MovieChat Forums > Martin Balsam Discussion > The Detective Who Fell Down the Stairs.....

The Detective Who Fell Down the Stairs....and Made a Lot of Great Movies

Time to re-launch Martin Balsam's page(as wiped clean from imdb.)

Back in 1996, to learn what the Oscar nominations were for 1995(Braveheart would win), I called a newspaper's entertainment page number(I didn't have internet then.) This is the message I heard:

"Fittingly, today's Oscar nominations were announced at the same time as the announcement of the passing of 1965 Oscar winner Martin Balsam, who won for "A Thousand Clowns" in that year."

I was all shook up, but a little proud. Here was Martin Balsam -- long gone from major motion pictures through most of the 90s -- getting his "day in the sun" on an Oscar hotline.

The obituaries that soon appeared cited two movies as Balsam's most famous: 1960's Psycho(where he was the famous OTHER victim than Janet Leigh in the shower -- the detective who got slashed in the face at the top of the stairs, fell the long way back down, and was finished off by Mrs. Bates at the bottom) and A Thousand Clowns, for which Balsam indeed won the Oscar in 1965, but for a lot less screen time than he had as that detective, in a movie seen by far fewer moviegoers(like MILLIONS fewer.)

Martin Balsam told friends that his "Thousand Clowns" Oscar was really for his work in Breakfast at Tiffany's(1961.) Oh, maybe. I say it was for "Psycho."

Balsam wasn't nominated for Best Supporting Actor in Psycho, almost as much a shame as Tony Perkins not getting a nomination for Best Actor. (Only Janet Leigh, wrongly in the Best Supporting Actress category, got a nomination.)

Balsam and Perkins share the most "Method modern" scene in Psycho, taking Hitchcock up to a new, hipper level of acting with their staccato ping-pong match of an interrogation by detective Arbogast(Balsam) of the nice but mysterious Norman Bates(Perkins.) Its a scene I can watch again and again, somewhat for Hitchcock's camera angles and editing, but a LOT for his two actors be-bopping away in a sequence that mixes suspense and humor in equal doses.

It was for his murder scene (called "the most spectacular martyrdom in the history of rear projection" -- the fall down the stairs) that Balsam was most famous, and I'm certain it launched him as one of the top three character guys of the 60s and kept him going til the 80's but -- Balsam evidently hated being identified with that scene. "I made all these other movies," he was said to have told one fan, "and all I ever get asked about is that one."

Stephen Rebello, the author of "Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho" wrote that Balsam "flatly and repeatedly" refused to do an interview on the making of his most famous movie. Janet Leigh and Tony Perkins gave interviews for the book, but Balsam, Vera Miles and John Gavin all passed. Gavin would eventually relent for Janet Leigh's book on Psycho, and Miles would talk a bit about Psycho when promoting Psycho II...but Balsam remained silent.

Until 1994, only a couple of years before his death in '96, when Balsam agreed to play Arbogast one more time -- but under his own name(as "Detective Martin Balsam") in a fairly bad spoof of Psycho called "Silence of the Hams" (to promote a more recent hit horror title.)

"Silence of the Hams" pretty much does Psycho scene by scene, just like Van Sant's remake of 1998. But it does each scene for comedy. We get this cast:

Janet Leigh ...Charlene Tilton
Anthony Perkins...Some Italian Comedian
Martin Balsam...MARTIN BALSAM
John Gavin...Billy Zane
Vera Miles....Joanna Pacula
John McIntire...John Astin
Vaughn Taylor....RIP Taylor
Frank Albertson...Bubba Smith

It is rather odd to see "the real deal," Martin Balsam, re-doing all his Arbogast scenes(Mel Brooks does a cameo during this sequence) right up to getting stabbed on the stairs(AGAIN?? he cries) and falling backwards against a process screen of birds flying and freeway traffic before being stabbed at the bottom of the stairs with a knife, a banana, and a woman's vibrator.

But Balsam is far more old and frail in Silence of the Hams than in Psycho. Its a little sad that he finally acknowledged the movie this way. I hope he was paid well.

