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.
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.”
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.
I ask Arkin if I have this right – if his John was that John – and he sighs. “Oh my God, that was a dark night of the soul if ever there was one. I can’t even begin to tell you what that meant, not just for me but for my family. I could hardly leave my room for about six months. I found myself saying, ‘Don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater.’ But I couldn’t work out what was the baby and what was the bathwater.”
Maybe it’s all dirty. Maybe chuck it all out. “Well no,” he says. “Because I was finally able to sort it out. I felt that I had grown so much. So much had borne fruit. Some miraculous things were going on as a direct result of meditation. It saved my life. I couldn’t throw it out. If I threw it out, then suicide would have been the only viable alternative. And for reasons which we’ll go into over a cup of tea one day, I knew that suicide was not the answer. I knew that suicide was not going to solve anything for me or my family or anybody I knew.”
I’ve read that Battista killed himself. “He did, yeah, that’s true,” Arkin says. “But I doggedly went on and I’m glad that I did.”
I can’t help feeling that Out of My Mind would have been a richer, darker book if it had focused more on the shifting relationship between the actor and his stand-in, the star and his shadow. But Arkin is determined to accentuate the positive. It’s part of his philosophy, the path that he’s chosen. The world is full of such storm-clouds, it’s best to limit your exposure. He explains that he and his wife lead a quiet life in California now. They rarely leave the house and avoid discussing politics, or the state of the environment. “I don’t want to live in a state of terror,” he says.
In recent years, Arkin’s had a nice Netflix gig, playing a weathered Hollywood agent in The Kominsky Method. “Yeah, I still have threads that connect me,” he says. “I’m like a horse going down the trail. Acting is so ingrained in my physiognomy and the channels of my brain that I find myself missing aspects of the business. But I don’t need it any more. I should probably get over it.”
The older he gets, he says, the more he has come to appreciate silence and solitude. “Beethoven used to be a heroin injection for me. Jazz, the same. The great novels, the same. I could not conceive of going through a day without reading great literature or listening to great music. Now it’s mostly an assault. Living in silence. Looking at the garden. Having a relationship with trees and flowers and the sky. That’s what’s profound to me now.”
I tell him that it sounds as though he’s preparing for the end. But that’s a crass western notion. It risks missing the point of his book. “There is no end,” Arkin says. “There was no beginning and there is no end. We are all a part of that endless flow.”
• In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or email firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org.