It’s finally here! The sixth annual What a Character Blogathon! 2017…
It’s great to once again be contributing to this wonderful blogathon. It’s become my favorite event each year. And I’m grateful to all three marvelous bloggers who put this bash together! It’s a fantastic line up so stick around for the next few days and enjoy the tribute being paid to those wonderful character actors and supportive players who made the movies full of… well CHARACTER!!!
Hosted by that fabulously fanatic film friend Aurora from Once Upon A Screen…
This year I’m focusing on one of my all time favorites, one of those great familiar faces–Martin Balsam!
“I think the average guy has always identified with me.“-Martin Balsam
“The supporting role is always potentially the most interesting in a film.”
“I’ll tell you, I still don’t feel whatever change you’re supposed to feel when your name goes up above the title. I think that’s because this star thing has never been the first consideration with me. Never. The work has always come first.”
Martin Henry Balsam nicknamed “The Bronx Barrymore” by columnist Earl Wilson, was born November 4, 1919, in the Bronx to Lillian and Albert Balsam. His mother was born in New York City to Russian Jewish parents, and his father was a Russian Jewish immigrant. Martin Balsam is like a comfortable friend, he could even be my father.
Martin participated in the Drama Club at DeWitt Clinton High School in New York. After high school, he attended the New School for Acting. But when WWII started, he enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Force. After WWII, Martin worked as an usher at Radio City Music Hall and was selected by Elia Kazan and Lee Strasburg to join the Actors Studio. A struggling actor living in Greenwich Village, Balsam started acting on Broadway in the late 1940s,” I ate a lot of mashed potatoes in those days. It was 1950 and I was 30 years old… I thought I had better learn to do something with my hands before it was too late.” He finally established himself as an actor in 1951 in Tennessee Williams’ “The Rose Tattoo.” He won a Tony for “You Know I Can’t Hear You When the Water’s Running” and an Obie for “In Cold Storage.”
After his success on Broadway, Balsam began working in television, becoming known for regular parts on shows like the United States Steel Hour, The Philco-Goodyear Television Playhouse, Studio One in Hollywood, and the Goodyear Playhouse. In 1955 he starred in episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Twilight Zone, and as a result, was offered the supporting role of Detective Milton Arbogast in Psycho (1960). After Psycho, he played strong parts in films like Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), Cape Fear (1962), and The Carpetbaggers (1964). In 1965, he won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for “A Thousand Clowns.” His later television appearances included a regular role as Archie Bunker’s Jewish business partner Murray in “Archie Bunker’s Place.”
During his 50-year film career, he worked with top film directors like Alfred Hitchcock, Elia Kazan, Martin Scorsese, John Frankenheimer, and Sidney Lumet. After his success in the U.S., he accepted roles in European films, spending much of his later years in Italy.
Balsam was married 3 times. Actress Talia Balsam is his daughter, with his second wife, actress Joyce Van Patten. He died while in Rome from a heart attack on Feb. 13th, 1996 at age 76. He was survived by his third wife Irene Miller and three children, Adam, Zoe, and Talia.
Balsam could play anything: a vengeful mob boss, a blustering pompous politico, a Mexican stagecoach driver, an Italian train line director, a flaming antiques dealer/caper crew member, a disgruntled subway motorman turned lukewarm hijacker with a tale-tell head cold.
Balsam could either play at being the old school seasoned good cop, or the jaded bad cop, a humble talent agent scraping by to make a living but comfortable with who he is, an average Joe, he was perfect as a nonconfrontational jury foreman, an over-eager opportunistic Colonel, or a quirky snake oil salesman in the wild west who keeps losing parts of his body. Several times he played the old Hollywood studio mogul and a private investigator who gets more than he bargains for when he meets a psychotic old lady wielding a very large knife at the Bates Motel. And many more supportive parts that helped the sum total of whatever he was performing in to become even better because of his presence.
