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As a screen actor, Bob Balaban was often seen in character roles as buttoned up and usually bespectacled brains, with his deadpan performances in Christopher Guest films like "Waiting for Guffman" (1996) and "Best in Show" (2000) earning him a following with indie comedy fans. Many of those same fans, as well as ones who enjoyed his recurring role as the network executive who greenlights and then cancels Jerry and George's sitcom project on "Seinfeld" (NBC, 1989-1998), may not have known that Balaban also enjoyed a steady career behind the camera as a director of dark comedies for film and television. A foray into producing, alongside film great Robert Altman, resulted in the pair's Oscar-nominated best picture "Gosford Park" (2001), a period whodunit in which Balaban starred as a 1930s filmmaker. In 2008, his well-rounded career earned him widespread praise and award consideration for his acting in HBO's political drama "Recount" (2008) and for his directing "Bernard and Doris" (2008), the network's biopic about tobacco millionaire Doris Duke. Further accolades followed with his biopic "Georgia O'Keeffe" (Lifetime, 2010), proving that his creativity in front of and behind the camera knew no...
As a screen actor, Bob Balaban was often seen in character roles as buttoned up and usually bespectacled brains, with his deadpan performances in Christopher Guest films like "Waiting for Guffman" (1996) and "Best in Show" (2000) earning him a following with indie comedy fans. Many of those same fans, as well as ones who enjoyed his recurring role as the network executive who greenlights and then cancels Jerry and George's sitcom project on "Seinfeld" (NBC, 1989-1998), may not have known that Balaban also enjoyed a steady career behind the camera as a director of dark comedies for film and television. A foray into producing, alongside film great Robert Altman, resulted in the pair's Oscar-nominated best picture "Gosford Park" (2001), a period whodunit in which Balaban starred as a 1930s filmmaker. In 2008, his well-rounded career earned him widespread praise and award consideration for his acting in HBO's political drama "Recount" (2008) and for his directing "Bernard and Doris" (2008), the network's biopic about tobacco millionaire Doris Duke. Further accolades followed with his biopic "Georgia O'Keeffe" (Lifetime, 2010), proving that his creativity in front of and behind the camera knew no limits.
Robert Elmer Balaban was born on Aug. 16, 1945, into a show business family of sorts. His father and uncles were founders of Balaban and Katz Theaters, a large chain of beautiful, classic era movie theaters in the Chicago area. Yet another uncle served as the president of Paramount Pictures for nearly three decades. Balaban himself was interested in the world of entertainment from the time he was a young boy and began making short films with his father's 8mm movie camera. By the time he was a teenager, he was performing comedy with the influential Second City theater troupe; eventually moving on to study at the New York University Film School. The film student made his first dent as an actor when he was cast in the historic 1967 off-Broadway production of "You're A Good Man, Charlie Brown," where he played a blanket-toting Linus. Balaban graduated to Broadway in 1968 with a role in Neil Simon's "Plaza Suite" but forewent graduating from NYU when his schedule began to fill up with acting offers.
Balaban landed character roles with some of the era's top film directors, playing a nervous student cruising a 42nd street porn theater in John Schlesinger's gritty "Midnight Cowboy" (1969) and a fighter pilot in Mike Nichols' adaptation of "Catch-22" (1970). He played a series of soft-spoken, intellectual characters on TV guest spots but remained a fixture on the New York stage, where he played Ted Knight's son in the comedy "Some of my Best Friends." In 1977, his career picked up momentum with a role as a researcher hot on the trail of unidentified flying objects in Steven Spielberg's landmark "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" (1977). The same year, he had a co-starring role in Claudia Weill's indie "Girlfriends" and earned a Tony nomination for his portrayal of a 95-year-old servant in "The Inspector General." Balaban broke into directing with the New York Shakespeare Festival production of "Girls, Girls, Girls" (1980) and maintained a big screen presence with another role as a staid scientist in "Altered States" (1980) and a string of calculating attorneys in "Absence of Malice" (1981) and Sidney Lumet's "Prince of the City" (1981). He was seen as a considerably more sympathetic lawyer in John Badham's "Whose Life is it Anyway?" (1981).
Having become friends with the esteemed Lumet, Balaban took the opportunity to apprentice with the director in hopes of someday directing for the screen. Balaban's first short, "SPFX 1140" (1982), was inspired by his experiences on "Close Encounters" and recounted a day in the life of a special effects expert (Mandy Patinkin). The film's success on the festival circuit led horror auteur George A. Romero to hire Balaban to helm the pilot for the creepy TV series "Tales From the Darkside" (1983). Balaban went on to direct episodes of the similarly fantastical "Amazing Stories" (NBC, 1985-87) and the Showtime comedy special "Penn & Teller's Invisible Thread" (1987) before making his feature directorial debut with "Parents" (1989), a stylish, but overlooked black comedy starring Randy Quaid as the cannibalistic patriarch of a picture-perfect atomic age family. Balaban had a small role in Woody Allen's "Alice" (1990) and did a wicked send-up of NBC producer Lorne Michaels in Tim Robbins' political parody "Bob Roberts" (1992). Based on his take on poker-faced TV executives, the actor was cast in one of his most visible roles as a TV executive - based on the real-life exec Warren Littlefield - in five episodes of "Seinfeld."
