Power failure

Bob Balaban’s network connections
By RYAN STEWART  |  June 22, 2006

I SEE A WIRE: Balaban (right) in A Mighty Wind
There must be something about Bob Balaban, straight man extraordinaire, that reminds Hollywood and indie filmmakers of the people who sign their paychecks. The diminutive, spectacled Balaban hardly seems like the type to command respect onscreen, but he frequently finds himself playing a role in a position of power. How many other actors played the president of a major network –- the same major network, at that –- in both a TV show and a film? Perhaps the fact that his uncle was the president of Paramount at one point has something to do with it.

Balaban doesn't often take showy roles; his characters are usually timid even when occupying a position of authority. And because he looks fairly ordinary –- short, balding, occasionally bearded –- people often have trouble identifying him. Here's a refresher on his work to this point: the 10 best roles of Bob Balaban's career.

1. Jonathan Steinbloom
A Mighty Wind (2003)

Jonathan was the son of the folk promoter Irving Steinbloom and the organizer of the concert that featured the Folksmen, the New Main St. Singers, and Mitch and Mickey. He also memorably fretted about the production details on the eve of the big show, earning himself a slap from the Town Hall stage manager.

2. Russell Dalrymple
Seinfeld (1992-93)

He was the president of NBC when George and Jerry were developing their TV pilot. The two almost bumbled their opportunity when Russell caught George leering at his daughter's cleavage (yup, that was the then-unknown Denise Richards). Elaine used her feminine charms to earn them a second chance, but when she dumped him, he joined Greenpeace. Dalrymple’s replacement at NBC passed on the pilot, and the boys were out of luck again. Balaban also played Warren Littlefield, the president of NBC, in the film version of The Late Shift. Fair to say there was a resemblance between Balaban and Littlefield?

3. Morris Weissman
Gosford Park (2001)

Balaban gets extra credit for helping to come up with the idea for the whole film. His character is a director whose next project is a murder mystery set at an English estate. And, of course, while he's staying at Gosford Park for a pheasant hunt, an actual murder occurs.

4. David Laughlin
Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

He's the interpreter that tries to figure out what the aliens are saying. Pretty big role, actually.

5. William Shawn
Capote (2005)

Hardly his fault, but Balaban had the misfortune to play a fictionalized version of one of the most revered magazine editors of all time: William Shawn, Truman Capote's editor at the New Yorker. In a letter to the editor in that magazine, Shawn’s sons provided a wry, detailed accounting of the numerous ways in which the screen Shawn differed from their father. 

“Quiveringly empathic by nature, the real William Shawn was literally the last man on earth who would make a joke about the killer Perry's impending death,” they wrote. “The real Shawn never went to Kansas to visit with Capote, and in fact he never had the experience of flying on an airplane.” They concluded, “the William Shawn depicted in Capote is invented out of whole cloth.”

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