For over 55 years Balsam entertained us on the theatrical stage, in feature films, television plays, and tv series as well as serious made for tv movies. His roles run a wide range from his first appearance in the 1949’s tv show Suspense, to later on appearing in several Italian crime thrillers in the 70s.
He deservedly got the nomination for the Golden Globe Awards – (1974) Best Supporting Actor – Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams (Nominated) and won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor as Jason Robards brother Arnold in A Thousand Clowns 1965.
Martin Balsam is an everyman. His familiar comfortable face and voice are easy for us to make a connection with because he appears to be one of us. My father was raised in the Bronx and also worked in the garment district like Martin’s father -til the mid-70s- I myself am a Russian Jew. Whenever I see him in something I think to myself, now we have the whole mishpocha, he’s like kin!
Every performance of Martin Balsam seems to be seasoned with a dash of significant flavor -his presence always makes whatever he’s appearing in more potent, salient, and that much more comprehensible.
He more often in his roles exudes an authentic and, likable personality. Balsam is a ubiquitous guy, his performances always manage to deliver an extra special bit of realism or something familiar that makes it feel special. He exudes true accessibility as an ordinary 5’7 guy. But he also has the ability to transcend that average guy persona we can relate to and adopt a quirky either lovable or despicable character. Yet- he is not only the everyman. He’s also one of the most versatile actors, never playing the same character or role twice. Sometimes mild-mannered, sometimes bombastic, at times a face of still waters, at times a volatile geyser of emotions!
While he does epitomize the ordinary guy, Balsam stretched his range that included Italian crime films, serious teleplays, made for tv movies, feature classic films as well as a few quirky offbeat films
It may seem easy to be an ‘everyman’, to portray an ordinary fella whose personality is based on conformity and quiet acquiescence. But to be a regular guy who possesses many layers and dimensions, who isn’t just a flat cut-out figure to fill out the plot… that takes talent, that is acting magic!
Martin Balsam draws you in and makes the experience memorable. That’s what makes him one of the most versatile and recognizable actors. I wish I had been able to see him on stage in the theater, but I regret that I was too young to experience that great time in our culture when the New York City theatre was thriving with Strasberg-trained actors.
Martin Balsam has been imprinted on our collective consciousness with his legendary death scene in Hitchcock’s Psycho 1960 as Detective Arbogast who gets up close and personal with Norman’s knife-wielding rage-filled mother only to stumble backward (wonderful bit of camerawork by John L. Russell) down the staircase at the Bates Motel—the quintessential cinematic scene still remains a shocker today!
While Jason Robards delivers a superb portrayal of an iconoclast living outside of society, railing against conformity, trying to raise his wonderfully compassionate nephew in search of a name, played by Barry Gordon (who also did the character on stage) in the film version adapted from the stage play of 1962, A Thousand Clowns 1965, Balsam’s performance as his brother Arnold is the quintessential downtrodden man who has risen above the grind to find inner peace and satisfaction with who he is: Balsam plays Arnold without a hint of artifice.
It was this impassioned performance in A Thousand Clowns that won Balsam’s Best Supporting Actor Academy Award.
A few of my favorite performances are his flamboyant decorator/ in on the caper Tommy Haskins in director Sidney Lumet’s The Anderson Tapes 1971. And of course, I particularly love his Harold Longman aka ”Mr. Green”, the reluctant subway train hijacker with that pesky head cold, which ultimately gets him pinched because of an ironic ill-fated “atchoo” just as the dauntless Walter Matthau’s police Lt. Zachary Garberin is leaving his NYC apartment checking up on Longman as a suspect in the original 1974 classic version of director Joseph Sargent’s The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974). I loved his portrayal of the wise Mendez in director Martin Ritt’s Hombre 1967, And then there’s Bianchi who is quick to pin the murder on everyone Poirot interrogates in director Sidney Lumet’s wonderful Murder on the Orient Express 1974. One of his most heartbreaking roles is that of Dr. Harry Walden, an eye doctor who is beaten down and haunted by the ghosts of war, married to Joanne Woodward an ice queen in Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams (1973). Professor Ruzinsky the dotty academic who translates the portion of Paradise Lost Balsam’s characterization of an eccentric adds humor to Michael Winner’s frightening 70s horror masterpiece The Sentinel (1977). And in Contract on Cherry Street (tv movie) 1977 Balsam plays the hardened and world-weary Capt. Ernie Weinberg is beaten down and beleaguered and just can’t deal with the reality of fighting against the system that allows criminals to reign over his beloved New York City.
