Home Movies

Top 10 most memorable Alan Arkin movie roles, ranked

"A real loser is someone who's so afraid of not winning he doesn't even try."

Image via Searchlight Pictures.

The world of entertainment lost an icon in the death of Oscar-winner Alan Arkin. The 89-year-old, whose career spanned multiple decades, was as known for his dry humor in roles like Edward Scissorhands as he was turning in genuinely emotional performances, such as Little Miss Sunshine, the 2006 film that saw him win the Best Supporting Actor Academy Award.

The Brooklyn-born great-grandfather was adored by his family, according to a statement from Arkin’s children — Adam, Matthew, and Anthony — who called him “a uniquely talented force of nature, both as an artist and a man,” according to ABC News.

Arkin lit up not only the silver screen but stage and television as well, having also won a Tony and Golden Globe throughout his career. However, today we will be focusing on counting down his most memorable film performances that will surely stand as ageless testaments to the craft of cinema and acting.

10. The Rocketeer 

The Rocketeer represents Disney’s foray into live-action adventure films that would set the stage for Marvel movies to come decades later, with director Joe Johnston even helming 2011’s Captain America: The First Avenger. Arkin would serve as A. “Peevy” Peabody in the film, the airplane mechanic and right-hand man to Billy Campbell’s stunt pilot Cliff Secord. Arkin is a delight in the movie, which is well worth checking out if you’re in for something in the vein of Indiana Jones and a proto-Iron Man-type hero origin story.

9. Slums of Beverly Hills

Arkin’s portrayal as a well-meaning but financially struggling single father to a young teen girl coming into her own is a role well-suited to the seasoned actor in Slums of Beverly Hills. However, it is the chemistry that sparks between Arkin and a young Natasha Lyonne, as well as a surrogate daughter played by Marisa Tomei, that truly makes this film worth seeking out, especially considering the now-legendary status of both those aforementioned actresses.  

8. Sunshine Cleaning

Another film about a down-and-out family with Arkin as the patriarch, Sunshine Cleaning represents the actor’s spiritual follow-up to Little Miss Sunshine, complete with the same producers behind the film. This time around, Arkin gets to share scenes with BAFTA nominee Emily Blunt and Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who play two sisters that put together a ragtag cleaning service for mopping up after brutal crime scenes. Fans of indie dark comedies, in the same vein as Little Miss Sunshine, would surely find much to like in this film, whose central theme revolves around the aimlessness of a thirty-something woman’s life and her journey to get back on track for the sake of her struggling young son.

7. The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming 

Arkin’s comedic chops which he no doubt picked up as part of Chicago’s legendary Second City ensemble in the 1960s are in full display in the Cold War send-up The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming. The Norman Jewison-directed 1966 film sees Arkin in one of his most career-defining roles as the Russian Lieutenant Yuri Rozanov, who is part of the submarine crew that accidentally sparks an international incident when it is grounded on the New England coast. The classic comedy earned Arkin his first Academy Award nomination for Best Actor in a Leading Role.

6. The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter 

As a testament to Arkin’s range as an actor, the second Academy Award nomination he earned wasn’t for another comedy, but an understated drama in which he plays a deaf man who gains the quiet but unfulfilled affection of a teenage girl. Their budding friendship becomes complicated by the small-town drama surrounding them, which ultimately ends in tragedy. It wouldn’t be a list of Arkin’s most memorable performances without The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, which also earned co-star Sondra Locke an Academy Award nomination for her debut role. 

5. Argo

Argo’s ensemble cast — which includes the likes of director and star Ben Affleck, John Goodman, and Bryan Cranston — is rounded out nicely by Arkin, who plays a seasoned Hollywood film producer tasked with pitching a fake movie for a clandestine CIA rescue operation in Iran in the 1970s. Arkin’s foul-mouthed performance no doubt draws from the actor’s own background as an accomplished director, producer, and author, among other talents. Speaking of talent, Argo earned Arkin his fourth and final overall Oscar nomination — for Best Supporting Actor. 

4. Gattaca

In the thought-provoking sci-fi thriller Gattaca, in which gene manipulation technology creates a futuristic but oppressive society, Arkin plays the detective on Ethan Hawke’s trail. Hawke’s character has assumed the identity of a genetically superior human to realize his space travel dreams but unwittingly becomes a murder suspect in the process. Arkin once again makes for an important puzzle piece in an excellent ensemble that also includes Uma Thurman and Jude Law that any fan of science fiction owes it to themselves to check out. 

3. Edward Scissorhands

Tim Burton’s fairytale Edward Scissorhands has a memorable cast of colorful characters, such as Johnny Depp’s goth-like titular creation. However, in a movie with such a fantastical premise, it is the normal characters who can sometimes stand out even more. This contrast is perfectly encapsulated by the friendship between Depp’s character and the fatherly suburban working stiff portrayed by Arkin. The straightforward kindness of Arkin’s everyman makes us wish he was a close relative with whom we can divulge our darkest secrets. It’s a somewhat basic role on paper but Arkin elevates it to being one of his most memorable performances, grounding the tale in a sense of realism that is just as important as Depp’s blade-handed main character. 

2. Glengarry Glen Ross

Arkin brings his Broadway best to the cinematic adaption of Glengarry Glen Ross, a play about the toxic pressure that salespeople face at a big city real estate firm. The dialogue-heavy and profanity-infused script serves as something of a deconstruction of male machismo and delivers some memorable pieces of dialogue along those lines from the likes of Alec Baldwin, Al Pacino, and Jack Lemmon, with the latter portraying the most desperate salesman of the bunch. Even though those previously mentioned actors often get recognized for their iconic lines in the movie, Arkin’s typically understated performance once again grounds the audience with a relatable everyman, proving that his role in the film typifies the expression “there are no small parts, only small actors.” Arkin was certainly a larger-than-life figure in this regard, as this film so beautifully illustrates. 

1. Little Miss Sunshine 

The runaway hit dramedy Little Miss Sunshine would be lacking its very soul without the seminal performance of Arkin’s gutter-mouthed grandfather character who united a family plagued with various personal failings. That is quite the compliment for a film that represented a major touchstone for its impressive cast, including breakout performances from Steve Carrell, Paul Dano, Toni Collette, Greg Kinnear, and its titular star Abigail Breslin. The road trip movie centering on one little girl’s dream of performing in a cringingly overly-sexualized beauty pageant would probably not come together as well as it did if it weren’t for Arkin’s part as an unorthodox role model who preaches the virtues of the elderly doing heroin and getting laid to his grandchildren. The sole movie which finally brought Arkin his long-eluded Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, we could not imagine any other movie to top our list other than Little Miss Sunshine, which so perfectly marries Arkin’s penchant for both comedy and drama. 

Danny Peterson
About the author

Danny Peterson

Danny Peterson covers entertainment news for WGTC and has previously enjoyed writing about housing, homelessness, the coronavirus pandemic, historic 2020 Oregon wildfires, and racial justice protests. Originally from Juneau, Alaska, Danny received his Bachelor's degree in English Literature from the University of Alaska Southeast and a Master's in Multimedia Journalism from the University of Oregon. He has written for The Portland Observer, worked as a digital enterprise reporter at KOIN 6 News, and is the co-producer of the award-winning documentary 'Escape from Eagle Creek.'