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Alan Arkin has died — the star of 'Get Smart' and 'Little Miss Sunshine' was 89

Alan Arkin died on Thursday at age 89. His manager, Estelle Lasher, confirmed the news to NPR in an email. Publicist Melody Korenbrot said he died in California but did not offer more details.

Arkin sparked up more than 100 films in a career stretching over seven decades. He was the cranky grandpa in 2006's Little Miss Sunshine, the intruder menacing Audrey Hepburn in 1967's Wait Until Dark and the movie studio boss in 2012's Argo.

Arkin knew from childhood that he wanted to be an actor, and he spent a lifetime performing. Born in Brooklyn to Jewish emigrant parents from Russia and Germany, he started taking acting classes at age 10. After dropping out of Bennington College, he toured Europe with a folk band and played the lute in an off-Broadway play. In the early 1960s, Arkin broke out as an improv star at Chicago's Second City, which led to scores of screen credits.

"When I got to Second City, I was terrible for a couple of months," he told NPR's Talk of the Nation in 2011. "I thought I was going to get fired, and if I got fired, I didn't know where I would go or what I would do."

But Arkin learned to relish the audience's investment in each sketch. "They knew that if one didn't work, the next one might be sensational," he remembered. "And it was — the ability to fail was an extraordinary privilege and gift because it doesn't happen much in this country, anywhere... Everybody's looking at the bottom line all the time, and failure doesn't look good on the bottom line, and yet you don't learn anything without failing."

Alan Arkin in London in September 1970.
Evening Standard/Hulton Archive / Getty Images
Getty Images
Alan Arkin in London in September 1970.

His Second City success led to stardom on stages in New York, but Arkin told NPR he found Broadway boring.

"First of all, you're not encouraged to experiment or play very much because the — the play gets set the minute the opening night is there, and you're supposed to do exactly that for the next year," he said. "And I just am constitutionally unable to just find any kind of excitement or creativity in that kind of experience."

But while performing in the play Luv on Broadway in 1964, Arkin got a call from film director Norman Jewison. He encouraged Arkin to deploy his improv skills in the 1966 film The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming.

"I'd get through the scene, and I didn't hear the word cut," Arkin said. "So I would just keep going."

And he did. In film, he was in Grosse Pointe Blank, Edward Scissorhands, Gattaca, Thirteen Conversations About One Thing, and the film adaptation of Get Smart. On TV, he appeared in shows ranging from Captain Kangaroo, Carol Burnett & Company, St. Elsewhere, Will & Grace and BoJack Horseman.

His sons said in a statement, "Our father was a uniquely talented force of nature, both as an artist and a man. A loving husband, father, grand and great grandfather, he was adored and will be deeply missed."

Toward the end of his life, Alan Arkin started painting and authored a memoir.His last role was in Minions: The Rise of Gru.

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Neda Ulaby reports on arts, entertainment, and cultural trends for NPR's Arts Desk.