Balsam started out as part of the Method Actors led by Lee Strasberg along with actor and friend Shelley Winters who shared the stage with him in the 1950s.
Shelley wanted to return to the theater after feeling strangled by her 7-year contract with Universal Studios. At that time, she was friends with Method actors like Elaine Stritch, Ben Gazzara Kim Stanley Virginia Vincent Tony Franciosa (her then-husband) Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, and our wonderful Martin Balsam. Shelley wanted to do a Summerstock tour of her play Wedding Breakfast. Shelley and Marty met with a hot new director Sidney Lumet hoping at the end of the play they could shoot it as a film script. Unfortunately, Shelley didn’t have faith in her erratic husband Tony Franciosa and so she canceled the project, which made Lumet angry.
The two would come together again on television in 1964 for Bob Hope Presents the Chrysler Theatre’s “Two is the Number” Later once again they both co-starred in The Delta Force 1986.
At the Actor’s Studio Balsam was in great company with friends and co-stars the likes of Geraldine Page, Rip Torn, Ben Gazzara, Julie Harris, Barbara Harris, Anne Bancroft, Maureen Stapleton, Jane Fonda, Anne Jackson, Eli Wallach, Burgess Meredith, Walter Matthau, Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, Estelle Parsons, Marilyn Monroe and Franchot Tone. Working with writers, Arthur Penn, Arthur Miller, William Inge, and Clifford Odets.
You can see a full list of his work at IMDb but here is a list of some of my favorite Martin Balsam filmography stopping at the mid-1980s:
Television shows such as: Suspense 1949, Inner Sanctum 1954, Goodyear Playhouse (TV Series) 1954-1956, Kraft Theatre tv series 1958, Studio One in Hollywood (TV Series) 1957-1958, Decoy tv series 1958, Playhouse 90 (TV Series) 1958-1959, Have Gun – Will Travel (TV Series) 1958-1960, Roald Dahl’s Way Out (TV Series) 1961, Alfred Hitchcock Presents (TV Series) 1958-1961, The New Breed (TV Series) 1961, Naked City (TV Series) 1959-1962, The Untouchables (TV Series) 1961-1962, Route 66 (TV Series), The Twilight Zone (TV Series) 1959-1963, The Defenders tv series 1961-1964, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. tv series 1965, Dr. Kildare tv series 1926-1966, The Fugitive tv series 1967, The Name of the Game 1968-1970, The Six Million Dollar Man 1973, Police Story tv series 1973, Kojak 1974 tv series, Maude 1976 tv series, Quincy M.E. 1982 (Tv Series), Archie Bunker’s Place (tv series 45 episodes) as Murray Klein–Previously they had performed together in the The Sacco-Vanzetti Story on Sunday Showcase (1959)
Television Movies: The Old Man Who Cried Wolf (1970), Night of Terror (1972), Trapped Beneath the Sea (1974), Death Among Friends (1975), The Lindbergh Kidnapping Case (1976), Raid on Entebbe (1976), Contract on Cherry Street (1977), The House on Garibaldi Street (1979), The People vs. Jean Harris (1981), I Want to Live (1983) remake
Feature Films: On the Waterfront 1954 uncredited as Gillette, 12 Angry Men 1957 as the Foreman Juror 1, Time Limit 1957 as Sgt. Baker, Marjorie Morningstar 1958 as Dr. David Harris, Middle of the Night 1959 as Jack, Psycho 1960 as Detective Milton Arbogast, Ada 1961 as Steve Jackson, Breakfast at Tiffany’s 1961 as O.J. Berman, Cape Fear 1962 as Police Chief Mark Dutton, Seven Days in May 1964 as Paul Girard, The Carpetbaggers 1964, Come Back Little Sheba 1965 as Doc Delaney, Harlow 1965 as Everett Redman, The Bedford Incident 1965 as Lt. Cmdr.
