OBITUARY : Martin Balsam

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The Independent Online
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.