Alumni News

Bennington College Celebrates the Life of Alan Arkin '55

Bennington College celebrates the extraordinary life of actor and friend of Bennington College Alan Arkin ’55. Arkin’s family announced his passing on Friday. 

Image of Alan Arkin

“Alan was an extraordinary talent—an actor, director, comedian, musician, and singer—who had much in common with many of today’s Bennington students and alumni,” said Bennington College President Laura R. Walker. “He was deeply passionate, creative, funny, driven, thoughtful, and multidisciplinary. He will be greatly missed.” 

Arkin studied acting at Bennington College in the early 50s. Notably, Bennington was not a coeducational institution until 1969; Arkin was among the few male theater students accepted to take roles in college productions

In 1998, Susan Sgorbati, now Director for the Center for the Advancement of Public Action at Bennington, asked Arkin if he was interested in coming to Bennington College to teach improvisation. While he had no interest in teaching in the past, he agreed and included an account of teaching at Bennington in his memoir. 

“In the week and a half I spent working with the kids at Bennington, I’d seen much of the group get out of themselves and fly, do things they didn’t know how to do, go new places, and effortlessly get into the zone,” Arkin wrote. “If I taught acting classes I could imagine doing it for fifty years and at the end have helped a handful of people learn how to fly. But in just ten days at Bennington, there were a dozen kids who were aloft, who had discovered that improv could get them into a core part of their ‘selves.’ It seemed to be about acting, directing, writing, and self-discovery, all at once, and its implications beyond craft, and its immediate applications, were inescapable.” 

In 2011, just after his memoir An Improvised Life was published, he returned to the College’s Margot Tenney Theater for a question-and-answer session. According to student reporter India E. Kieser ’12, students were starstruck. 

“He was intelligent, funny, witty, and wise. I could see people writing down notes vigorously as he spoke, wanting to get every word down,” Kieser reported on tumblr. “He talked about how being back at Bennington was quite the nostalgic experience for him, and when one student asked if he’d ever seen a ghost here, he quickly turned it around, saying ‘Being here today, I see all the ghosts of my past, and it’s very moving.’”

Arkin participated in Bennington College’s 24 Hour Plays, a virtual scholarship benefit, in 2021. The event engaged alumni to write, rehearse, and perform monologues within the span of just one day and night. Arkin’s monologue, written by Jonathan Marc Sherman ’90, was an emotional apology to a fictional former Bennington classmate. 

Most noted as an actor, Arkin won an Academy Award for his supporting role in Little Miss Sunshine in 2007. One of only a handful of actors to have been nominated for an Academy Award for their first starring role, Arkin was nominated for Best Actor for his performances in The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming! and again for The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. He received a Best Supporting Actor nomination for his performance in Argo in 2012. 

Early in his career, Arkin was a founding member of the Second City improvisational troupe. He won a Tony Award for his Broadway debut performance Enter Laughing in 1963 and a Drama Desk award for directing the 1968 play Little Murders. The original Broadway version of Neil Simon's The Sunshine Boys, which Arkin directed, ran for more than 500 performances.

In addition to his acting and directing achievements, Arkin authored several other books, including science-fiction and some children’s stories, such as The Clearing, The Lemming Condition, and Cassie Loves Beethoven among his other publications. Arkin was a singer-songwriter and produced popular song compositions, including the 1957 hit “Banana Boat Song,” made popular by Harry Belafonte.

Sgorbati, who continued to correspond with Arkin, said, “I am truly sad about the tremendous loss this must be for his wife, his children, and his grandchildren. But it is also a tremendous loss for the millions of people around the world who loved his films, his television shows, and just the outstanding human being he became over his lifetime.” She continued, “What a life well lived in so many different ways. He was a true inspiration to so many of us. It just puts a smile on my face thinking about him.