Goodreads helps you keep track of books you want to read.
Start by marking “An Improvised Life: A Memoir” as Want to Read:
An Improvised Life: A Memoir
Enlarge cover
Rate this book
Clear rating
Open Preview

An Improvised Life: A Memoir

3.60  ·  Rating details ·  421 ratings  ·  91 reviews
Alan Arkin knew he was going to be an actor from the age of five: "Every film I saw, every play, every piece of music fed an unquenchable need to turn myself into something other than what I was." An Improvised Life is the Oscar winner's wise and unpretentious recollection of the process--artistic and personal--of becoming an actor, and a revealing look into the creative m ...more
Paperback, 224 pages
Published March 1st 2011 by Da Capo Press (first published February 3rd 2011)
More Details... Edit Details

Friend Reviews

To see what your friends thought of this book, please sign up.

Reader Q&A

To ask other readers questions about An Improvised Life, please sign up.

Be the first to ask a question about An Improvised Life

Community Reviews

Showing 1-30
Average rating 3.60  · 
Rating details
 ·  421 ratings  ·  91 reviews

More filters
Sort order
Start your review of An Improvised Life: A Memoir
May 22, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is subtitled “a memoir” but it offers as much of Arkin’s musings about his craft as it provides about the arc of his life. I was very satisfied with the extra dimension provided by listening to the author read his book.

Arkin sets out his thesis very early by means of this excellent anecdote: “Some years ago I did a film with Madeline Kahn. A lot of it was shot on location, and one day we found ourselves at a particularly beautiful spot overlooking a panoramic view of the Hudson Valley. Duri
Jason Koivu
This focused mostly on Arkin's acting, spending many pages on his preferred improvisational style.
When a book is autobiographical or written by a comedian, I like to hear the author read his work, so I go with the audiobook whenever available. That wasn't the greatest of choices this time around. Arkin's voice is monotone, and for an actor, surprisingly lacking in inflection. But hey, that's the way he delivers his lines. I get it. Still, it made for a dry listen. As for the material itself, he
Apr 05, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Unlike most well-known actors’ memoirs, Alan Arkin’s isn’t a long list of actors and directors that he’s worked with or movies he’s been in, nor is it full of details about his home life. Instead, he examines his own personal growth within the framework of acting. Acting, he says, is a metaphor for life, “and a pretty transparent one at that.” Both require “getting real” to succeed. And for Arkin acting, being someone else, is the easy part. Knowing himself, being himself, and getting comfortabl ...more
Jan C
I guess this is actually ★★★ 1\2.

I listened to this book and who could read it better than Alan Arkin himself? No one I'm thinking. Partly memoir, partly teaching platform.

At some point, after undergoing psychoanalysis, Arkin started doing improv/acting seminars. There were several moving tales here. One was at a college on a Native American reservation and no one was cooperating. Finally, he has one of them being a Native who had run away and was now back, with the assistance of a couple of s
Mostly about using improvisational acting exercises as a means of self-discovery, this book may be a useful tool for actors, but it's not likely to endear anyone to Arkin. His voice as author is overbearing and self-congratulatory. The reason for the "I know everything" aspect may be that the book is not really about Arkin, it's about what Arkin does as a vocation. A memoir requires a certain degree of humility to endear the reader to its subject, but Arkin remains aloof - even a little snobbish ...more
Jul 12, 2011 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: those interested in the acting field
Recommended to Joni by: found it at the library
This book was not what I expected; maybe I should have read the review or write-up first. This memoir covers Mr. Arkin's professional life of which the most interesting to me was his talking about his experiences at Second City in Chicago. Maybe if I were an actor I would have enjoyed his diatribes about acting. I felt Mr. Arkin was, at times, angry and at best, arrogant. His tone was borderline arrogant. Of course, this is just my opinion and if I were in the acting field might feel differently ...more
Paula Dembeck
Feb 24, 2020 rated it liked it
This is not a typical celebrity memoir with the name dropping and anecdotes that usually fill such efforts. Nor is it a career spanning biography which lists Arkin’s acting roles and achievements. Instead the author takes readers on his life journey as an actor and shares what he has learned about his craft and life along the way. He focuses on how his experiences in the world of theater and film have affected his personal growth.

