The 'Days of Our Lives' actress and the original voice of Harley Quinn died at age 67 of multiple sclerosis
Arleen Sorkin and I became close friends in our 20s because we shared a lover. Well, he and I were no longer seeing each other, but he wanted me to meet this new woman he was crazy about. She was brilliant and performing with the comedy group The High Heeled Women. The first thing I noticed about Arleen was her killer body. And then you hear the Guys and Dolls voice, followed by the ribald one-liners. Only later do you learn of the loyalty, impossible wisdom and self-sacrificing generosity. The boyfriend didn’t last, but our undying friendship did.
Yes, the world will rightfully remember Arleen as Calliope Jones in Days of Our Lives. She brought sass and humor to a genre that is not greatly known for either. But watch her on YouTube. There is a pathos and yearning in Calliope that rivals any Judy Holliday performance. Watch her break your heart as the harlequined court jester in Days. It was because of this her Emerson College pal, Paul Dini, created Harley Quinn in her image.
Harleen “Harley” Quinn is now part of the DC Batman canon. It seems like she always was, but she was an Arleen Sorkin original, birthed by Paul Dini. The roots go even deeper, to Dr. Irving Sorkin, D.D.S. Arleen’s father was a successful dentist in Washington D.C., but he always had dreams of show biz. As a boy, he worshipped beautiful screen stars, none more so than silent goddess Billie Dove. From the age of 10, Irv would write Billie letters and send gifts and miraculously, she wrote back.
There was no question in the dentist’s mind that his charming daughter would become an actress and one day meet Billie Dove in Hollywood. Arleen took tap dancing and singing lessons because that’s what stars did in the 1920s. She could crack a joke better than any sidekick. When we met in New York, I became Barbara Stanwyck to her Joan Blondell.
But Arleen was more than that. She was smart and had an analytical mind like all good comics do. She could break a joke down and put it back together. People don’t remember that she co-wrote Picture Perfect, starring Jennifer Aniston in 1997. Or created her own comedy series Fired Up that same year. It was also when she fulfilled one of her father’s many dreams.
At the age of 79, Irving felt that he was too old to meet Miss Dove. He didn’t want to spoil either of their (undoubtedly) romantic fantasies. But at his urging, Arleen developed a phone relationship with his idol. One day, she and I drove to Rancho Mirage and had a lunch of tuna salad with Billie Dove at her home in the Thunder Bird Country Club. The 1950s ranch house on the golf course was filled with memorabilia and photos of the silent screen beauty with her many admirers. We heard the tale of how Howard Hughes paid $1 million to her husband to give up his wife. “And that was a lot of money in those days” said Billie, modestly. And she graciously posed in the Spanish hat that Irving had sent. When Billie died later that year at the age of 94, Arleen and I attended the memorial at Forrest Lawn. It was small, but the longtime president of the Billie Dove Fan Club attended, who of course remembered Irv.
Since he was a boy, Irving was a man with a million and one (truly) great ideas. Arleen’s final gift to her father was to relentlessly develop a story that he had read in Washingtonian magazine. It became Something the Lord Made, starring Alan Rickman and Yasiin Bey. In 2004, Dr./producer Irving Sorkin won an Emmy for best movie and a Peabody Award. His daughter took no credit.
Before MS slowed her down, Arleen’s final passion project was the documentary Bhutto, about the assassinated female Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. Arleen fought hard for it as she thought it an important story about democracy in a post 9/11 world. She won her own Peabody Award in 2011.
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But I think Arleen would say her greatest creations were her sons, Eli and Owen. Like her father, Arleen was not your ordinary mother. No one looked more stunning in a bikini when pregnant. She was thrilled when both boys wanted to study tap dancing. And rather than bedtime stories, they would tell a joke before going to sleep. No surprise that Eli is a comedy writer and Owen an actor.
The last time I saw Arleen this summer, I was helping her set up the TCM app so she could watch from her bed. We have had a standing date to watch the Oscars together for 35 years. Caviar and champagne. No one else was allowed to join us because they talk too much. I will be very sad to watch alone next year, but will raise a glass to Billie, Irving and my beautiful friend Arleen.
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