Chester Potter, M.D., U.S.N., A Thousand Clowns 1965 as Arnold, Hombre 1967 as Henry Mendez, The Good Guys and the Bad Guys 1969 as Mayor Wilker, Catch-22 1970 as Colonel Cathcart, Tora! Tora! Tora! 1970 as Admiral Husband E. Kimmel, Little Big Man 1970 as Mr. Merriweather, The Anderson Tapes 1971 as Tommy Haskins, The Stone Killer 1973 as mob boss Al Vescari, Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams 1973 as Harry Walden, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three 1974 as Harold Longman aka Mr. Green, Murder on the Orient Express 1974 as Bianchi, Mitchell 1975 as James Arthur Cummings, All the President’s Men 1976 as Howard Simons, Two-Minute Warning 1976 as Sam McKeever, The Sentinel 1977 as Professor Ruzinsky, Silver Bears 1977 as Joe Flore, The Delta Force 1986 as Ben Kaplan, St. Elmo’s Fire 1985 as Mr. Beamish alongside real ex-wife Joyce Van Patten.
A special note of Balsam’s Italian Crime films: Confessions of a Police Captain 1971 as Commissario Bonavia, Chronicle of a Homicide 1972 as Giudice Aldo Sola, Counselor at Crime 1973 as Don Antonio Macaluso, Smiling Maniacs 1975 as Carlo Goja, Season for Assassins 1975 as Commissioner Katroni, Meet Him and Die 1976 as Giulianelli, The Warning 1980 as Quester Martorana
HERE ARE SOME MEMORABLE SCENES FROM BALSAM’S IMPRESSIVE CAREER
A Thousand Clowns 1965″I have a talent for surrender”
Directed by Fred Coe Famous broadway play comes to the screen with memorable performances by all the principles in standout jobs by Jason Robards as a talented nonconformist and Barry Gordon as his precocious ward. They struggle against welfare bureaucracy in order to stay together. Funny and poignant throughout. Martin Balsam’s performance as Brother Arnold lends the axel of normalcy to the entire shenanigans with his fresh fruit and common sense-filled equilibrium.
12 Angry Men 1957
Directed by Sidney Lumet. Martin Balsam plays the unassuming jury foreman who tries to keep the proceedings run by the rules but soon finds out that many of the jurors are racist, filled with rage, apathetic, and just in a rush to get the ballgame even when a young man’s accused of murder’s life hangs in the balance.
Little Big Man 1970
Directed by Arthur Penn, Dustin Hoffman plays Jack Crabbe who recalls 121 of his adventurous years ending with General Custer’s Last Stand. Told in flashback it tells of numerous encounters in the Old West. One of the most touching relationships is with his chosen Grandfather Old Lodge Skins played by Chief Dan George. Martin Balsam is perfect as the irascible Mr. Merriweather a snake oil salesman who with each town he gets chased out of, winds up losing an eye, an ear, then a hand then a leg. And after all that getting tarred and feathered to boot! But he still has a mouth to crack wise with and ponder life’s deep questions
The Carpetbaggers 1964
Directed by Edward Dymtryk. Howard Hughe’s like millionaire George Peppard Jonas Cord is a rude and unfeeling rich young tycoon who makes movies about love and enemies in the Hollywood of the 1920 & 30s. Alan Ladd as a Tom Mix clone helps in this his last picture. Carroll Baker is steamy and very tame compared to the porno-edged Harold Robbins novel. Martin Balsam plays studio Mogal Bernard B. Norman.
