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In The Mix
December 18, 2015

He Looks the Part

Bob Balaban has made a career playing the smartest guy in the room. One career, anyway...

Jane Wollman Rusoff
  • Recount

  • Georgia O'Keefe

  • Seinfeld

  • Show Me a Hero

He's the go-to guy for casting directors looking for doctors, lawyers, scientists, shrinks and other brainy types.

In real life, character actor Bob Balaban is brainy, too, having carved out a parallel career, writing, directing and producing in television, features and the theater.

His career started almost five decades ago, in the late 1960s, when he appeared in series like Room 222. But his entertainment roots go back even further.

The son of Elmer Balaban, of the famed Balaban and Katz theater chain, he was born and bred in Chicago. His father ultimately owned and operated NBC affiliates and radio stations nationwide. His uncle, Barney Balaban, ran Paramount Pictures for nearly 30 years,

These days Balaban can be seen on the likes of Girls, Broad City and The Good Wife. He is perhaps best known for playing a film producer in the Robert Altman feature Gosford Park (he also was a real producer of the film, scoring an Oscar nomination) and the map maker-interpreter in Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

On TV, Balaban has twice played the head of NBC — a fictional version on Seinfeld in addition to portraying a real former network president, Warren Littlefield, in The Late Shift, the HBO film about the late-night talk-show wars.

He was Emmy-nominated for playing a lawyer in another HBO movie, Recount. He was a physician on HBO's Entourage and a senator on Amazon's Alpha House, episodes of which he also directed. He also received Emmy nods as the director and an executive producer of HBO's Bernard and Doris and the director of Lifetime's Georgia O'Keeffe.

Balaban's latest TV persona was a federal judge in the HBO miniseries Show Me a Hero. But Balaban hasn't always channeled buttoned-up types. His first role was the blanket-hugging Linus in the 1967 Off-Broadway production of You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown. And in his feature debut at 24, in Midnight Cowboy, he had a graphic sex scene opposite Jon Voight.

He has since appeared in at least 75 other movies, including four by director Christopher Guest. Most recently, he was seen in George Clooney's The Monuments Men (as a theater impresario) and Wes Anderson's The Grand Budapest Hotel (the concierge). Since the 1989 release of Parents, a horror comedy, he's been directing features.

But acting is always calling: earlier this year he wrapped a Broadway run in Edward Albee's A Delicate Balance. He'll be seen on Netflix next year in the new Guest mockumentary, Mascots, and he'll be voicing a dog for Anderson's upcoming animated project.

During some rare time off, Balaban chatted by phone with emmy contributor Jane Wollman Rusoff from his New York City apartment. Here are some highlights of their conversation:

You're certainly a diversified guy.

Yes, things are percolating all the time.

Ironically, as an actor, you're pigeonholed.

When I was in summer stock at 17, an older, experienced actor told me, "As long as they need people who appear to be really intelligent, you're always going to find a job." Notice that he said, "appear to be really intelligent!" Evidently, I found a niche. It's the glasses. It's the hair. It's everything

When you were a child, other kids made fun of you because of your height. Has short stature been problematic in getting acting jobs?

Being five-foot-five didn't turn out to be a detriment. It was okay to be a short actor because no one cares whether doctors, lawyers, scientists or psychiatrists are short. They're not very physical — they mostly sit and read and talk. You don't have to be tall for that.

Why did you expand into directing?

I got a role in the feature Prince of the City, directed by Sidney Lumet, and was really amazed at his process. I thought I might want to learn how to be a director. I studied [Lumet] for four-and-a-half months. I dogged him. Without my asking, he explained everything to me: "This is why we did this shot.... This is why we used this lens."

How did you turn that education into paid work?

My wife Lynn [Grossman] wrote a wonderful short film for me to direct. I asked friends to be in it: Richard Dreyfuss, Wallace Shawn, Mandy Patinkin. We got into a bunch of festivals, and I started getting directing jobs from that. One of my first was a television movie, The Brass Ring, with Dina Merrill and Sylvia Sidney.

What do you think of current TV programming?

We're in the second Golden Age of Television, There are more great things to watch — it's an avalanche. The new world of cable and internet is amazingly satisfying — and it wants to be different. There are so many more places that aren't afraid to have really smart writers and really interesting stories.

What have been your favorite TV jobs?

I tremendously enjoyed directing four episodes of Nurse Jackie. I loved that the heart of the show was always motivated by action on the floor of the hospital — those long corridors with thousands of rooms to go into. It was like doing geometry puzzles to try to figure out how to shoot the scenes and keep them flowing and busy, but not too busy.

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