Before Psycho in 1960, Balsam was perhaps most famous as the jury foreman in the great 12 Angry Men. Hitchcock looked at 12 Angry Men to decide on using Balsam(rather than some of the other great character actors in that movie, like Jack Warden and Jack Klugman)to play Arbogast. Balsam had been recommended to play Arbogast by the screenwriter who wrote the man from the Robert Bloch book, Joe Stefano. Hitchcock made the hire.


Intriguing: in the Robert Bloch novel, Norman Bates is fat and forty, bespectacled and a geek. For the movies, he became Anthony Perkins. in the Robert Bloch novel, Arbogast is called Milton Arbogast(he gets no first name in the movie) and is descsribed as a tall, tan Texan always wearing a Stetson cowboy hat. The detective got a "makeover" as a short, stocky urbanite with a regular hat.

Actually, Martin Balsam(at age 40 at the time) isn't all that stocky in Psycho. He cuts a square but trim figure and has handsome features. As the years passed , however, the short Balsam would gain some weight to the gut and face and slowly morph from the handsome Arbogast into a more comfortable "Uncle Murray" type.

Thanks to Psycho, Balsam's heyday was the 60's, but he was in some big 70s' movies , too.

Once over lightly, the key roles after Psycho:

Breakfast at Tiffany's: two funny scenes as a sharp Hollywood movie producer, who is found, in one moment, necking with an aspiring actress in the shower. (Turned off.) The Martin Balsam shower scene.

Seven Days in May: Key Presidential advisor to President Fredric March, helping Major Kirk Douglas investigate a coup plot led by General Burt Lancaster. As in Psycho, Balsam calls in vital information from a phone booth and dies in the very next scene. Message to Balsam: stay out of phone booths.

Harlow and The Carpetbaggers: both movies star Carroll Baker as a blonde bombshell and Martin Balsam as a rich studio head in the LB Mayer tradition. I think Balsam plays DIFFERENT studio heads(different character names), but its really the same character.

A Thousand Clowns: As the stable, dull older brother of wild non-conformist Jason Robards, Balsam gets few scenes and little to do until near the end, where he tells off his brother in one of those bravura, ten-pages-single-spaced speeches that wins a guy an Oscar. Its an Oscar bait role...but Balsam was more dynamic in Psycho.


More soon.


Let's not forget Murder on the Orient Express.


Ah, yes, Murder on the Orient Express.

The second of two reunions between Balsam and his Psycho killer, Anthony Perkins.

The first had been Catch-22(1970), from Paramount a full 10 years after Psycho. Perkins is Chaplain Tappman and Balsam is the bombastic Colonel Cathcart. Their most famous scene together in the film has Balsam barking out orders to Perkins -- while seated on a toilet. I call the scene "Arbogast's revenge."

4 years later Perkins and Balsam were added to the huge cast of "Murder on the Orient Express." Thanks to alphabetical billing and Balsam's 1965 Oscar, his name was as big as Perkins' on the poster and ahead of Perkins in billing. Balsam is an investigator of sorts(assisting Hercule Poirot, master detective) and Perkins is a suspect -- in a stabbing case. Perkins here cut his hair very short and seems to have inaugurated his "way over the top tics" that would leave the coolness of 1960's Norman Bates behind and inform his later version of Norman in the sequels of the 80's and 1990. Balsam and Perkins are joined in Orient Express by some other Hitchcock veterans -- Ingrid Bergman, Sean Connery, and John Gielgud.


Back to chronological order(with some, but not all, of Balsam's films)... the year of A Thousand Clowns(1965), Balsam was in another nuclear age thriller, The Bedford Incident, set on a nuclear sub run by tyrant Richard Widmark and monitored by reporter Sidney Poitier. Balsam is the ship's doctor. The twist ending is another cautionary tale in the Strangelove/Fail-Safe tradition.

and on to:

Hombre, 1967. Balsam had his Oscar by now and so he got that special billing a star of magnitude gets: "And Martin Balsam as Mendez." This is a well-regarded Western, based on an Elmore Leonard novel(he wrote more Westerns than modern crime stuff in the beginning), and with quite a cast: Paul Newman in the lead as the white man raised by Indians who reluctantly defends a group of stagecoach passengers(including Fredric March as a crooked Indian agent, and Balsam as the stagecoach driver) against some outlaws led by Richard Boone. Balsam called this a "tough lean New York City crime tale ...but told in 1880's Arizona." Balsam is playing a Mexican-American here, and would likely not be allowed to, today. But he's good as a decent man put up against a tough situation.

