Greetings all and sundry!
Having endured a major case of food poisoning. Its less than pleasant symptoms and after effects through Super Bowl Sunday and the following few days. Then tolerating a minor bout of flu. I’ve had plenty of time to gather grist and arrange thoughts. To focus the spotlight on a purveyor of the thespian arts who has been around forever. Quietly accumulating close to two hundred (176) acting credits throughout a career that has spanned most of my child and adult life.
Starting as most character actors. As one of many uncredited crowd scenes in Studio building, “Bread & Butter” films. Then working himself away from the pack and into ensemble work. An arena where he excelled for decades!
So, allow me a few moments to wax detailed and meticulously a few of some of this artist’s best and most memorable works with.
Unsung Character Actor: Martin Balsam. Same Guy. Always Memorable!
First noticed in Sidney Lumet’s ground breaking Magnum Opus to the ensemble art, 12 Angry Men while at a very young age. It took a while to notice and later, pay attention to the short, overweight, thinning haired and no necked Mr. Balsam’s Juror #1. Working from a brief thumbnail of “A High School football coach”. And Mr. Balsam filled the bill with very few lines. Letting his eyes, beetle brow and fire plug body define his uncertainty as Henry Fonda, Lee J. Cobb, Jack Klugman and Jack Warden (Jurors #8. #3, #5 and #7 respectively) argue, make and defend their points of view.
Mr. Balsam’s “nobody” with a great responsibility shone through. And placed him on my radar and “Who To Watch List”. Which wasn’t long in bearing fruit. An intriguing middle budgeted little oddity from 1957, Time Limit. An adaptation of the stage play of the same name. Taken from the screenplay of Henry Danker. Shot around the Army installation on Governor’s Island in New York. Aptly directed by Karl Malden and dealing with the effectiveness of the Code of Military Conduct of American POWs during the Korean War.
Mr. Balsam plays Master Sergeant Baker. Senior NCO. Aide and occasional conscience to Col. William Edwards (Richard Widmark). Who’s been assigned the investigation onto the death of an officer at the hands of others. And Court Martial of admitted collaborator, Major Harry Cargill (Richard Basehart). It appears the Code doesn’t work well against intense one-on-one interrogation. And that one or more officers may have talked. Leaving the solution to the problem to the prisoners who have been put through the wringer by the secluded, isolated camp’s Commandant, Col. Kim (Khigh Dheigh: ‘The Manchurian Candidate’. And later, the rotund “Wo Fat” from the original ‘Hawaii Five-O’).
Told well with flashbacks to the frigid locale of the spartan camp opposite the sunny post war East Coast. The tale, an updated stage play. Works subtly through interviews of suspects, (Basehart and Rip Torn). Mrs. Cargill (June Lockhart) and interplay between MSgt. Baker and the Colonel’s secretary, Cpl. Jean Evans (Dolores Michaels). As answers are sought and a judgement is to be decided upon. An interesting tale. Well worth seeking out as Mr. Balsam’s screen time and number of lines increase.
Allowing a smooth transition back into still growing television. With Kraft Theater and multiple characters on Studio One in Hollywood, Returning in time for Richard Wilson riding herd on a gritty, medium budgeted take on reputed Chicago crime boss, Al Capone (1959). With Mr. Balsam breathing arrogant, sometimes slimy life into Chicago newspaperman, Mac Keeley. A chronicler, at first, of Mr. Capone (Rod Steiger. Rarely better!}. Bodyguard of mob boss, Johnny Torrio (Nehemiah Persoff) and his rise to power against the towns many gangs and families. And later as Capone’s paid ear to the ground in helping take out the opposition.
Through the months, Max’s moods pendulums from sniveling to arrogant and obnoxious. Once Capone’s direct competition, George “Bugs” Moran (Murvyn Vye) takes Mac aside and informs him that his numerous and embarrassingly large gambling “markers” have been bought up. And Mac is now working for Moran as his personal snitch.Which doesn’t go over well once Mac is betrayed. Two or three steps short of contemplating talking to the local precinct Sergeant, Schaeffer (James Gregory. Adequate in every respect).
Mac blusters and whines and blusters again. Certain “some cheap Chicago punk” would kill such a respected and popular reporter. Sadly, Mac is proven incorrect. Knifed to death in an underground elevated train terminal beneath The Loop. And weeks away Capone putting together his plans for retribution with what would be known as “The St, Valentine’s Day Massacre”.
Which brings about of honing skills in dramatic and genre television and a growing audience. To deliver his first of larger, more memorable roles. Having caught the attention of Alfred Hitchcock and his epic Psycho (1960). As veteran Detective Milton Arbogast. Who catches Lila Crane’s (Vera Miles) mysterious and out of character $40,000 embezzlement/grand larceny case in Phoenix. Pursing Ms. Crane’s movement from the city. To its outskirts and then, Outback. And finally to the Bates’ Motel.
