You've written children's books. You've been acting for nearly 50 years. You've directed movies and television. You're a man of the world. Did you aspire to do everything when you were younger?
Balaban: I had a lot of intentions, but I'm sort of one of those people that does whatever's in front of them and then gets pretty involved. If you just put a bunch of sticks in front of me, I'd probably get very involved with building a house made out of sticks. From my earliest beginnings, I was always interested in being an actor. I didn't know I was going to be an actor, but I was a puppeteer as a child, I made up plays, and at one point I got rid of the puppets and literally got inside my puppet stage and started putting on plays. They were, of course, solo plays because you couldn't get two people into a puppet stage.
I studied at Second City, a teenage workshop with Viola Spolin, who's sort of the creator of theater games and somewhat improvisational theater. And I just always loved that. I never thought I would be able to make a living at doing anything that I enjoyed so much. And, in fact, my backup plan was to become a writer. Like, is that easier? I don't really know. But my plans got interrupted, because by the time I was about 18 I started getting jobs. I wasn't qualified or very good at it, but I did get into some movies and television shows and stuff like that and eventually woke up one day and going to, Hey, I'm a working actor. This is what I do. Surprise.
I didn't think there wouldn't be a place for me. And then I started doing other things. I guess I'm just interested to try stuff. If you're an actor, you watch people direct and say, Well, why shouldn't I direct? It looks like fun. I have a lot of friends who feel that impulse and then they go direct something and it comes out really well and they say, "Well, that was tedious, I don't think I'll ever direct again." But unfortunately with me, many times when I do something once, I end up liking it, so I'm stuck doing a lot of things. I shouldn't say stuck. But I think not focusing on any one thing is both a great thing and I enjoy it and it sometimes gets in the way of maybe getting further along with the one great thing if it was my only passion. But I have a lot of different passions and I do enjoy what I do, so I think I'm OK.
As a kid with acting ambition and connections to show business, did you ever cross paths with anyone who you idolized?
Balaban: I'm very midwestern, you know, so to me, anybody that I had seen on a television commercial was a big star and I could get pretty excited about just about anybody. Kukla, Fran and Ollie was my favorite puppet show. You've probably never heard of it, but it was broadcast out of the building where my dad had his office and, periodically, I'd get to go meet the puppets, and Fran who was an actual human being. The puppets were Kukla and Ollie. Those were my first celebrities.
My grandfather was an executive at MGM, and when I was 10, I broke my arm, so my parents sent me to California [to cheer me up]. I was on a film set, and Dan Dailey and Cyd Charisse were filming a movie called Meet Me in Las Vegas. It's kind of a third tier romantic comedy, but if you ever see it... don't watch it, probably. For me, it was kind of like a formative experience. Charisse signed my cast. I actually tried to get my parents to keep the cast, but, uh, you can't keep smelly old casts. I mean, it would really be disgusting. So I didn't get to keep my Cyd Charisse autograph.
But yes, it's interesting, my family had gone into the exhibition business. They were theater owners in Chicago. They began in the early 1900s when my grandparents had a failing grocery store in a sort of of Jewish ghetto of Chicago. They pulled themselves out. They went to a nickelodeon in 1908, and my grandmother said, "This is a great business. The delicatessen business sucks. The vegetables all rot and you have to throw them out in here. And here, you show your movie and when it gets old, you send it back and they give you a new one. It's the perfect business." And it was.
About 10 or 15 years later, they had built about 75 of what they'd used to call "picture palaces" in the Chicago area. A lot of people in my family were heavily involved with the movie business. My dad's oldest brother, Barney, took over Paramount from Adolph Zukor in the '30s and stayed there until the '50s. My other relative was the head of a few movie studios and ended up being very involved with the musical unit at MGM when they were doing all the great old musicals and was reputed to have cast Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz when Louis B. Mayer, who owned the studio, had been trying to get Shirley Temple to do it.
But I never met any of these people. I grew up in a very normal way in Chicago dreaming of maybe one day being able to do something but not thinking I would ever be able to.