1970: Little Big Man. A confluence of the stars of The Graduate(star Dustin Hoffman) and Bonnie and Clyde(Faye Dunaway) in Arthur Penn's deadpan epic of Native American issues. Hoffman is the main attraction along with debuting Chief Dan George, but Balsam is funny(and Arbogastian), as a travelling snake oil salesman who keeps getting body parts cut off of him by angry customers. He finishes the film alive but with one leg, a hook for a hand, a cut off ear, a cut off nose....

1970: In the same year as Little Big Man...Catch-22 and Tora Tora Tora. Balsam was turning up in the "big ones." Alphabetical billing gives him top billing as the Admiral in the Pearl Harbor tale Tora Tora Tora.

1971: The Anderson Tapes. With Sean Connery, and working for Sidney Lumet. All three men would work again on Orient Express. This one's a modern-day New York City caper movie with a gimmick: the entire caper is recorded by "Big Brother surveillance." Balsam's role is a gimmick, too: he plays gay. Very broadly gay. One feels that Balsam wouldn't get away with this today anymore than with "Mendez" in Hombre...but he was the essence of a character man then, up for anything. Note in passing: Anderson Tapes opens with crook Sean Connery getting out of prison...and immediately heading off to pull off another crime. Other 70's movies would open this way(Robert Redford in The Hot Rock; Steve McQueen in The Getaway) and so would Ocean's 11 and Ocean's 8 in the 21st Century(George Clooney and Sandra Bullock, respectively.)


1973: Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams

Interesting, in the year of The Sting, Paul Newman's wife, Joanne Woodward, played the wife of...Martin Balsam? But they fit well as a middle-aged couple going through dramatic situations. I think this one got Balsam another nomination, and I'm assuming he liked the role better than Arbogast -- its a lead, the speeches are big, the drama is heavy. Still...Arbogast was more famous.

1974: The Taking of Pelham 123. Balsam the New Yorker again, in one of the great "gritty New York City films." Its a now-famous thriller about Robert Shaw leading a Gang of Four(including Balsam)to take over an NYC subway for one million dollars in an hour, "or we will kill one passenger a minute." The hero is Walter Matthau in the middle of his "serious crime trilogy"(Charley Varrick and The Laughing Policeman at the other two), as subway cop. The film leads to a showdown between Walter Matthau and...Martin Balsam! (Shaw has been dealt with.) Its a witty duel between two of the great character guys of the 60's and 70' of whom(Matthau) became a full fledged star, probably because he was taller and thinner than Balsam.


1976: All the President's Men. Balsam was starting to have to play some gangster parts in subpar movies; he said he almost gave up movies entirely when things dried up. But he did manage to get into the all-star team that anchored All the President's Men as Washington Post newsmen: Redford, Hoffman, Jason Robards, Jack Warden(Balsam's old 12 Angry Men co-jurors.)

Balsam lived another 20 years after All the President's Men, co-starred on "Archie Bunker's Place" and made some good TV movies and few more films, but I think his "key period" is really 1957(12 Angry Men) through 1976(All the President's Men.) In those nearly two decades, Balsam was in films that ranged from very good to classic(12 Angry Men, Psycho.) He looked pretty good, too.

I think Psycho shows Balsam's skills off to best advantage. He was relatively trim and relatively handsome, but he "sold" Arbogast through his great, deep voice, his crisp way with dialogue, his little curlicues of improvisation, and his "trademark tics": nodding a lot while the other actor speaks, breathing deep, focusing .


All the IMDb actor pages are preserved here:


All the IMDb actor pages are preserved here:


Wow! That's a revelation. And here I thought the actor pages were gone forever.

Too bad they can't be at moviechat, too. It looks like editing is easier to do on these boards?


His run on Archie Bunker's Place deserves some mention.


I also enjoyed him in several Italian eurocrime films from the 70’s.