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  • Martin BalsamThe Best Possible Arnold Burns
  • David Lazar (bio)

He was born in 1919 to an Eastern European Jewish family in New York—his parents, immigrants, Yiddish speaking—and graduated from DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx. He was in the military in World War II and served in the Third Theater, the Pacific-Asian Theater, which encompassed the war in the Pacific, Japan, the Philippines, etc., but also Australia and India for support services. He rose to the rank of sergeant. After the war, demobbed, he returned to New York. He longed to hear his parents' Yiddish again.

There are probably a few dozen men who fit this description, but two of them are my father and the character actor Martin Balsam, who appeared in dozens of films and won an Academy Award in 1965 for A Thousand Clowns. They knew each other well, though I'm not sure if they knew each other in high school. They did not serve together in the war, but I remember my father talking about "Marty" from a reasonably early age. My father, who owned a thriving travel agency in midtown Manhattan (Comet Travel Service—I came up with the name when I was five, because comets are fast) that served the garment industry, had many "celebrity" clients over the years: Perry Como, Shirley Bassey, Danny Kaye. It was New York, and my father, over the years, through his charm and ability to hustle, through sheer indomitable will, established himself as a person in the travel business who could "get the tough ticket," the difficult reservation, which was useful to … almost everyone, an eminently tradable skill. And reputation, as we know, becomes tradable itself; so once my father had established that reputation, it built on itself, and he became in certain circles a, shall we say, figure of some repute (I feel like [End Page 17] I should be Keenan Wynn saying this in a pinstriped suit, though my father was no Ed Wynn), in other words, a character.

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Martin Balsam

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Leo Lazar

To add to this, my father, in the pursuit of airline tickets, hotel reservations, whatever arrangements he needed to make for his clients (and then, whatever arrangements he needed to make for his sons' insatiable need for concert tickets and the family's desire for tickets to Broadway shows), turned himself, at some point, plastic and fungible, into an actor who could get what he needed for himself and others. I've written elsewhere about my child's-eye version of this, my father's "John Waterman" phone in his office, first on W. 37th St., and then for many years on W. 33rd St., across from Madison Square Garden. The John Waterman phone was a phone in my father's office that we were instructed never to pick up, that my father would use to play any character he needed to be to get what he wanted, usually for a client. If a hotel was booked up, or a flight, my father would be governmental, perhaps the mayor's deputy—people didn't, couldn't, check things as much 50 years ago—or some other flight of fancy he had: a famous Australian thespian, the visiting mayor of Bismarck, North Dakota. My father loved to do accents. That was part of his character actor's shtick.

Martin Balsam, the character actor, had a bland, almost generic American [End Page 18] accent. It makes sense that he was the original voice of the HAL 9000 computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey. I can just hear his voice saying, "Dave," and it's too bad that Kubrick replaced it (sounded too American to him) because I would have forever loved that connection: Balsam, friend of my father from the Bronx, and, through Kubrick, my name spoken to freaked-out Keir Dullea. But one of the hallmarks of Balsam's most interesting career as a character actor is the way he falls between the two classic modes of great character actors: quirky personalities imprinted on most roles no...


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