Alan Arkin on Hollywood success: ‘I was miserable pretty much all of the time’
In his mid-30s, the actor was living the dream, but was far from happy. As he publishes his memoir Out of My Mind, he talks about turning his life around – and the disgraced guru he pinned his hopes on.
Alan Arkin met his guru on a Hollywood film set in 1969. Arkin was the star and John was his stand-in, a lowly factotum, the id to his ego. At the time, Arkin was successful but unsatisfied, looking for meaning, craving some guidance. His encounter with John set him on a path towards enlightenment that continues to this day. As for the guru, he took a different, darker route.
Arkin recently wrote a book, Out of My Mind, about his spiritual journey and the lessons he’s learned. He subheaded it “Not Quite a Memoir” because he worried that people might be expecting a tell-all autobiography, the sort of gossipy trash he’d never write. Damned if he’s going to dish the dirt on Audrey Hepburn, Al Pacino, Johnny Depp and all the others he’s worked with. He’d rather write about meditation, reincarnation and Tibetan Buddhism. He’d rather write about John – at least up to a point. Alan Arkin, Alan Arkin
At the age of 86, he can look back on a powerhouse career that has carried him from Broadway to Hollywood, and from Catch 22 to an Oscar-winning role as the heroin-snorting grandad in Little Miss Sunshine. Arkin has always been such an authoritative actor – strong, warm and nuanced. But he insists that his skill was actually born out of weakness. He was a shy, anxious child: acting gave him strength.
“I had this sense that I didn’t exist. My parents were wonderful people in many ways, but they weren’t affectionate. I don’t remember ever being touched by either one. I felt ignored to the point where I didn’t even exist – so acting was my lifeline to not feeling like I was being obliterated. For many years, the only place I felt alive was on stage.”
Arkin was born on the east coast and raised on the west, a Brooklyn scrapper turned California seeker. His father worked as a teacher but lost his job during the Red Scare. The family went hungry and lived under a cloud. That was a terrible period, he recalls. The phony patriotism; the wilful cruelty. It slightly reminds him of today. “But I think it’s worse now. Back then it was just a small segment of the population that was affected at first hand. The rest of them didn’t give a damn. They were into Elvis Presley and Gidget Goes Hawaiian.”
As it happens, Arkin was once a pop sensation himself. Back in 1956 he sang in a folk band and scored a top five hit with The Banana Boat Song. After that, he switched music for theatre, then theatre for cinema – picking up an Oscar nomination for his screen debut as the stranded Soviet submariner in The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming. By his mid-30s the actor was living the dream, on top of the world. He snorts. “And I was miserable pretty much all of the time.” Alan Arkin, Alan Arkin
He’s happier now, thanks to his meeting with John and the changes it brought. In his book he writes (always charmingly; sometimes convincingly) about past lives and faith healers and the tenets of eastern philosophy. He tells us about John, who he worked with for over 20 years and who became a central figure in his life. John led the way, Arkin gratefully followed. He writes: “My devotion to his teachings became virtually ironclad.”
In the book, Arkin mentions that the pair eventually drifted apart – but he doesn’t go into details or reveal John’s surname. It appears, though, that the actor’s mentor was John Battista (sometimes known as Batiste), a one-time Broadway actor who ran an Agni Yoga ashram in upstate New York. In 1993, Battista was charged with the sexual abuse of three women and a teenage girl whom he had reportedly put in a trance-like state and then molested. The tabloid press dubbed him The Creep Guru.