Jack Arnold was born on a kitchen table in New Haven, Connecticut, to Russian immigrant parents. As a child he read a lot of science fiction, which laid the foundations for his genre films of the 1950s.
He hoped to become a professional actor and in his late teens he enrolled in the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, where his classmates included Hume Cronyn, Betty Field and Garson Kanin. After graduating he worked as a vaudeville dancer and in 1935 began getting roles in Broadway plays. He was acting in My Sister Eileen when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, and he immediately enlisted as a cadet for pilot training.
While Arnold intended to become a pilot, a shortage of planes meant he was temporarily placed in the Signal Corps, where he took a crash course in cinematography. He then became a cameraman and learned the techniques of filmmaking by assisting Robert Flaherty on various military films. After eight months with Flaherty he became a pilot in the Air Corps. While stationed at Truax Airfield at New Rochelle, New York, he met Betty, who would later become his wife.
At the war's end and Arnold's term of service ended, he formed a partnership with an air squadron buddy Lee Goodman to form a film production company. Their new company, called Promotional Films Company, made fundraising films for various non-profit organizations. He also continued acting on stage during this period, in plays including a revival of The Front Page, and played opposite Bela Lugosi and Elaine Stritch in Three Indelicate Ladies.
By 1950, after his documentary films had received more exposure, he was commissioned to produce and direct With These Hands, a documentary about working conditions of the early 20th century. It was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.
Arnold directed a number of 1950's science fiction films. The best known of these, It Came from Outer Space (1953), Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), Tarantula (1955), and The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957) are noted for their atmospheric black-and-white cinematography and sophisticated scripts. The Incredible Shrinking Man is considered his "masterpiece," a fantasy film with few equals in intelligence and sophistication, notes author John Baxter. While all the films display a "sheer virtuosity of style and clarity of vision."
Arnold's main collaborator at Universal Studios was producer William Alland. Revenge of the Creature (1955) was Clint Eastwood's debut film.
He later worked as the director of The Mouse That Roared (1959), in which Peter Sellers played three roles, one of them in drag.
Arnold began his television career in 1955 with several episodes of Science Fiction Theater. He went on to direct the long-running television series Perry Mason and Peter Gunn. He also directed episodes of such television shows as Nanny and the Professor, Alias Smith and Jones, The Fall Guy, The Brady Bunch, Gilligan's Island, Wonder Woman, Ellery Queen, Mr. Terrific, Mr. Lucky, and The San Pedro Beach Bums, as well as the TV movie Marilyn: The Untold Story (1980).
Arnold died of arteriosclerosis in Woodland Hills, Los Angeles, California at the age of 75. Later that year, the UCLA Film Archive held a tribute "Jack Arnold: The Incredible Thinking Man" film festival which screened a number of his films. The Archive also produced and screened a bio-documentary about his life, The Incredible Thinking Man.