Arleen Sorkin ’77, a multi-talented actress, screenwriter, and comedian who was both the inspiration for and voice of comic character Harley Quinn, is also being remembered as the “heart and soul of her family.”
Sorkin died Thursday, August 24, 2023, after several years of battling health issues. She leaves behind her husband and television producer, Christopher Lloyd, and two sons, Eli and Owen.
“She was just simply an unharnessed gem. She had incredible wit, and was oozing with personality,” said Lisa Passero ’74.
Passero and Sorkin met while doing musicals at Emerson and after graduating, the duo were inaugural members of the comedy troupe High-Heeled Women with Mary (Fulham) Reynolds ’75 in New York City . They went on to have a lifelong friendship.
“More than anything else, she was a devoted wife, mother, cousin, aunt, and friend. She was truly the heart and soul of her family,” said Passero. “To me she was one of the most generous and loyal friends, and someone I will keep until the end of my days.”
One of Sorkin’s most prominent roles was as the kooky Calliope Jones on the soap opera Days of Our Lives. Starting in 1984, Sorkin played the character in 427 episodes over many years.
In one episode, she played a harlequin in a dream sequence. That scene inspired Paul Dini ’79 to co-create the iconic comic book character Harley Quinn.
“I thought about a character kind of like her persona at the time, which was the snappy, wisecracking blonde,” Dini told The Hollywood Reporter in 2016.
Sorkin was the original voice of Harley Quinn in Batman: The Animated Series, working opposite Mark Hamill who voiced the Joker. Hamill shared his sadness at Sorkin’s death on X (formerly Twitter).
Tony Award-winning director, lyricist, and composer Scott Wittman ’76 recalled meeting Sorkin at Emerson.
“She had come primarily wanting to be a teacher,” said Wittman. “I remember being quite staggered by her personality and figure. I said, ‘You’re coming with me.’ She was in all the musicals.”
Wittman worked with Sorkin on several Emerson productions, including directing her in Sugar, and being tap dancers together in No, No Nanette. He then created the comedy troupe High-Heeled Women, bringing in Sorkin and other Emersonians.
Sorkin exhibited phenomenal range throughout her career. At Emerson, she starred as Lola in Damn Yankees, which also included a young Denis Leary ‘79 as a ballplayer.
“I can still hear Arleen [talking] about the transition of the character from being the ugliest girl in Providence, Rhode Island. She deadpanned the line and nailed it,” said Mark Stewart ’77, who played Joe Hardy in the production, and went on to be a successful lawyer. “She was a lovely actress. She was one of a kind.”
Stewart was president of Emerson’s Southern California alumni chapter, and said Sorkin was very generous, often helping people advance their careers by making introductions. For numerous years she performed in the National Breast Cancer Coalition’s Les Girls fundraiser, a nonprofit that meant a lot to her.
As well as having roles in TV shows, including Duet, Dream On, and Frasier, Sorkin was the first female co-host of the ABC show America’s Funniest People in 1990. Her writing credits include episodes of Tiny Toon Adventures, and the screenplay and story for the movie Picture Perfect, starring Jennifer Aniston in 1997.
“Arleen was an Emersonian in the truest sense. Talented, generous, and devoted to making the world a better place,” said Emerson College Board of Trustees Co-Vice Chair Kevin Bright ’76.
Nick Busco ’75 recalled attending a baby shower for Sorkin, but she never showed up — because she had gone into labor. Busco said that encapsulated Sorkin’s comedic timing.
“Arleen was an amazing human. Funny — oh my god, she was funny in the worst of times,” said Busco.
Sorkin was very involved in the Emerson alumni network, and was honored with an Alumni Recognition Award in 1987.
Former Associate VP of Development and Alumni Relations Barbara Rutberg ’68, a close friend of Sorkin’s, recalled her compassion and large heart.
“She was busy finishing collating her Passover Haggadah that she would be sharing with family and friends at her Seder for the holiday. I read the Haggadah and asked if I could have a copy for my Seder. She wrote it with all ages and ethnicities in mind,” said Rutberg. “It has her humor, her intellect, her compassion for a peaceful world, and how to best translate the Passover story to the world we live in. She says in her story, ‘The Passover story is not the heritage of a single people, but of all humanity.’ This year’s reading of Arleen’s Haggadah at our Seder will have an even greater meaning.”