Unsure if Ms. Crane is alive, but meticulously following leads. Because that’s the job. Something doesn’t set right with his interviews of Norman (Anthony Perkins). Not exactly setting off alarm bells. But, enough for night surveillance at a distance. And a late afternoon sneak and peek that ends with a spiraling tumble-down down the foyer’s stair case. More police and deeper, more cautious and substantial investigation. Dredging of the local pond. And finding other, more frightening things that go “Bump!” in the night!
Returning again to stage and television and the genres of the trade. Anthology, Good Guys and Bad Guys in ‘Way Out, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Naked City and The Untouchables. Along with Westerns with Have Gun. Will Travel. Before returning as Police Chief Mark Dutton backing up Gregory Peck and Telly Savalas in Cape Fear (1962). Who may have finally coming across a low life, scary rapists who may be smarter than the law. Mr. Balsam’s Chief Dutton have a surfeit of lines. Though he does look, act and behave as the quintessential city cop who has been around the block more than a few times. With the lion’s share of reinforcement coming from facial expressions, grimaces, shrugs and gestures.
Which brings us to well-connected, political troubleshooter, Paul Girard. In Seven Days in May (1964). Directed by John Frankenheimer from a screenplay by Rod Serling. And based on the nation wide bestseller by Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey. A slow simmering nightmare scenario with Air Force General George Mattoon Scott (Burt Lancaster. Absolutely intimidating and superb!) leading a cabal of Joint Chiefs and Command grade officers in unseating a milquetoast President, Jordan Lyman (Frederich March) who wants to make too nice with the Russians through Nuclear Disarmament. Think the worst parts of Adlai Stevenson and Jimmy Carter and the resentment of those in uniform can be understood and palpable.
The covert balloon is scheduled to go up during a massive Joint Exercise. With the aid of ECOMCON (Emergency Communications Command). Civil Defense broadcasts on steroids to keep civilians placated during “transition” .While coded messages sent to Navy, Air Force, Army and Marine conspirators through a gambling and better pool at the Pentagon. Horse racing is the cover code of the moth. And Navy Lt.(jg) Dorsey Grayson (Under rated Jack Mullaney in an uncredited role) sees a few missives between Atlantic Command and Spain. Mentions it to his friend, Marine Col. Martin “Jiggs” Casey (Kirk Douglas. All spit and polish!) And is receipt of orders to Prudhoe Bay, Alaska within hours. Which gets the ball rolling with discussions at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. And just how much money in the year’s budget is being spent where?
Setting up one of the best adversarial team-ups of Douglas and Lancaster. Each dedicated to their causes and not giving in an inch. As Girard is sent to Rota, Spain to talk with the Mediterranean Fleet commander, Vice Admiral Farley C. Barnswell (John Houseman: Excellent. Yet, uncredited) and the pieces and scope of this “exercise” begin falling into place!
Setting the foundation and building blacks for one of the most flawlessly cast and scripted political thrillers of that decade!
Making room a year later for basically a sea-borne Cold War fox and hound chase through the frigid North Atlantic in The Bedford Incident. Directed by Stanley Kubrick contemporary and alum, Jack B. Harris in glorious B&W. With Mr. Balsam again in uniform. This time as Navy Reserve Lt. Cmdr. Chester Puller. M.D. A sudden add-on to the already active and near Battle Station crew of Captain Eric Finlander and the Navy Destroyer, Bedford.
Delivered by helicopter. Along with journalist, Ben Munceford (Sidney Poitier. More than up to the task of getting answers and battling with the Captain!). The two are not really welcome. As Finlander dreams of bringing a rogue Russian diesel submarine armed with nuclear warhead torpedoes to the surface. Well within the territorial limits of the US and Greenland.
Finlander has no use for Reserve officers. And even less for a Physician. Who finds his Sick Call roster empty. And the crew of enlisted men busy with their own continuous task of vigilance, deterrence and keeping the mechanics and threat of Mutual Assured Destruction alive for another day. Tracking the rogue sub around and through iceberg fields, courtesy of Sonar Man Quiffle (Wally Cox). As the rogue looks for a chance to surface or snorkel and recharge waning batteries. While Puller’s Corpsman (Donald Sutherland) examines trash and food scraps thrown overboard from the sub’s “Cow”. A Russian trawler.
An intriguing, suspenseful Cat & Mouse game that Puller watches from the sidelines as Munceford goes about pushing Finlander’s buttons. With too many questions about classified equipment and “Why?”s and “How?”s regarding the Captain’s strategy to raise the sub, balm his ego. And perhaps, make the short list for Flag (Admiral) rank.
