Bob Balaban, behind the camera for HBO’s ‘Bernard and Doris’

[12 February 2008]

By Luaine Lee

McClatchy-Tribune News Service (MCT)

SANTA MONICA, Calif.—Actor Bob Balaban is a force to be reckoned with - all 5 foot 5 ¾ of him. Most people know him from his roles in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “Prince of the City” “Waiting for Guffman” or “Gosford Park,” in which he played a Hollywood producer adrift among the English aristocracy of the `30s.

“I was playing the way I feel when I’m in London which is, `Oh, God, I’m just so inappropriate,’” he says in an office at HBO headquarters here.

“I don’t mean to be - I just talk too loudly, I’m not right, I’m not neat enough. I do always feel like a particular mess when I’m in London.”

Actually, Balaban was the producer on that film and though they tried to find another actor to play the part, no one else could quite fit the bill.

Balaban also is a director, whose credits include “The Exonerated,” “Oz” and now “Bernard and Doris” starring Susan Sarandon and Ralph Feinnes, showing on HBO. “Bernard and Doris” is the tale of the odd relationship between tobacco heiress Doris Duke and her gay, alcoholic butler.

The film deftly examines the bizarre chemistry between these two dissimilar creatures. “I find it very satisfying to see a relationship between two people who on the surface appear as if they would have nothing to do with each other,” says Balaban, who’s dressed in a navy zip-up sweatshirt, brown wide-wale corduroy pants and round, tortoise shell glasses.

“What is it about them that interested each other? And there was clearly something there that attracted them to each other like a magnet. And they couldn’t get anything from each other essentially. She was not going to get sex from him and he was not really going to get her money, so there was something psychological that they got from each other. It was really fun to explore that,” he says.

Though he probably wouldn’t describe himself that way, Balaban is an explorer in many ways. His dad and six uncles were all part of a giant theater chain in Chicago, with Uncle Barney eventually heading Paramount Studios in Hollywood.

It would seem natural for Balaban to follow suit. “If anything had been expected of me it would’ve been for me to be an executive or producer maybe - never an actor. My parents were very tolerant, but anybody on that side of things wouldn’t really dream that their child would become an actor. It’s too fly-by-night. It’s just the wrong side of the brain basically to be working on. But they were very supportive. My mother had been an actress briefly before she married my father. They were first cousins once removed, which explains why we’re all short - happy but short.”

He was a sophomore at NYU when he started snatching roles. “I auditioned for Mike Nichols got to be in `Plaza Suite’ and then he cast me in `Catch 22.’ And I did `Midnight Cowboy’ as well, so my first two movies were rather - you could work a long time and not work with the caliber of Mike Nichols and John Schlesinger. I thought, `This is going OK, I’d better continue to do this if I possibly can.’”

When he made “Prince of the City” with Sidney Lumet, he had the luxury of observing the master at work. Later he convinced the director to let him monitor the entire directorial process on Lumet’s next film, “Death Trap.” “When it was over I thought, `Wow, I’d be wasting this if I didn’t go out and make a short film or something.’ And I did, and I got into a bunch of things.”

That passion has stayed with him. One of the challenges of “Bernard and Doris” was trying to make a designer silk purse out of a sow’s ear budget, he says.

“If this were a normal-sized production the wardrobe budget would be about $1 million, but ours was about $26,000 which you literally could find some pantyhose and a few good brassieres, and it would be over,” he says.

“But we called in favors. Anybody I knew who wore a designer wardrobe in 1989 and was vaguely Susan’s size, I called them and said, `Can we look at your closets?’”

Married for 30 years to former classmate, Lynn Grossman, Balaban is the father of two daughters.

The secret to his lasting marriage is “finding something deeply interesting about each other,” he says. But true-to-character when they first met, Balaban did not exactly sweep her off her feet.

`We were in classes together she kind of thought I was a homeless person. I used to smoke a lot and dressed in army camouflage outfits and was always running out of money. She thought I was a sad character.”

“Bernard and Doris” airs Feb. 17, 20, 23 and 26.

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