Gurney's Inn
October 17, 2007

Bob Balaban: A Familiar Face – Now In Sharp Focus

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Bob Balaban is one of those guys you see around all the time; you know you know him, but you can't remember from where.

"I get a lot of 'Did I go to high school with you?'" said the multi-talented actor, who is doubly familiar because he happens to live in Bridgehampton. "That's what happens to character actors who live for a long time. You morph into the roles you play as the years go by."

He will be in the bright lights this week when a film he produced and directed, Bernard and Doris, opens the 15th annual Hamptons International Film Festival.

The 62-year-old Chicago native is a household face if not a household name. His first film, Midnight Cowboy in 1969, was one of the most acclaimed of the decade and earned an Oscar for Best Picture. "I was in college," Balaban related. "I wasn't sure if it was a TV movie or what. I was very naive." He said actors working on a movie "have no idea" how a film will do at the box office or at the award shows. "You have no perspective of any kind."

He later appeared in Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, which was the highest grossing film of all time at one point. "We knew Steven Spielberg had directed Jaws which was a huge hit, but we had no idea . . . we knew we liked it."

Balaban has starred in a series of Christopher Guest films, including Waiting for Guffman, Best In Show and A Mighty Wind. The films are unique because the dialogue is improvised.

"Guest and I both acted in a film called Girlfriends . . . we were the boyfriends. He called me before he started Guffman. He told me two sentences about it and I said, "OK, I'm in."

It was completely improvised. There was an outline, and you knew who was going to be in a scene with you and that was it."

"The movies revolved organically," he noted.

While filming Guffman, a lot of the cast played music and sang. "When Christopher realized he had so many talented musicians [A Mighty Wind] kind of grew organically."

About 15 years ago Balaban branched out into directing, and then producing. He produced Gosford Park, directed by Robert Altman, which earned an Oscar nomination for Best Picture. "It's a movie you need to see more than once," he related. "It's fun to observe. It has all the dimensions of an Agatha Christie novel except it's all told through the servants."

The cast featured literally the crème de la crème of the British acting colony including Helen Mirren, Maggie Smith, Emily Watson, Clive Owen and Alan Bates. Balaban, fittingly, playing a Hollywood producer, holds his own and then some among the elite actors of this generation.

"England embraced Robert Altman," he related. "Robert went there and started having tea with all these great actors. Everyone wanted to be in the film. The English don't think of themselves as stars, they are used to being in ensemble casts." The actors worked for scale, he added.

"I loved the script," Balaban said of Bernard and Doris. "I talked to Susan Sarandon and she said yes, she'd love to play Doris Duke. The scene is based on the real life Duke, who was considered at one time to be the richest woman in the world. In 1993 she died and left her fortune to her butler. We wondered who would be good for that role and of course we thought of Ralph Fiennes." It will be screened tonight at East Hampton Cinema at 6 p.m. and again at 6:30 and tomorrow at the Ross School at 8:30 p.m.

Balaban was literally born to be in the business. His family was a dominant force in the theater scene and owned a chain of "picture palaces." He "drew on personal experience" for his role in A Mighty Wind, which was partially filmed in a picturesque theater, though not one the family owned.

In addition to his movie work Balaban, or at least his face, is well known to TV viewers. He had a recurring role as Elaine's boyfriend on "Seinfeld," and has appeared on "Friends," "The West Wing," "Miami Vice" and "Maude" among others.

You've seen him in dozens of movies, including For Your Consideration, Capote, The Burbs, Cradle Will Rock, Deconstructing Harry, The Late Shift, Catch 22, City Slickers II, and The Mexican alongside James Gandolfini of "The Sopranos" fame. "He was a great character actor for many years before 'The Sopranos.'" Gandolfini is now a household name – and face.

"I wouldn't call it a curse," Balaban said of being a celebrity of that magnitude. "Most of the people I know take it in stride. That's why people spend money to see you, and you accept that fact."

As for Balaban, he is happily ensconced in a newly built house. "I keep busy," he said.

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