Martin Balsam: A Very Busy Character Actor

I had been kicking around the notion of writing about actor Martin Balsam for awhile, then fellow blogger Pete’s desert island film list mentioned him in several films. Balsam was a face everyone will recognize; his work lives on in his hundreds of appearances on the big and small screen. He was an actor’s actor. And a bit of trivia, George Clooney was married to Balsam’s daughter at one time.

So, here goes.

Balsam might be remembered from Psycho, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, or as a co-star on Archie Bunker’s Place. In a career that spanned 50 years, Balsam began in the theater and was a member of the Actor’s Studio, before he found success in the early days of television and moved back and forth to the big screen throughout his career. Balsam was awarded a Tony Award (1968) for his performance in You Know I Can’t Hear You When the Water’s Running.

Balsam’s first significant film role was as the jury foreman in 12 Angry Men (1957). Following other television and minor film roles, Balsam surfaced as private investigator Arbogast in Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960). His career never slowed down, his last film role debuted after his death in 1996.

Arbogast meets Mother

Comedy or drama, film or television, Balsam gave you a solid performance each time out. Even as a young man, Balsam had that “lived-in” look and projected a maturity beyond his years. Short, balding, a bit chunky, and a deep smoker’s voice. Balsam did not change a great deal over the course of his career, perhaps grayer, but always what producers wanted. Even later in his career, Balsam exuded a warmth and sparkle that allowed him to be cast as the occasional semi-romantic feature actor. As a man over 55, he played men who still had lead in his pencil.

The 1960s and 1970s were golden years for Balsam who would accumulate more than 175 acting credits, not counting his theater work. Balsam played every imaginable character. He was quoted as saying that people saw the everyman in his performances. He could be gruff or sympathetic, a louse or a quiet hero, make you laugh or raise your blood pressure. While you were witnessing great acting, you didn’t see an actor, you saw a real character.

Hitchcock hired him for the small, but critical role of the investigator who is attacked by Mother/Norman in Psycho. Balsam worked steadily in television as he waited juicy film roles like the agent in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), where shows off his gift for comedy. What’s funny is when Balsam plays against type.

Breakfast at Tiffini’s

He played the police chief in the thriller, Cape Fear (1962), then returned to comedy as one of Dean Martin’s poker-playing buddies in the sex/comedy, Who’s Been Sleeping in My Bed? (1963). Balsam scored a plum role in John Frankenheimer’s political thriller, Seven Days in May (1964), adapted by Rod Serling, it is a riveting film about a potential military coup in America, Starring Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas. Think it could not happen? Guess again.

Seven Days in May

The quality of Balsam’s films and his parts were rising. In 1965, he appeared in A Thousand Clowns, as the brother of Jason Robards. This is a fine few people admit to seeing, yet it was well-respected and a biting bit of satire at the time. Balsam’s performance won him the Best Supporting Oscar. What you see in his performance is what he was good at: measured intensity and the ability to project comedy and tragedy at the same time.

Hombre (1967) is a film chocked full of great performances. Paul Newman is a white man more comfortable in the Native American world. Balsam plays Henry Mendoza, the stage driver, who tries to keep his passengers safe as they are hunted by outlaws. His is a small, but important role, playing an honorable, yet somewhat weak man. This is a terrific film.

Balsam would have featured parts in two satirical films, neither big hits, but his performances were on the money. In The Good Guys and the Bad Guys (1969), he plays the mayor who’s first priority it keeping this job in this Western, in the spirit of Butch Cassidy and Support Your Local Sheriff. Balsam’s next film was part of the wacky film adaption of Catch-22 by Mike Nichols. Balsam played Colonel Cathcart, the commander of the base, who thinks he knows what’s going on, but really has no clue. The film was a failure, but the individual performances are grand, including Balsam’s idiot officer.

In the 1970s, Balsam probably had his best string of television and film roles as he was now in his 50s, an Oscar and Tony recipient. He was the co-lead in a number of made-for-television films, was the featured guest star in many television series appearances, and landed some meaty feature films. He was one of many familiar names in the big budget World War II film, Tora! Tora! Tora!; part of Sean Connery’s criminal gang in The Anderson Tapes, directed by Sidney Lumet. Balsam plays a wildly different character. Other popular films Balsam appeared in were Little Big Man (1970) with Dustin Hoffman, and The Stone Killer (1973) with Charles Bronson.

Balsam is remembered as one of the subway hijackers in The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974). He was the good natured thief, who had the cold, which gave him away. Through the rest of the decade, Balsam had featured roles in these films. Murder on the Orient Express (1974), Mitchell (1975), All the President’s Men (1976), Two-Minute Warning (1977) and Cuba (1979). The two best films were Murder on the Orient Express and All the President’s Men.

Television also offered him some choice roles in made-for-television films, like a starring role in Miles to Go Before I Sleep, Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams, The Lindbergh Kidnapping Case, Contract on Cherry Street, The Storyteller, Raid on Entebbe and The House of Garibaldi Street. These were not cheapo television films, rather big dollar projects with notable writers/directors, and stars like Charles Bronson, Joanne Woodward, Topol and Frank Sinatra.

Archie Bunker’s Place

In the 1980s, Balsam was still busy on both the large and small screen, but he was not getting parts in the big budget films. His roles were in smaller films or films financed overseas. Delta Force, Death Wish 3 and The Brother from Space were the quality of his feature films. Television roles took up the slack and he signed on as Archie’s tavern partner in Archie Bunker’s Place for 45 episodes.

Balsam often took roles as a crime boss, some of those were Italian projects which allowed him to travel to Italy. He made several films with actor Franco Nero. It was in Italy that he passed away in 1996.

7 thoughts on “Martin Balsam: A Very Busy Character Actor

  1. I did not know he won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. Must amend my piece! Nice bio, and I really like “While you were witnessing great acting, you didn’t see an actor, you saw a real character.”


  2. Pete sent me over to have a look at your piece. Well done. Im a character actor flag waver and Martin was one of the best. So many good roles (that you more than touched on). He had such a strong presence even in all the male driven films he was in. When you are truthful and in the moment as an actor, you have done your job. Balsam was money on that point. Good stuff. Later


      1. My pleasure. Martin and the great English actor Patrick Magee were joined at the hip in my film watching. They both made any film they were in better.
        Ill bracket some time and get over to have a better look at your takes. Looks like we have some common ground plus other things i have missed or overlooked.


  3. Yeah. Always rooting for the character actors. Martin is one of the greats. Even when he appeared on Archie Bunker’s Place, he elevated it.

    Speaking of which, Carroll O’ Connor never gets the credit due as a great character actor. Now that we can see, via re-runs of his work as Archie Bunker and In the Heat of the Night: wow. I remember, as a kid, watching him on TV in a movie, Hawaii. I didn’t know him outside of Archie at that point and it really threw me, at the time. Same for Jean Stapleton: when I first saw her outside of Edith, it blew me away.


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