Over the course of his 40 year career, Bob Balaban has worn numerous hats. He’s been a writer, a director, and a producer, but he’s most well known as an actor, appearing in Catch-22, Midnight Cowboy, 2010, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, many Christopher Guest films, Seinfeld - just to name only a few.
It was in Close Encounters that he played the role of the translator, David Laughlin, and it was the on-set relationship with Francios Truffaut during the film that formed the backbone of his wonderful - and highly recommended - memoir of this period, Spielberg, Truffaut and Me: An Actor’s Diary, which provided a good enough excuse to do this interview.
The real reason, though, is that Balaban’s one of those actors you always see on the screen, and his is a career I thought would be fascinating to find out about. I certainly enjoyed finding out more about him, and I hope you do, as well.
Here’s my interview with Bob Balaban…
KEN PLUME: Am I correct in understanding that you’re from a Hollywood dynasty?
BOB BALABAN: A very quiet Hollywood dynasty. My dad was born in Chicago in 1908… his parents came from Russia. They settled in Chicago, where they lived in a little tiny grocery store with eight or nine children - in the backroom all together - and my grandmother got the idea to go into the movie business. She basically went to a nickelodeon one day with two of the older brothers - Barney and John, I believe - and realized that there was this thing called the movie business, where, when the product got stale, you didn’t throw it away like an old bunch of lettuce - you merely sent it back to the movie company and they sent you back another movie. So immediately, this appealed to her. Also, it was a business that was never done on credit, while their little struggling grocery business was a lot of people writing down chits and then never paying it back, because my grandfather was a very sweet person and hated to collect from other poor people. So the movie business was the perfect thing for them, and about a couple years later they had built several theaters. By the ’20s in Chicago, they had the largest chain of theaters in the Mid-west and eventually merged with Paramount. My Uncle Barney, my father’s oldest brother, became Chairman of the Board and President of Paramount in the ’30s and remained for many years. Sam Katz, who was the partner in Balaban and Katz - who was at that point married to my aunt - went off to run MGM and become head of production for many years, including the musical years with all those great things they did in Arthur Freed’s musical unit.
PLUME: How much of that legacy was surrounding you during your childhood years?
BALABAN: Nothing. I was basically unaware of it. First of all, if your relatives are doing something when you’re born, you kind of assume - I did, anyway - that it was unusual. I didn’t pay too much attention to it. Later on, I’m now completely fascinated in everything they did, and it’s just so historically interesting to me, I wish I knew more about it. I’m always trying to read about it and talk to older relatives, very old relatives at this point, obviously, and I’m really, really interested in it. But as a kid, I wasn’t aware of it particularly, other than the fact that I could go to movies for free.
PLUME: Were your childhood years spent in the Hollywood area?
BALABAN: No, no, no….
PLUME: Or were you part of the Chicago contingent?
BALABAN: You have to remember - the theaters were in Chicago, my parents always stayed in Chicago… as did most of the relatives. Barney eventually moved to New York, because Paramount Pictures was run out of New York - even though the studio was in Los Angeles, the ownership was always in New York.
PLUME: The actual corporate offices…
BALABAN: Yeah, they always were. Even when Gulf and Western took over, there were big offices on 1500 Columbus Circle. But you have to remember, the Paramount building was 1501 Broadway - it’s still there. It’s a great old building, and Barney, I’m sure, used to fly to California frequently, and certainly was on the phone, I’m sure, all the time, but didn’t spend much time in Los Angeles.
PLUME: But the main home base for the family was still in Chicago.
BALABAN: Yeah, a lot of Chicago relatives.
PLUME: How long did the family own this theater chain?
BALABAN: Oh, I guess 30 years or something - 40 years? Longer.
PLUME: Was your father involved in that business at all?
BALABAN: My dad was the baby. When he was born they were already successful. They sent him to business school - he probably would have loved to have been a poet or a writer or something, and he was very creative. This never went away for him. When he got older, they helped set him up in business in a chain of art houses in Chicago. He built a wonderful, landmark theater in Chicago called the Esquire Theater, and owned the Chicago and the Carnegie, and some other wonderful theaters where I loved going when I was a teenager, and eventually became a pioneer in cable television and owned and operated a series of stations around the country… also some radio stations and other things. He was the baby, he was more into some of the new technology, and was very forward thinking, all the time. Great man… he died last year at the age of 92.
PLUME: Am I correct that he was also a pioneer in the idea of pay-per-view?
BALABAN: Yes, he was. As early as the late ’50s, as I remember it, he was working with an inventor to try to figure out some kind of way that you could get first run movies and other special events into your home, on your television set, by paying per view. At one point he came home with a box that you put quarters into, that would enable a signal to be transmitted, release the signal, and you could see all these amazing things for 50 cents or a dollar, whatever it turned out to be. This obviously was not the wave of the future, technologically, but it obviously was - he had grasped immediately the concept of how much …
PLUME: Convenience entertainment?
BALABAN: Convenience entertainment, not leaving the house. I mean, the whole idea of movies was it was special to go to see - you went to a movie theater to see something that was magical and amazing, in a very special location. But obviously as television began, it so undercut movies that he was trying to think of a way to combine seeing these special things, and the fact that people were just captivated by the magic box.
PLUME: So, monetarily, the best of both worlds.
BALABAN: Yeah. And it still proves to be.
PLUME: How would you describe your childhood?
BALABAN: A lot of puppets. I was very much in my room with my marionette stage, you know, creating these incredibly boring things that I felt were so fascinating, and forcing my relatives to come, and charging money for them to see my little productions.
PLUME: What were the standard thematics behind the productions that you would mount?
BALABAN: Oh, I never thought about it thematically too much… I’d be embarrassed to talk about it. But I’m kidding - ultimately it was thematically about lost people. I was probably writing sort of existential, Sartre-like puppet shows long before I had ever read No Exit. That’s what my puppet shows were like - you can imagine. We had people on clouds, floating about, not knowing where they were or what life really was, and people, characters, who would populate a play and then turned out not to be real.
PLUME: So definitely not the standard Punch and Judy that other kids would be doing…
BALABAN: No. If anyone would have been paying serious attention to my puppet shows, I would have been sent to therapy very young.
PLUME: Were they issues you were working out, or …
BALABAN: There was no working out. I’m from the Midwest, and I loved my family. I had a very good time as a child, but I was also - I have a theory about Jews growing up in the Midwest, that there is an ultimately sort of wonderful avoidance of a lot of things, and a great acceptance of whatever is happening. Which, if it’s okay and it’s nothing too terrible, you were kind of left to grow up on your own. My family was loving… they were very supportive and very affectionate, and basically I could do what I wanted, and basically it wasn’t anything dangerous, thank God.
PLUME: So do you think it was more a matter of living in the now, as opposed to forward thinking?
BALABAN: Yes, I would say it was very much that. You know, “They’re okay, the kids, let them be - they’ll be fine.” And more or less, we were.
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