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Friday, March 12, 2010

Psycho Semi-Centennial: A Fella Named Arbogast

"I still don't feel whatever change you're supposed to feel when your name goes up above the title. I think that's because this star thing has never been the first consideration with me. Never. The work has always come first."

Marty Balsam was one of those actors who would get a little ticked off when fans would only remember him from one particular role, which might have been his most famous, but in reality was only one part among so many. Yet unlike the far crankier Sir Alec Guinness, who would famously make little children cry when they would ask for his autograph due to Star Wars, Balsam would still genially sign his name and be friendly to the countless fans who knew him first and foremost as the detective Norman Bates pushed down a flight of stairs in Psycho.

When one looks at the breadth of his prolific career, it becomes easier to understand why Balsam may have had mixed feelings about Psycho. The role of Det. Arbogast may have made him a household name, but there was far more to Martin Balsam than just that gruff, ill-fated private investigator.

Balsam was many things. Oscar winner. Method actor. Student of monkey kung fu. George Clooney's father-in-law...

He was born Martin Henry Balsam on November 4, 1919 in the Bronx, the eldest child of a women's sportswear manufacturer. Acting was an interest from very early on, with young Martin joining the drama club in high school, and going on in 1938 to enroll in Manhattan's progressive New School, where he studied dramatics. As with many who aspired to great things in those days, Balsam's aspirations were put on hold after graduation, when he served out a stint in the Army Air Corps during World War II.

After the war, Balsam got down to the business of making some headway in the New York acting world. While working as an usher at Radio City Music Hall, he managed in 1947 to land a spot in Elia Kazan and Lee Strasberg's prestigious Actor's Studio, where he would be instructed in the Stanislavsky method. Balsam would eventually be one of a veritable legion of method actors to wash over Hollywood in the following decade.

But first he had to prove himself. He suffered through a string of Broadway flops in the late 1940s, before finally scoring a hit in 1951 with Tennessee Williams' The Rose Tattoo, in which he appeared alongside Maureen Stapleton, Eli Wallach and Sal Mineo. This led to a number of TV appearances, until in 1954 Balsam made his big-screen debut in Kazan's On the Waterfront, co-starring with fellow method disciples Rod Steiger and Marlon Brando.

Throughout the 1950s, Balsam appeared in many television productions, a lot of those being the live, theatrical-style one-offs that were very popular at the time. But there were also other film roles following his On the Waterfront breakthrough. Many still remember Balsam as one of the jurors in Sidney Lumet's 12 Angry Men, in which he was part of a stellar cast that included the likes of Henry Fonda, Ed Begley Sr., Lee J. Cobb, E.G. Marshall, Jack Klugman, John Fiedler and Jack Warden. He was also reunited with Steiger for the 1959 biopic Al Capone.

But it was one of those TV roles in particular that may have made all the difference for Balsam's career. In 1958, he starred in an episode of the mystery series Alfred Hitchcock Presents, in which he plays a cuckolded husband who seeks a violent revenge. Balsam was officially on the radar of the series' famous creator, and when it came time to cast one of the crucial supporting roles in his next thriller, the director remembered his earlier TV star.

And so Martin Balsam took on the part of Det. Milton Arbogast in Hitchcock's most well-known film, Psycho (1960). In his largest screen role up to that point, Balsam plays the detective with a tough, working-man charm. It's not an easy performance, as the character of Arbogast must come off in part as a bit of a bully--remember, first-time audiences believed Norman to be nothing more than a sweet, innocent motel caretaker--and yet, we must also feel a sense of shock and tragedy when he's finally offed by Norman's "mother".

Balsam was pretty much the most established actor in the film, and his character is notably the only other victim of Norman Bates aside from Janet Leigh herself. And in the end, there is a powerful sense of loss created when we watch him meet his doom after so closely following him along every step of his meticulous investigation. In a way, it reminds me very much of this poor gentleman:

Psycho made "the Bronx Barrymore" a much more recognizable star, and during the 1960s, the movie roles came more frequently. He followed up Hitch's picture with an appearance alongside Audrey Hepburn and George Peppard in the beloved Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961). He appeared with Robert Mitchum and Gregory Peck in the original Cape Fear (1961)--the trio would all turn up some 30 years later in Martin Scorsese's remake. The Carpetbaggers (1964) brought him major critical acclaim. Then, in 1965 his turn in the screen adaptation of A Thousand Clowns earned him not just acclaim, but also the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. It would be the critical highlight of his career.

Balsam certainly kept busy in the wake of Psycho and his new-found popularity during the '60s. The TV work continued, including two appearances on The Twilight Zone. In one of Hollywood's bizarre and largely unknown twists, he recorded the voice for the computer HAL in Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), only to be later replaced by Douglas Rain, the actor whose voice was used in the finished film.

It would also be during this decade that Balsam began taking roles overseas in Italy. For whatever reason, he came to be in demand by Italian filmmakers, and would continue traveling there to take on film roles for the remainder of his film career. It engendered a true love for the country that would also continue for the remainder of his life.

In fact, a dozen Italian films followed in the 1970s. Balsam was also one of Hollywood's favorite supporting players by this point, and he turned up in numerous iconic '70s movies, like Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970), The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974), Murder on the Orient Express (1974) and All the President's Men (1976).

In his later years, Balsam continued to work prodigiously. By the 1980s, he was in his 60s, yet continued to be a frequent supporting player in many films, both American and Italian. His most high-profile of the era might have been the brat pack opus St. Elmo's Fire (1985). Not only that, but after more than three decades of TV work, he finally took a recurring role on an ongoing series, playing the bigoted Archie Bunker's Jewish business partner on four seasons of Archie Bunker's Place (the sequel series to All in the Family).

In 1990, Balsam returned to the horror genre with an appearance in the George Romero/Dario Argento collaboration Two Evil Eyes. The film was originally intended to be a TV series based on the works of Edgar Allan Poe, but the production was canceled after only two episodes were made, and so it was re-edited into a feature film. Balsam starred in the second, the Argento-directed The Black Cat, in which he appeared with Harvey Keitel, John Amos and Kim Hunter.

On February 13, 1996, while vacationing in his beloved Italy, Marty Balsam suffered a fatal heart attack at the Residenza di Repetta in Rome, near the banks of the Tiber River. He died at the age of 76, survived by his third wife Irene Miller, two ex-wives Joyce Van Patten (sister of Dick) and Pearl Somner, and three children--son Adam, and daughters Zoe and Talia (Clooney's ex-wife).

Despite all the years since Psycho, and all the countless other parts, it would still be Det. Arbogast for which he was best known, right to the end. One of his final roles, in fact, had come in the abysmal 1994 spoof The Silence of the Hams, in which he played "Det. Martin Balsam", an obvious parody of the Arbogast character.

Balsam's contribution to Hitchcock's classic film is a large one. It may have been just one job in a sprawling career in theater, cinema and television--but what a job it was. If you're going to be remembered for a single role, you can do a lot worse than have it come from one of the most popular and important motion pictures ever made.

So in honor of the Psycho Semi-Centennial, The Vault of Horror salutes you, Martin Balsam--and for the record, we're very glad you fell down those stairs.

For more Hitchcock goodness, check out yesterday's post on Hitch cameos. Plus, go take a look at a damn fine blog whose very title was inspired by the good detective--Arbogast on Film!

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