Bob Balaban

Active - 1969 - Present  |   Born - Aug 16, 1945 in Chicago, Illinois, United States  |   Genres - Comedy, Drama, Comedy Drama

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Biography by Derek Armstrong

Playing a succession of bespectacled, soft-spoken, yet vaguely superior characters, Bob Balaban carved himself a niche as a reliable character actor in the last quarter of the 20th century, while also getting the occasional opportunity to write and direct for the screen.

The nephew and cousin of industry personages, Balaban got the acting bug at Colgate University and N.Y.U., inspiring him to study with Uta Hagen and Viola Spolin. After some exposure on and off-Broadway in the late 1960s, Balaban made his film debut in Midnight Cowboy (1969), playing the high school student who meets Jon Voight in the movie theater for a tryst. Working sporadically through the '70s, more in theater and TV than film, Balaban developed a more familiar face with such roles as the cartographer and French translator from Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1978) and the attorney hired to help Richard Dreyfuss' quadriplegic choose to die in Whose Life Is It Anyway? (1981).

Balaban's major contribution to the industry in the 1980s was as a director, first of the disappointing Showtime movie The Brass Ring (1983) and then of the macabre weekly TV series Tales of the Darkside (1984) and Amazing Stories (1985). His big-screen directorial debut, the cannibal-themed black comedy Parents (1989), was considered either an objectionable failure by some or a devious cult classic by others; two later forays into directing (My Boyfriend's Back in 1993, The Last Good Time in 1994) were better received.

In the 1990s, Balaban returned his focus to acting, especially as he caught on with more regular parts in the latter half of the decade. His most widely seen role was the NBC executive who accepts, then declines, then accepts again the pilot written by George and Jerry on the popular sitcom Seinfeld. His Russell Dalrymple appeared in only six episodes in the 1992-1993 season but was featured prominently in the season finale, lost at sea and presumed dead in his all-consuming quest to win Elaine's affections. It was this Seinfeld gig that netted Balaban the most regular and prominent work of his career in the years that followed. Although often still appearing in serious roles, Balaban indulged his talent for subtle comedy by linking up with actor/director Christopher Guest and appearing in two of his acclaimed faux documentaries, Waiting for Guffman (1996) and Best in Show (2000).

Balaban scored a major art-house and critical successes producing and playing one of the main characters in Robert Altman's murder-mystery Gosford Park, and appearing as an ineffective father in Ghost World. That same year he appeared in important supporting roles in such big-budget fare as The Mexican and The Majestic. He maintained his carer in the independent world hooking up again with Christopher Guest for A Mighty Wind, and making a cameo appearance in the Oscar nominated Capote. Balaban appeared in and helped produce the animated Hollywood satire Hopeless Pictures, which ran on IFC in 2005. 2006 proved to be a very busy year for the multi-talented Balaban. In addition to another ollaboration with Guest, For Your Consideration, he played a film critic in M. Nght Shyamalan's The Lady in the Water. He also directed Ralph Finnes and Susan Sarandon in Doris and Bernard.

Over the coming years, Balaban would continue to find outlets for his unique screen presence, appearing on the popular comedy series Web Therapy, and narrating the Wes Anderson comedy Moonrise Kingdom.

Movie Highlights

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  • Paternal grandparents were Russian immigrants who owned a grocery store in Chicago.
  • Comes from a family of cinema magnates who---with Morris and Sam Katz---formed Balaban & Katz, which owned more than 100 theaters in the Midwest.
  • His uncle Barney Balaban was president of Paramount  Pictures from 1936-64.
  • Grandfather Sam Katz, who was head of production at MGM, was first married to Bob's paternal aunt Ida and then, after her death, to Bob's maternal grandmother, Belle.
  • Studied with the Second City Comedy Troupe at age 16 and made his stage debut with them.
  • As a college junior, won the role of Linus in the original off-Broadway production of You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown.
  • As a senior, he was cast in Plaza Suite on Broadway; had to postpone graduation because he kept getting acting jobs.
  • Film debut was in 1969's Midnight Cowboy.
  • Wrote Spielberg, Truffaut and Me, a diary about his experiences filming Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
  • Authored children's books featuring a bionic dog named McGrowl.
  • Pitched idea for 2001's Gosford Park to friend Robert Altman, who directed the Emmy-nominated murder mystery; Balaban also acted in and produced the film.