Balaban rolled out his sophomore directing effort the following year, stumbling a bit with "My Boyfriend's Back" (1993), a black romantic comedy about a lovelorn teen who returns from the grave as a zombie to keep a date with the girl of his dreams. He rebounded quickly as writer, producer and director of the nicely detailed "The Last Good Time" (1994), a well-received feature centering on the unlikely friendship between a retired violinist (Armin Mueller-Stahl) and a young woman (Olivia d'Abo) who reminds him of his deceased. Balaban directed episodes of the sci-fi series "Eerie, Indiana" (NBC, 1991-92; Fox, 1997-98) and "Legend" (UPN, 1995) and began a several picture collaboration with Christopher Guest when he was perfectly cast as the mousy, deposed director of the town theatrical production in "Waiting for Guffman" (1996). In 1997, Balaban directed the "5:24" segment of HBO's anthology movie "Subway Stories: Tales from the Underground" (1997) and followed up on his flair for capturing the essence of TV executives in the HBO movie "The Late Shift" (1996), portraying the real Warren Littlefield in the dramatization of the battle between Jay Leno and David Letterman in the wake of Johnny Carson's retirement from "The Tonight Show" (NBC, 1954- ).
As a director, Balaban's penchant for the offbeat was further explored with the HBO prison drama "Oz" (1997-2003), Comedy Central's alt comedy sitcom classic "Strangers with Candy" (1999-2000), and the sci-fi-tinged drama "Now and Again" (CBS, 1999-2000). As a character actor, he had become a recognizable face, surfacing in Woody Allen's "Deconstructing Harry" (1997), Robbins' "Cradle Will Rock" (1999) and the World War II drama "Jakob the Liar" (1999) starring Robin Williams. After a long absence from the New York stage, Balaban returned to the boards in 1999 as the star of David Mamet's one-man play "Mr. Happiness" and also directed the plays "Vick's Boy" and "Y2K." On the small screen, he enjoyed a guest spot as the long-lost father of Lisa Kudrow's flaky character Phoebe on the hit sitcom "Friends" (NBC, 1994-2004).
Following a fine turn in Christopher Guest's hilarious "Best in Show" (2000), Balaban had another banner year in 2001, cast as a gangster's impatient henchman in "The Mexican" and the clueless parent of an alienated teen (Thora Birch) in "Ghost World." But it was his roles as producer and star of the Robert Altman-directed "Gosford Park" that turned the most heads. Balaban, a longtime friend of Altman, initially suggested the idea of a film set in an English country house where a murder occurs. Altman was intrigued, and the pair hired Julian Fellowes to pen the script, which included a key part for Balaban as a fey, 1930s movie producer of Charlie Chan mysteries. Critics rained praised upon the film, helping the ensemble hit receive seven Academy Award nominations including one for Best Picture.
Balaban returned to the director's chair, helming episodes of "Deadline" (NBC, 2000), "Dead Last" (WB, 2001) and "The Twilight Zone" (UPN, 2002), then stepped back in front of the camera for "A Mighty Wind" (2003), Christopher Guest's hilarious music parody in which he played a neurotic concert organizer who puts together a memorial concert honoring his father, a legendary folk impresario. He directed a segment for "The First Amendment Project" (Sundance Channel, 2005), a four-part series of 30-minute films covering First Amendment issues, and went on to create the lighthearted game show "Celebrity Charades" (AMC, 2005). He was back in Oscar-nominated film territory with "Capote" (2005), in which he played New Yorker magazine editor William Shawn, who is convinced by eccentric novelist Truman Capote (Philip Seymour Hoffman) that he must be sent to Kansas to report on the quadruple murder that would form the basis of Capote's best-selling novel, In Cold Blood. Balaban directed Court TV's gripping death penalty meditation "Exonerated" (2005) and appeared in M. Night Shyamalan's critically-maligned "Lady in the Water"(2006), playing a grumpy and bitter film critic living in an apartment building where a water nymph (Bryce Dallas Howard) suddenly appears in the communal swimming pool. From playing a film critic to playing a screenwriter, Balaban joined the ensemble cast of one of Christopher Guest's few disappointing films, the movie industry send-up, "For Your Consideration" (2006).
In 2007, Balaban co-starred in the Sundance-screened indie "Dedication" and also had a role as a therapist in the blockbuster comedy "No Reservations." His 2008 portrayal of Bush/Cheney campaign counsel Ben Ginsberg in HBO's 2000 election dramatization "Recount" earned the actor his first Emmy nomination later that year for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Miniseries or a Movie. His second Emmy nomination came the same year, in the form of an Outstanding Directing for a Miniseries, Movie or Dramatic Special for "Bernard and Doris" (HBO, 2008), a drama exploring the relationship between wealthy tobacco heiress Doris Duke (Susan Sarandon) and her gay Butler (Ralph Fiennes). He followed up with another Emmy-nominated directing effort, "Georgia O'Keeffe" (Lifetime, 2010), a biopic about the noted American painter starring Joan Allen as O'Keefe, and Jeremy Irons as husband and photographer Alfred Stieglitz. Back on screen, Balaban was the judge in the experimental "Howl" (2010), before joining Greg Kinnear and Alan Arkin for the indie comedy "Thin Ice" (2011), guest starring on "The Good Wife" (CBS, 2009- ), and narrating Wes Anderson's widely praised "Moonrise Kingdom" (2012).
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Laughing at the resonance of the episodes featuring his recurring character on "Seinfeld": "I had a great time on it, of course, but who knew? I didn't know at the time that I was doing it, that I basically was appearing on something like the candy episode of 'I Love Lucy' ... It's like appearing on something that, when you're in the old folks' home, they'll go: He was on that conveyor episode of 'I Love Lucy'--except it was 'Seinfeld'.
"It's insane how much people know. I was on the show five times, and I had maybe a total of 35 lines, and I walk down the street today and people say my lines to me. It's very strange." --Bob Balaban, to David Bianculli in Daily News, March 12, 1998.
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