Arkin always knew he wanted to be an actor. From the age of five
Rich Baker
Nov 17, 2014 rated it it was amazing
I cannot say enough good about this book. The honest and extremely well told account of a man who has grown and learned and changed over an extraordinary lifetime. As an improviser/actor this book is invaluable. But even for a person who has never stepped on a stage, I believe it is an amazing read. So many things to take away from this book. I plan on rereading it very soon. BTW, I listened to the audio book as read by the author and I cannot recommend that version enough.
Feb 19, 2011 rated it really liked it
Fascinating -- made me want to re-watch all his movies, especially The In-Laws. Very introspective, a little more new-age than I would have expected.
Bob Ryan
Jan 13, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This book wasn't at all what I expected. I picked it up because of Arkin's current role with Michael Douglas on Netflix's "Kominsky Method". Arkin shows in it he hasn't lost any of the comic acting he's shown over a long career. Kominsky brought back memories of his roles in "Catch 22" and "The Russians are Coming" in the late 1960's - early 1970's. I expected a reprise of a long and mostly successful career, stories about movie making and co-stars. None of that was included in this book.
Oct 30, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This would probably be better off read than listened to in the car, but the self-narration made a huge difference. Arkin's acting workshop experiences make for very entertaining stories, all from a man who cares very much about his craft.
"Emergency! Everybody to get from street!"
Mar 20, 2017 rated it liked it
Shelves: entertainment, memoir
I saw Alan Arkin on TCM being interviewed by Robert Osborne and thought it sounded like he led a very interesting life. I had this book on my shelf so I grabbed it and began reading. The beginning of the book was interesting when he talks about his childhood. After that it is all downhill. There is almost no biographical information after his first marriage. He apparently had two marriages after that but each wife is mentioned by name once and you're left thinking "Oh, he must have gotten marrie ...more
Joel Fishbane
May 05, 2014 rated it liked it
Alan Arkin, if you believe his father, knew he was going to be an actor at the age of five, a fact which would seem to belie the title of his book: despite his claims, there's the distinct sense that his professional life went more or less according to plan. An award-winning actor and director, Arkin is best known today for playing old curmudgeons, such as in Little Miss Sunshine and The Change-Up (he also has a cameo in The Muppets). But he's appeared in over 80 films and has a theatrical track ...more
Patrick McGrady
I like Alan Arkin. I thought his narration of the book was great.

This book was mostly about acting, improvisation, methods, etc. I'm sure it would be riveting for aspiring actors but not for me.
At the beginning of An Improvised Life, Alan Arkin relates a conversation he once had with Madeline Kahn. As this was an audio book, I'll just paraphrase it:

Having long admired Madeline Kahn and her many talents, Arkin asks her which of these gifts was her primary focus. After thinking for a while, she couldn't really say.
"Well," he asks, "what did you start out wanting to do? Was your first impulse acting?"
"No," she replies.
"Playing the piano?"
"Being a comedienne?"
Barry Hammond
Jun 06, 2014 rated it liked it
Whether you know Alan Arkin from the 1960's and 70's in films like The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming or Wait Until Dark, or more recent films like Argo or Little Miss Sunshine, his performances are always special and original. In this memoir he discusses his arc as an actor, especially in regard to improvisation, which has been central to his method. Like his performances, his writing is full of surprises and takes directions different than one would expect from a standard actor's ...more
Oct 05, 2011 rated it liked it
I listened to this book on audioCD.. read by the author. If you enjoy hearing about the craft of acting, you'll enjoy this insight into what it means to Mr. Arkin and how he approaches the job. I enjoyed most of this.. especially read in his rich , warm distinctive voice.. some of the "advice" was a little too "out there" for me personally.. but I enjoyed all the parts about his own insights into his life and the joys and challenges of the acting profession.
William Koon
Apr 13, 2013 rated it did not like it
I have admired Arkin since before he was an actor with the Tarriers. I think he is a brilliant actor. However, he dismisses his musical career and pays faint attention to his acting career in this thin volume. There is little about his roles or films, more about his Broadway experience. Instead he writes mostly about improvisation and his career in rather bland terms. Once again, trust art, not artists.
Jul 06, 2011 added it
This is one of the very best books on creativity and living as an artist I have ever read. It's funny, moving, interesting and deeply insightful. Mr. Arkin writes with a completely unique style. One of the best books I ever read - and I have read MANY books.
Nick Jordan
I'm pretty sure that I would've given this 5 stars if I were an actor, particularly an improvisational one. But I came wanting more stories of relationships with other actors, directors, and artists, and that is simply not this book. To be clear, it wasn't intended to be that book.
Mar 25, 2016 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: memoir
A great brief background on this award winning actor discussing his path, technique, and career as an artist, director, comedian, father, and Second City improv pioneer.
Dec 26, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favorites
I devoured this book in one night. If it has any issues for me, it's that I wanted more!

I think a lot of the mixed to low reviews on here are from mismatched expectations. If you want a traditional autobiography that focuses on the subject's personal life or career-related anecdotes, then this is not the book for you. "An Improvised Life" is more of a memoir of Arkin's creative life and how his understanding of the role of art and especially improvisation relates to daily life.