Murder on the Orient Express 1974
Directed by Sidney Lumet. Albert Finny is astonishing as Agatha Christies Belgian detective
Hercule Poirot is stranded on the train by snow and a murderer where nothing is as it seems. With an extraordinary cast of characters Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman, and Jacqueline Bisset. Jean-Pierre Cassel, Sean Connery, John Gielgud, Anthony Perkins, Wendy Hiller, Vanessa Redgrave, Rachel Roberts, Richard Widmark, Michael York, Colin Blakely, and of course, Martin Balsam is animated and hilariously radiant as the Italian Bianchi -head of the train line, who suspects everyone!
Contract on Cherry Street 1977
Directed by William A. Graham
When Frank Sinatra’s partner is killed, NYC detective Frank Hovannes and his organized-crime squad go against the mob run by Martin Gabel, despite strong objections from his superiors and the legal-departmental restrictions that hinder him. Martin Balsam plays Capt. Ernie Weinberg a career cop who is just worn down by all the bureaucracy. The chemistry between Sinatra and Balsam is terrific. Very well done for a made for tv film. Good supporting performances by Harry Guardino and Henry Silva.
Directed by Mike Nichols. This black comedy about the absurdity of war stars Alan Arkin as a soldier during World War II. The dilemma of trying to avoid insanity or to embrace it in order to get out of duty. Orson Welles plays a rabid general who keeps scheduling more and more bombing missions, and Martin Balsam as the blustering opportunistic Colonel Cathcart adds an extra edge of preposterous folly and audacity
Directed by Martin Ritt
Henry Mendez (Martin Balsam) plays a sage Mexican who himself has been treated less than by the white man because of his heritage. Mendez tells John Russell (Paul Newman -Hombre) the stagecoach line is shutting down because of the railroad and urges John Russell to return to his White Man’s roots and take over a boarding house left to John by his deceased stepfather.
Henry Mendez is the stagecoach driver paid by Alexander Favor to transport him and his family. Mendez decides to take the back road to Bisbee Arizona because of a suspicious group of men (led by outlaw Richard Boone), in the area. Alexander Favor (Fredric March) makes Henry do his dirty work and tell John Russell that he has to ride on top with Mendez when Alexander finds out that John Russell is a White Man raised as an Apache. Mendez doesn’t see the point in fighting this because he has seen how it isn’t worth making trouble. Co-stars Barbara Rush as Alexander Favor’s wife Audra.
Cape Fear 1962
Directed by J. Lee Thompson Cape Fear is a taut thriller about a lawyer (Gregory Peck) and his family being menaced by a vengeful psychopathic ex-con Max Cady played with authentic relish causing real chills by Robert Mitchum. CADY blames Sam Bowden (Peck) for sending him up the river and now that he is out. he’s got disturbing plans for his family. Martin Balsam plays Sam’s friend Police Chief Mark Dutton who tries to help him protect himself though it seems Cady has ways of getting around the law.
The Sentinel 1977
Directed by Michael Winner. This is a simple nightmarish adult fairy tale about a young model Alison Parker (Christina Raines) who has been picked by a secret cult of catholic priests to become the next sentinel to watch over the gates of hell, which happens to be a brownstone in Brooklyn Heights. (the building is still there) While renting this lovely furnished apartment she meets a host of weird characters that may or may not exist. When odd occurrences begin to drive Alison mad, her boyfriend lawyer Michael (Chris Sarandon) looks for help from various criminal elements locks pickers, private eyes, and our man Martin Balsam as Professor Ruzinsky to help translate a passage in Latin. Balsam is hilarious as the forgetful & nutty old professor. Co-stars Ava Gardner, Burgess Meredith
Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode “The Equalizer” aired February 9, 1958
Marty plays a mild-mannered accountant Eldon Marsh who is called “little man” too often after the new company hot shot who is much bigger and stronger Wayne Phillips (Leif Erickson) humiliates him and steals his wife (Norma Crane). Eldon gets punched a lot but still defends his honor by challenging Phillips (Erickson) to a fight to the death
Naked City episode “Beyond Truth” aired July 7 1959
Directed by John Brahm
Martin Balsam plays Arnold Fleischmann who is haunted by a reoccurring nightmare. Arnold has served time in jail for manslaughter when driving drunk he hits and kills a little girl. Now his wife seeks out the help of Det. James ‘Jimmy’ Halloran (James Fransiscus) of the 65th Precinct to re-investigate the case, as she has never believed that Arnold was driving that night. But Arnold refuses to cooperate with the police and just wants to leave it in the past. But the evidence does look like Arnold’s been framed for the killing and that the wrong man has been convicted. Balsam plays a sobering and sad guy who has come to accept the hand he’s been dealt.