Whose salient strategic points suddenly align with the sighting of a periscope five miles within the limit and the game is afoot!
Having established himself as a solid, dependable ensemble actor. Mr. Balsam would continue that reputation through the following years. Maintaining his good fortune as Mendez, the stage-coach driver in Martin Ritt’s Hombre (1967). A great Western standoff between Good (Paul Newman) and Evil (Magnificent Richard Boone). Angry, frightened civilians fighting a war of wits. With limited water, severe sweaty elements. Stuck in a boxed canyon with the Bad Guys holding the high ground. Bordered in lush blue cloudless skies above and arid, washed out, near shadowless earth tones below. An interesting chess match. With Mr. Balsam again playing an essential, though extraneous character caught up in events he has little to no control over.
A trait to be exercised to its fullest as the unfortunate Admiral Kimmel. Helplessly watching his command at Pearl Harbor being blown out of the water in Tora! Tora! Tora!. An international film boasting three directors from 1970. Depicting both sides of that infamous December day in 1941. And as ex-con, Arts and Antiquities expert and reputable fence, Tommy Haskins. Called in to aid Sean Connery and a debuting Christopher Walken in Sidney Lumet’s The Anderson Tapes from 1971. A neat little on location, Boston heist film focusing on taking down a rich, high-end penthouse and office high-rise over a three-day holiday weekend.
Tommy is called in early. Intrigued with the possibilities and the score. Unaware that local, state police and the FBI have Connery’s “Duke” Anderson has been under surveillance since being paroled. The unprecedented, unheard of heist goes off on schedule. And initially without a hitch as the law starts reeling in its nets.
Leaving Mr. Balsam open for what I think is his best role. As former New York Transit worker, Harold Longman. Soon to be part of a four-man team led by Robert Shaw’s “Mr. Blue”. Backed up by a young Hector Elizondo’s “Mr. Gray”. And Earl Hindman’s “Mr. Brown”.
Together, Mr. Balsam’s “Mr. Green” will hijack a subway train’s lead car and hold its passengers bound for the Pelham station, hostage. Releasing them only after a ransom of one million dollars in old. non-sequential bills is paid off. At a location yet to be determined.
A relatively easy, though high risk task. Right? All Mr. Green and company have to do is look intimidating behind shades, suit coats and compact S&W M-76, 9mm Sub Machine Guns until the money arrives. But, the touchy part occurs after Mr. Blue and company stop the train and informs the Transit Authority and its Detective Lt. Zachary Garber (Walter Matthau. Delivering more than asked for, as always) of the passengers plight.
The news arrives first with disbelief. Then close to ridicule. Until Mr. Blue sets an hour time limit. Or a passenger will die per minute past that hour. Things begin to roll. Slowly at first. As Terminal controllers and other police departments are notified. And a message goes out to the Mayor. Sick in bed with a cold. A malady shared with Mr. Green. Whose sneezes will play significantly throughout the film.
Of course. Every detail cannot be foreseen or controlled. An undercover cop is one of the trains’ passengers Content to keep his weapon it its ankle holster until the right moment. A blustery Subway Supervisor (Tom Pedi) takes matters into his own hands, And is shot dead for his efforts. An uniformed transit cop hears bits and pieces and decides to investigate further. Only to catch a bullet from Mr. Gray. Who is entirely too arrogant, smug and trigger happy. Adding an unseen line of communication with the police. And an excellent concealed vantage point for Garber and company.
The Mayor is briefed in and authorizes the ransom. Time slips by as the money is counted and bundled. And Garber is majoring in impromptu Hostage Negotiations as more time is sought. With Mr. Green within earshot as Mr. Blue hold firm. The discussion interrupted by a sneeze from Mr. Green. Garber says, “Gesundheit!” without thinking as the money arrives at the surface entrance. And more time is given…
I’ll leave it right there.Only to say that Mr. Green is going to wish he’d gotten rid of his cold a few days earlier!
Very much like his contemporary, Jack Lemmon. I cannot remember a time when this distinguished character actor was not working. Rarely if ever on the front line. Near exclusively in the background. Though consistently supplying superb background in a quiet, sometimes questioning, blue-collar and shirtsleeves kind of way.
Being in the right places and the right times to take advantage of stage, at first. Then the up and coming medium called Television. Whose limitations and possibilities were still being toyed, played with, expanded and set. And later having the great good fortune to be noticed and remembered by a rogue’s gallery of up and coming Directors, Most up and coming and well versed in the vagaries of Television. Then making time for recognized names with a unique idea and an established reputation.
Thankfully, those choices proved to be notable, memorable projects that have easily withstood, enhanced and improved with the passage of time. Not a bad tribute for one of the Grand Masters of the Character Actor’s trade!