I knew this going
Dec 06, 2018 rated it really liked it
This was one of the best, and deepest, autobiographies I have read of an artist.I saw that a lot of people dinged this book because the second half is primarily about improv workshops he curates. That is true. But it isn't a negative for me. To my mind what he was doing was building the stories to his ultimate conclusion: we all basically improv every day of our lives. His stories about his workshops and how he helps people overcome obstacles were really compelling to my mind, at least once I ca ...more
Sarah M
May 09, 2017 rated it really liked it
Not exactly what I was expecting from a memoir, but very well written and enjoyable non the less. In fact, I enjoyed hearing about Arkin's craft more so than a typical actor's memoir that's just about what they've done and who they knew etc etc. I liked his self examination of how he changed and adapted his acting method over the years and in different mediums. His description of improvisation, through his own career and then through the workshops he's run, expanded my understanding of that meth ...more
Aug 02, 2012 rated it it was ok
Shelves: bio-autobio
I love Alan Arkin. I wanted to love it more. It may be that I didn't connect with it as much because I'm not an actor anymore. Maybe. There were a few good life bits that I appreciated, but other than that, I really didn't enjoy reading it and wouldn't recommend it. Please don't tell Alan I said this becuase I LOVE him as a performer and he seems to be a fabulous person. Watch his films. Skip this book.
Jan 15, 2014 rated it really liked it
I really found myself enjoying this book. Alan Arkin has appeared in many films, some of which I watch as a child and it was an amazing experience to read and learn about his journey and career in being an actor.

I even recommended this book to my acting professors as a must-read for our program and was delighted to find that they themselves had already included the book on a list of suggested reading materials.
Mark Reynolds
Sep 30, 2019 rated it it was ok
I was going to be an actor many lifetimes ago, but I found most of the people in the business (I was in LA) were full of themselves and not very 'real.' So I switched careers. Unfortunately, that's how I found this book. Arkin comes across as fairly pompous. To a certain extent, he has a right to be, because he's a successful actor. But he doesn't present himself as someone I'd like to hang out with.
Elizabeth Rynecki
Dec 31, 2018 rated it it was amazing
A really thought provoking book for me about what it means to be creative and how the choices we make shape the roles we play in life. It is a memoir, but it's really more about how a life in theater has taught Arkin about people and himself.
Paige Smith
Jan 26, 2019 rated it really liked it
I listened to the audio and I think that made me like it more b/c of Arkin himself. He's a likeable guy - and very interesting. It was a treat after reading a heavy non-fiction book. He's brilliant in everything he does.
Jan 30, 2019 rated it liked it
I was a bit disappointed in this as I expected the hysterical sarcasm Arkin brings to his roles. The book was interesting in it describes how an actor achieves his craft and how Arkin career progressed.
« previous 1 3 next »
There are no discussion topics on this book yet. Be the first to start one »

Readers also enjoyed

  • Tough Shit: Life Advice from a Fat, Lazy Slob Who Did Good
  • Leadership Strategy and Tactics: Field Manual
  • The Big Goodbye: Chinatown and the Last Years of Hollywood
  • 24: Life Stories and Lessons from the Say Hey Kid
  • Twisted Yoga
  • The Art of People: 11 Simple People Skills That Will Get You Everything You Want
  • Warhol
  • The Corn Was Green: The Inside Story of Hee Haw
  • Death Makes a Prophet (Superintendent William Meredith #11)
  • In a Lonely Place
  • The Golden Thread: How Fabric Changed History
  • The Boy Detective & The Summer of '74 and Other Tales of Suspense
  • Enduring Courage: Ace Pilot Eddie Rickenbacker and the Dawn of the Age of Speed
  • Nevertheless
  • Fire in the Thatch
  • Archie Goes Home (Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe Mysteries #15)
  • The Last Voyage of the Andrea Doria: The Sinking of the World's Most Glamorous Ship
  • The Count of Nine
See similar books…

Related Articles

Need another excuse to treat yourself to new book this week? We've got you covered with the buzziest new releases of the day. To create our list,...
30 likes · 21 comments
“Two-thirds of American movies are extensions of commercials — they tell you how to feel and they tell you how to think — rather than letting you figure it out on your own," said Arkin, who has been acting since the 1960s and won the supporting actor Oscar for "Little Miss Sunshine." "Ben treats the audience like adults. He doesn't shove you into endless close-ups, and the music doesn't tell you what's going to happen next, which is something I hate in American movies.” 5 likes
“That's what we're all doing, all the time, whether we know it or not. Whether we like it or not. Creating something on the spur of the moment with the materials at hand. We might just as well let the res tof it go, join the party, and dance our hearts out.” 5 likes
More quotes…