OBITUARY : Martin Balsam

Although he won the Best Supporting Actor Academy Award for his charming performance as Jason Robards's stuffily correct brother in A Thousand Clowns (1965), the role for which Martin Balsam will always be remembered is the world-weary private detective Arbogast in Alfred Hitchcock's classic thriller Psycho (1960). Few sequences in film history are more terrifying than the one in which Arbogast climbs the staircase of the Bates house, only to be stabbed repeatedly by "Mother Bates". The hapless detective's aghast expression as he tumbles down that staircase lingers in the memory.

One of the most expensive sequences in the film, it involved an elaborate series of cine-matic tricks. The camera was mounted on a special platform 90 feet above the action so that the "Mother" 's face would be concealed as she struck.

Balsam's close-up also required some special trickery. As Hitchcock told Francois Truffaut: "We put a plastic tube on his face with haemoglobin, and as the knife came up to it, we pulled a string, releasing the blood on his face down a line we had traced in advance. Then he fell back on the stairway."

Balsam's fall down the stairs was also contrived with devilish ingenuity. Hitchcock again: "We sat him in a special chair in which he was in a fixed position in front of a transparent screen showing the stairs. Then we shot the chair, and Arbogast simply threw his arms up, waving them as if he'd lost his balance."

Three years later, when Hitchcock was directing screen-tests of his discovery Tippi Hedren, he had Balsam flown in from New York to play opposite her, declaring he could think of no other actor sensitive enough to bring out Hedren's best.

Balsam made his Broadway stage debut in the unsuccessful comedy Ghost for Sale (1941). After time out for service in the Second World War, he returned to his native New York and began studying "The Method" at Lee Strasberg's Actors Studio. After many television appearances in such prestigious programmes as Studio One, he landed impressive roles in two Tennessee Williams plays: The Rose Tattoo (1951) and Camino Reale (1953).

The latter was directed by Elia Kazan, who remembered Balsam when he directed the film On the Waterfront (1954). Balsam returned to the stage in Paddy Chayefsky's play The Middle of the Night (1956), but soon returned to films as the earnest foreman of the jury in 12 Angry Men (1957), which was filmed in an actual jury room in New York. Now in demand in the movie world, Balsam moved to California, where he appeared in Marjorie Morningstar (1958), Al Capone (1959) and the film version of Middle of the Night (1959).

Many Hollywoodites expected Balsam to receive the Best Supporting Academy Award for his work in Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961), but he wasn't even nominated. When he did win the Oscar for A Thousand Clowns, he told his fellow Actors Studio student Shelley Winters after the ceremony, "I won because I didn't get it for Breakfast at Tiffany's in 1961."

Balsam's other films include After the Fox (1966), Hombre (1967), Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970), The Taking of Pelham 123 (1974), Murder on the Orient Express (also 1974), St Elmo's Fire (1985), Unknown Soldiers (1985), and two stories of skulduggery in Washington DC (one fiction, one non-fiction) - Seven Days in May (1964) and All the President's Men (1976).

In 1991 Martin Scorsese, remembering that Balsam had appeared in the original Cape Fear (1962), gave him the cameo role of a judge in his remake.

Dick Vosburgh

Martin Balsam, actor: born New York City 4 November 1919; died Rome 13 February 1996.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Recruitment Genius: HR Manager

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are in need of a HR Manage...

h2 Recruit Ltd: Business Development Manager - HR Consultancy - £65,000 OTE

£35000 - £40000 per annum + £65,000 OTE: h2 Recruit Ltd: London, Birmingham, M...

Day In a Page

Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture