Martin Balsam; Veteran Character Actor


Martin Balsam, the respected veteran character actor who earned a 1965 Academy Award as best supporting actor for “A Thousand Clowns,” has died. He was 76.

He was found dead Tuesday morning in his room at the upscale Ripetta residence hotel in the center of Rome, where he had been vacationing. A heart attack was suspected.

Cast as Everyman, the short, stocky Balsam was memorable in his Oscar-winning turn as Jason Robards’ straight-talking brother in “A Thousand Clowns,” as Holly Golightly’s colorful agent in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” and as the fatally stabbed detective falling down stairs in “Psycho.” With a face recognized by audiences who couldn’t always recall his name, he was frequently cast as a cop, crook, producer, agent, military officer, or the leading man’s best friend.


In addition to his Oscar, Balsam won Broadway’s Tony Award in 1967 for his work in “You Know I Can’t Hear You When the Water’s Running.”

Although proud of his Academy Award, the actor kept it in perspective, continuing to choose his roles carefully.

“I suppose an actor gets the supporting award and he wants to say, ‘Right, this is it, this sets the seal on my career, I’ve arrived.’ And he wants to dye his hair and start working out at the gym and change his tailor and be seen at all the better parties,” Balsam told The Times in 1966. “But I’ve got to say, ‘Hold on, fella, you’ve been around too long. Let’s not get carried away.’

“The supporting role is always potentially the most interesting in a film,” he said. “In any film you look for the one thing to do that can be memorable. What is nice about the award is that you can be exposed to the possibility of using yourself outside of a single category you are identified with.”

Balsam was equally modest about the Tony, telling an interviewer shortly after he received it: “This star thing has never been the first consideration with me. Never. The work has always come first.”

A native of New York, Balsam served in the Army during World War II and studied at Actors Studio and the New School of Social Research. He was only 16 when he played his first villain in a play called “Pot Boiler” at New York’s Playground Theater in 1935. He made his Broadway debut in “Ghost for Sale” in 1941.

Prominent on film, television and the stage for half a century, Balsam appeared in such classic films as “Cape Fear” in 1962 and was recast in a cameo as the judge in the 1991 remake.

He made his film debut as Gillette in the prestigious “On the Waterfront” in 1954. He quickly followed with key roles in “12 Angry Men,” “Marjorie Morningstar,” “Al Capone,” “The Carpetbaggers,” “Seven Days in May,” “Tora! Tora! Tora!”, “Little Big Man,” “Murder on the Orient Express” and “All the President’s Men.”

Balsam broke into television in its infancy, first appearing on “Philco Television Playhouse” in 1948. He relished working in live shows, including “Captain Video,” “Mr. Peepers” and “Studio One.” Later, his friend Carroll O’Connor talked him into starring as his bar co-owner Murray Klein in “Archie Bunker’s Place.” Over the years, Balsam remained in demand as a guest star on detective series and westerns, including “Ellery Queen,” “Rawhide” and “The Fugitive.”

Balsam loved working and vacationing in Italy, and in later years made several Italian films. Among his last films was the Italian “The Silence of the Hams” in 1994. He also appeared as a Sicilian Mafioso in the popular Italian television movie series “La Piovra” (The Octopus).

Thrice divorced, Balsam is survived by three children: actress Talia Balsam, who is also the daughter of his second wife, actress Joyce Van Patten, and Zoe and Adam Balsam from his third marriage.