The Twilight Zone episode “The Sixteen Millimeter Shrine” aired October 23, 1959
Written by Rod Serling. Ida Lupino plays Barbara Jean Trenton a faded film star who lives in the past, constantly re-watching her old movies and shunning the outside world. Martin Balsam plays her agent, Danny Weiss who tries to get her to come out of isolation, even getting her a part in a new film, though it’s not a lead nor a glamorous role. Danny tries so hard to get Barbara to see that it’s no good living in the past, and though she refuses to embrace what’s new, Danny stands by her loyally ultimately with frightening and uncanny results.
Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams 1973 “I have to stand someplace, someplace that I’ve stood before!”
Directed by Gilbert Cates the story follows the journey of depression experienced by housewife Rita Walden. At the opening of the film, Rita loses her overbearing mother played by Sylvia Sidney. Martin Balsam does an incredible job of stoically navigating around Rita’s ice-water emotions, though he has ghosts of his own that he quietly battles. Somehow through all the harsh words and bitter detachments, the couple seems to find each other again at the end. Balsam was nominated for the 1974 Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actor as Dr. Henry Walden unloved by his unemotional wife finally articulates his feelings and confronts his pain head-on while on a trip to France revisiting Bastogne where he was stationed during the war. It’s an outstanding performance that shows Balsam’s acting range, as he shakes off the average guy persona and reaches deep inside and bares his soul.
Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams 1973
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock After Marion Crane steals money from her employer and runs off into the night staying at the Bates Motel run by the gentle young man Norman -which leads to her terrifying demise, her sister and lover Lila Crane (Vera Miles) and Sam Loomis ( John Gavin) hires a private detective Det. Milton Arbogast to find Marion. Balsam plays the edgy Arbogast who isn’t buying sweet and humble Norman’s story that he’s never seen, Marion Crane. Arbogast is not one to be put off, he suspects Norman’s mother knows something and secretly goes up tot he house on the hill to investigate. to his ‘downfall’ Sorry for that cheap pun!
The Anderson Tapes 1971
Director Sidney Lumet’s taut action thriller about an ex-con (Sean Connery) under surveillance who wants to pull off The Big Heist, consisting of loot and treasures from the affluent tenants of a high-rise apartment where his lover/call girl (Diane Cannon) lives. Martin Balsam plays the wonderfully exuberant interior designer Tommy who helps out with the caper.
The Taking of Pelham One Two Three 1974
Directed by Joseph Sargent -Walter Matthau plays the belly-aching gum chewing Police Lt. Zachary Garber chief of security on the New York City subway. A band of clever thugs led by Robert Shaw as Bernard Ryder aka Mr. Blue has hijacked a commuter train, demanding a ransom of $1 million dollars or they will start killing the passengers one by one. Martin Balsam plays Harold Longman aka Mr. Green plagued by a really bad head cold, and sneezes throughout the film so much so that Lt. Garber recognizes it, even replying “Gesundheit”. Green is also a bit reluctant throughout the caper, but he’s disgruntled for having lost his job as a transit worker.