ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT

Among Bob Balaban's Hollywood stories are a few monuments

Bob Balaban was born, so to speak, into movie royalty. His father and uncles were founders of the Balaban and Katz theater chain of Chicago movie palaces. His uncle Barney Balaban was president of Paramount for three decades, and grandfather Sam Katz was an MGM executive.

As a "little nerdy Jewish kid in Chicago," Balaban loved the movies and theater but had no inkling he would be involved in show business. "I was trying to do well in school and hoping I would survive adolescence," said Balaban, currently appearing in George Clooney's World War II adventure "The Monuments Men," which opens Feb. 7.

But then he broke his arm at age 10.  "My parents could think of nothing for me to do in the summer, so we got on a train to Los Angeles," said Balaban, 68, by phone from New York, where he lives.

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On Balaban's second day in L.A., his grandfather arranged for him to be on the set of the 1956 MGM musical "Meet Me in Las Vegas" with Cyd Charisse and Dan Dailey.

"They had made me a chair with my name on it, and Cyd Charisse signed my cast," he recalled. "I have a picture somewhere of 'Cyd Charisse' in giant letters on my cast. I think that was my defining moment. I knew that subconsciously I had to be around this stuff."

Usually cast in intellectual and comedic, whimsical roles, Balaban has worked with some of cinema's top directors, including John Schlesinger ("Midnight Cowboy"), Steven Spielberg ("Close Encounters of the Third Kind"), Sydney Pollack ("Absence of Malice"), Christopher Guest ("Waiting for Guffman," "Best in Show"), Robert Altman ("Gosford Park") and Wes Anderson ("Moonrise Kingdom," "The Grand Budapest Hotel"). Balaban has also directed TV movies such as 2008's "Bernard and Doris" and 2010's "Georgia O'Keeffe" and has written two children's books series, including the bestselling "McGrowl."

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A fish-out-of water historical drama, "Monuments Men" chronicles how architects, art historians and curators were sent to the European front lines during World War II to recover artistic masterpieces stolen by the Nazis.

Balaban, who describes his character of art historian and impresario Preston Savitz as a dandy, develops a wonderful Mutt and Jeff relationship in the film with a caustic architect played by Bill Murray.

"One of the highlights of the movie was getting abused by Bill," said Balaban, who previously appeared with the comic actor in the two Anderson films.

"Bob has this ability to play things so straight and so dry," said Grant Heslov, who produced and wrote the film with Clooney. "He was the perfect sort of foil for Bill."

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"Getting the chance to work with him was as fun as anything I could do," added Clooney.

One of Balaban's most exciting experiences was acting opposite French new wave director François Truffaut for seven months for 1977's sci-fi classic "Close Encounters of the Third Kind." His experience playing the translator working with a French scientist played by Truffaut inspired him to later write the book "Close Encounters of the Third Kind: An Actor's Diary."

"I got called in because I could speak French; at least that's what my agent must have told them, I guess," Balaban said. "I didn't have to audition for the movie, I just had to meet with Steven and [producer] Julia Phillips."

But his French was rusty. He recited something in French to the effect that it had been "many years since I have spoken French, and if you give me this job it will be very difficult for me."

Because Spielberg and Phillips didn't speak French, they didn't have a clue what he was saying. Balaban got the job.

"I had a crash course in Berlitz, went on location and met Truffaut and explained to him in my very halting real French I had lied to get the job, which he thought was very funny," noted Balaban.

Truffaut's command of the English language was far worse than Balaban's French. "I noticed a tape recorder in his hotel room with little phrases like, 'Hello, how are you this morning?' He would practice them in his room at night because he was so embarrassed he would speak inadequate English. He was an adorable, fun, lovable person but rather proper and just didn't want to get caught speaking in a language he couldn't be understood in."

Balaban said that one of the "luckiest days of my life" was when Guest called him to ask if he would like to play the musical director in "Waiting for Guffman." Since appearing in the 1996 comedy classic, Balaban has been part of Guest's repertory company that includes Eugene Levy, Catherine O'Hara, Fred Willard, Michael McKean and Jennifer Coolidge.

"Chris makes you feel safe and happy and makes it very clear that whatever you do, he's thrilled you showed up," said Balaban. "Improvising is a bit like jumping out of an airplane without a parachute and being promised it will arrive before you hit the ground. You must trust your pilot, and he is ferociously protective of all of us."

susan.king@latimes.com

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