Bob Balaban Can't Help But Do Everything

bob balaban actor
Matt Winkelmeyer/Contour by Getty Images for SXSW

You can place Bob Balaban. Look at him. Here are some hints: Seinfeld, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Christopher Guest's improvised comedies (Waiting for Guffman, A Mighty Wind), The Good Wife, Capote, Netflix's Wormwood, the last few Wes Anderson films -- including his latest, the animated Isle of Dogs.

OK, you can place Bob Balaban. Now it's time to know Bob Balaban.

With a career dating back to the '60s -- he appeared in Midnight Cowboy -- the actor, now 72, has always drifted comfortably between the big and small screens, and has also worked steadily behind the camera as a writer (e.g., Robert Altman's Gosford Park is based on an idea by him) and director (episodes of Eerie, Indiana, Nurse Jackie, and more). But like so many other certified "That Guy" character actors, his prolific creative efforts are often easily overlooked. If Wes Anderson is obsessed with this guy, though, shouldn't we all be obsessed with this guy? Probably! Which is why Thrillist jumped at the chance to ask Bob Balaban a few questions about how he became Bob Frickin' Balaban.

Thrillist: You voice a dog in Isle of Dogs, but based on your active Twitter feed, I have reason to believe you also love dogs.
Bob Balaban: I have an instinctive passion for dogs, which I think is kind of inborn into a lot of people. Not to be too solemn about it or anything, but I think it comes from 15,000 to 20,000 years ago when wolves started being domesticated and men needed dogs in order to get through the night so the wolves wouldn't eat them.

You come from a show-business family. Did you have a dog as a kid?
Balaban: I always wanted a dog. I was one of those kids who woke up in the morning and said, "Can I have a dog today, please? Anybody?" and just never stopped talking about it. But my family didn't really want the mess of a dog -- my parents liked animals but weren't dog crazy the way I am.

But my grandparents, who lived in California and were in the movie business and knew a lot of exotic friends, they had a friend who bred keeshonds. So my cousins and myself, we all got a keeshond. I don't remember it being particularly friendly. I remember my parents thinking, Why in the world did their relatives get them keeshonds? So that didn't stick. If I'd been exposed to the keeshond for longer I would have grown to love it because I love any dog that doesn't bite me first.

But then I did beg and beg and beg and I got a dog. I had a miniature poodle, whose name was Jacqueline, named after Jackie Kennedy. That's the only dog I ever had until my wife's great-uncle died, and we inherited a dog who became a very beloved dog. He was a Hungarian Puli named Sammy Levine, given away by the widow of my wife's great uncle. He hated the dog because my wife's grandpa used to sit at the table and Sammy Levine would be sitting there eating ice cream and whatever else you felt like feeding it, and he would say to his dog, who was sitting right next to the wife, Samuel Levine, if only you could cook. Meaning, if he could get rid of his wife in a heartbeat if the dog could cook.

I've always wanted dogs, loved dogs, and in fact, I wrote a series of children's books called McGrowl about a little boy who had always wanted a dog, and what happens when he ends up with a bionic dog do to set up special circumstances. It was very, very therapeutic.

Both my children were exactly like I was, and they got exactly the response I did. As parents, it's like, "You're really not going to take care of it. I'm going to be stuck doing it." And then you'll go to, you'll grow up and if the dog lives long enough, you'll have to take care of an aging dog. So we haven't had a dog. But now my daughter's boyfriend's dog, a miniature longhaired dachshund named Elliot, comes and stays with his grandparents from time to time. So those are my dog experiences. Sporadic now. But intense.

bob balaban dogs
Bob Balaban loves dogs. | Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images

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.

moonrise kingdom bob balaban
The Criterion Collection

Have you worked with someone who's told you what, as an actor, you bring to a role? What made you stick in this business?
Balaban: A director never did that, but when I was 18 or 17 and had one of my first professional jobs in summer stock, an old woman (who was 37 years old at the time, and for me that was 90), she said, "You know, Bob, I think you're going to have an actual career in show business because anytime they need somebody who looks like an egghead and you're going to get a job." And it turned out that I tend to get jobs as people who are, you know, teachers, lawyers, doctors -- people that work with their minds and don't really work with their hands or their backs.

What about Wes Anderson? What does he need from you? Doe he direct you the same way in an animated movie like Isle of Dogs as he would in a live-action movie like Moonrise Kingdom?
Balaban: Moonrise Kingdom was really interesting because I'd known his movies, I'd loved them, and I was extremely happy that he called and asked me to be the narrator of that wonderful, fabulous movie. When it came to do my part, my character occasionally interacts in that movie with other human beings and other actors, but is often alone talking to the camera. We did that part for the first week of shooting.

I must say, you can tell an awful lot from Wes's scripts. You sort of know what you're there to do. It's not a big mystery. But if there were any questions in my mind, Wes answered them immediately without telling me that he was answering them. He simply said, "You know, I've taken some pictures of myself that would be probably helpful for you to see because you'll get kind of the idea of what's going on from your position in the frames that I'm going to show you." And I can't tell you why it did this exactly, but seeing Wes with his head in the bottom of a framing and giant thing behind him, I immediately knew who the narrator was, what his relationship was to the movie. It really was just immediately instructive. I think the lesson is that every great director is different and they're all the same in one way, which is they know how to communicate to actors what they need to know what to do. And if they don't need to tell you something, they shut up, because telling somebody something they don't need can send them off in a terribly wrong direction.

I think Wes knows just what to do to get what he wants. It could involve talking with you a lot or pointing out a detail to you or where your foot should go, but I've worked with some awfully wonderful directors and Wes has an ability that's really unique, which is that he has the ability to be very, very hyper-conscious of visuals. If you're an actor, you're visual as well, but sometimes people who are very aware of frames and how they want things to look don't bring along the human beings' side of what you're doing and don't help you in that way. Wes has a very wonderful ability to be hyper-conscious of what's happening visually and also is very good at making you feel comfortable making you know what you're doing, and telling you how to do it in a way that is immediately understandable. He's just a really, really gifted, practical human being.

bob balaban on Seinfeld
Chris Haston/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

You played the NBC studio executive in Season 4 of Seinfeld. Talk about playing Larry David's idea of a "suit" and how you wound up jumping from movies to TV with seemingly no worry. Trying everything?
Balaban: My character was based on Warren Littlefield, who used to be the head of NBC. I played the Russell Dalrymple on Seinfeld, but in a television movie for HBO called The Late Shift, I played the actual Warren Littlefield. I had to dye my hair red and try to look like Warren... which, I don't really do. But he's a great guy, and he was a great character to play. But to this day people will walk up to me and say, "Aren't you the head of a studio or something?" And I'm like, "No, but I played one and he just blended it in your mind right now."

But as you know, for character actors especially, everybody right now is quite comfortable and it's not dangerous for your career or anything if you bounced back and forth between [movies and TV]. So it's kind of wonderful. In England, there's never been any snobbery about "don't be on television" or not. Judi Dench was on a very popular series for a number of years and went back and forth between being Dame Judi Dench and being television Judi Dench. Here, if you went on TV, "you won't be on the movie."

I never had the luxury of just saying, Oh well, I think I'm going to be the seventh lead in that movie and never be on television. But I always enjoyed doing different things, being in place, directing them, and bouncing around, doing everything I could to do some form of what I loved doing. But it took a lot of different forms and it seems to have benefited me. I've enjoyed it.

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Matt Patches is the Executive Entertainment Editor of Thrillist, and a former writer for Grantland, Esquire.com, and Vulture. Find him on Twitter @misterpatches.