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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
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

COO / Chief Operating Officer

£80 - 100k + Bonus: Guru Careers: A COO / Chief Operating Officer is needed to...

HR Manager - Kent - £45,000

£40000 - £45000 per annum: Ashdown Group: HR Manager / Training Manager (L&D /...

HR Manager - Edgware, London - £45,000

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Manager - Edgware, Lon...

HR Manager - London - £40,000 + bonus

£32000 - £40000 per annum + bonus: Ashdown Group: HR Manager (Generalist) -Old...

Day In a Page

Secret politics of the weekly shop

The politics of the weekly shop

New app reveals political leanings of food companies
Beam me up, Scottie!

Beam me up, Scottie!

Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

Beware Wet Paint

The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
Sanctuary for the suicidal

Sanctuary for the suicidal

One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits