to numerous made-for-TV movies, Mr. Arkin’s small-screen roles included the title character, a scheming hospital administrator, on the short-lived sitcom “Harry” (1987); a judge on the cable drama “100 Centre Street” in 2001 and 2002; Grace’s father in a 2005 episode of “Will & Grace”; and, most recently, the cranky agent and best friend of an aging acting coach (Michael Douglas) on the first two seasons of the critically praised Netflix comedy “The Kominsky Method,” for which he received Emmy and Golden Globe nominations in 2019 and 2020.

He was nominated for six Emmys in his career, including for his performances in two TV movies based on real events, “Escape From Sobibor” (1987) and “The Pentagon Papers” (2003), although he never won.

In 1998 he returned to the stage for the first time in more than 30 years, to good reviews, when he teamed with Elaine May for “Power Plays,” an Off Broadway program of three one-acts. In addition to directing all three and writing one of them (the other two were written by Ms. May), he appeared in two: his own “Virtual Reality,” the surreal story of two men awaiting the delivery of a mysterious shipment, with his son Anthony Arkin; and Ms. May’s “In and Out of the Light,” in which he played a lecherous dentist alongside Anthony, Ms. May and her daughter, Jeannie Berlin.