Who’s Here: Bob Balaban, Actor

Actor Bob Balaban at HIFF
Actor Bob Balaban at HIFF

Bob Balaban is a busy man these days. A veteran character actor on stage and screen, and a full-time resident of Bridgehampton, Balaban will soon be appearing in a limited-run Broadway revival of Edward Albee’s 1966 play A Delicate Balance, sharing the stage with Glenn Close and John Lithgow. He’s also gearing up to direct his next film—Balaban does quite a bit of directing of film and television—which is scheduled to begin filming in 2015 in Denmark. On top of this, Balaban has been designated this year’s Honorary Chairman of the Hamptons International Film Festival (HIFF). And he’s not just a figurehead.

“My job as Honorary Chairman is to help raise money,” Balaban notes, which he does by, among other things, appearing at gala events and fundraising dinners—an effort that goes on continuously. As HIFF’s Honorary Chairman, Balaban is also teaming up with Amagansett’s Alec Baldwin to produce a trailer that will precede festival screenings. “We hope it will be creative and funny, and we’re trying to do a few different versions, because it will show before every film and people will see it over and over.”

He shouldn’t worry about wearing out his welcome, though. Balaban is an actor who audiences clearly don’t mind seeing over and over. He has appeared in close to 100 films and TV shows over the course of his career. A character actor in the true sense of the word, Balaban tends to play a very particular type of man—quiet, bookish, mild-mannered, meticulous, careful, thoughtful, maybe even a little timid. He’s the “brain,” and with few exceptions that’s how he’s appeared in films and on stage. One is now even tempted to refer to these as the “Bob Balaban” parts, as it’s hard to think of another contemporary actor who so perfectly inhabits these roles. And Balaban doesn’t seem to mind being typecast this way.

“When I was 18 or 19 and first going into acting professionally,” he recalls, “a great actress about 30 years my senior—whom I considered a grande dame of the theatre—said to me ‘You will always get jobs when they need people who appear to be smart.’” And though Balaban is quick to point out that he is “way less intellectual” than the characters he plays, he clearly has benefitted from that advice he received in his youth. He has worked steadily in film, starting in 1969 with a small but memorable part in Midnight Cowboy, in which he played a meek young student who pays the Jon Voight character for a sex act in a movie theater. Later roles in films like Catch-22 and CloseEncounters of the Third Kind cemented his image as a soft-spoken, bookish figure.

“I was cast against type at least once, though,” Balaban points out. “In a rather good film from 1975 called Report to the Commissioner, I played a legless Vietnam veteran running around on a skateboard shouting at people.” Starting in the ’90s, Balaban began appearing in the celebrated series of Christopher Guest mockumentaries, including Waiting for Guffman and Best in Show, where he got to use his improv skills. More recently, he has appeared in Wes Anderson’s films Moonrise Kingdom and The GrandBudapest Hotel, to his great delight. “Wes is a great human being to work with, and I hope to God I get to do it again. If I could I would be in every one of his movies.”

Balaban has also had an extensive stage career that has included parts in numerous groundbreaking plays by David Mamet as well as originating the role of Linus in the original Off-Broadway production of You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown. His character Harry in Albee’s A Delicate Balance, which begins previews at the John Golden Theater on October 20 before opening on November 20, is once again a quiet figure around whom swirl storms of dysfunction and chaos.

While the characters he typically plays tend toward the quiet, retiring side, Balaban himself is obviously anything but meek—nobody who has accomplished as much as he has could possibly be so recessive. This is doubly true when it comes to directing films, where you have to take charge. Balaban first began to get behind the camera as a director in the early ’80s, working both in TV and in feature films. And his upcoming film will go on location in Denmark for a very good reason.

“It’s called Gertrude and Claudius, and it’s sort of a prequel to Shakespeare’s Hamlet,” Balaban explains. “It’s based on a novel by John Updike, and of course it takes place in Denmark.” Meanwhile, Balaban recently finished directing two episodes of the Amazon series Alpha House starring John Goodman.

While it might sound like Balaban must be constantly on the go to get so much done, he does relish spending downtime at his home in Bridgehampton. He enjoys the quiet, the changing seasons, and he does a lot of writing here—in addition to screenwriting, Balaban has written a series of children’s novels about a bionic dog named McGrowl. He and his wife have two grown daughters, who visit often.

“I will say that one way to make sure that your grown children continue to visit you is to get a house in the Hamptons,” he laughs.

Certainly his residence here has also fostered Balaban’s connection to the Hamptons International Film Festival. He has been on HIFF’s board for all of the organization’s 22-year history. In 1994, early in the festival’s history, Balaban submitted his film The Last Good Time, which he directed and for which he wrote the screenplay. The film, which featured Maureen Stapleton, brought a bit of star luster to HIFF and won the audience choice award that year. Since then, Balaban has worked continuously to boost the profile of the festival by inviting prominent actors, actresses and filmmakers to come. He clearly loves the festival.

“I think it’s a wonderful thing, and I’ve tried to do anything that helps it along,” he says.

Spoken like a true Honorary Chairman.

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