Films were better with his support Appreciation: Solidly dependable Martin Balsam played characters with their feet on the ground.

February 14, 1996|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,SUN FILM CRITIC

In an industry full of big guys, he was one of the little guys.

Nobody squealed when he arrived at airports; flashbulbs never popped; young reporters didn't hunger for a taste of his life.

Martin Balsam was never a real star. He won an Oscar in 1965 for "A Thousand Clowns," but only in the supporting category; still, for several decades, he was a welcome presence.

In picture after picture, Balsam, who died yesterday in Italy at 76 of a heart attack, played decent, square men who gave the flighty movies he appeared in weight and density. What, after all, is Hitchcock's great "Psycho" without Balsam's plodding detective Arbogast to root it in reality and make the horrors it chronicled all the more horrifying?

Balsam was a kind of one-man reality principle, whose big, average face, dependably bald head, intelligent eyes and screen-holding normalcy always connected somehow with real life. He wasn't the boy but the grown-up next door, who somehow made the movies more authentic than they might have been without his abiding presence.

A New York stage actor in the '40s and a product of the famous Actors Studio, where he mastered the art of seeming never to act but only to be, he made his dramatic debut in Elia Kazan's "On the Waterfront," in 1954, playing a sleazy mob lawyer.

After that, he worked steadily, rising in billing but never once ascending to the marquee.

It took a while to escape the sleazy period, and he appeared as a corrupt reporter in "Al Capone," a meek juror in "12 Angry Men," the ill-fated Arbogast in "Psycho."

That role is particularly memorable in the Balsam canon. As the eternal rationalist Arbogast, private detective and squasher of petty crimes, he cannot imagine the twisted immensity that is Norman Bates and his pathology. Hired to look for the missing Janet Leigh, he goes to Norman's Gothic home on the bluff overlooking the most famous motel in movie history.

His manner gruff and professional, his voice commanding, he represents a world completely committed to the expectable. If an escaped killer or a burglar or a gang of kangaroos or a ghost came out from the dark at the top of the stairs, you knew this wary, experienced guy could handle it. Nothing would surprise him, nothing throw him, nothing get the best of him.

Except, of course, the ultimate horror that was Norman Bates. Hitchcock sets us up for that extraordinary moment when Norman -- we don't recognize him because he's in drag and the shot is taken from above, seemingly to represent God's horror at the crime but actually to prevent us from noticing we're not getting a close-up on Norman's face -- comes from behind the door with a butcher knife and strikes Arbogast down. It's one of the truly primordial moments of the cinema.

Hitchcock cuts to show us Balsam's Arbogast on the steps, flailing backward as the butcher knife drives through him again and again. The shot always calls up Munch's great "The Scream," for as Arbogast slides downward toward extinction, there's a whole universe of fear in the depth of his eyes and the width of his mouth, like the famous yeller on the yellow bridge, knowing that the unknowable has his number.

After that, Balsam quickly became a staple, usually playing lawyers, fathers, officers, business or police executives, earnest symbols of the stability of the world; his films represent the cream of the studio A projects during the late '60s and most of the '70s, with such films as "The Bedford Incident," "Hombre," "Seven Days in May," "Catch-22" and "Tora! Tora! Tora!"

His turn as the practical brother to Jason Robards' burnt-out non-conformist in "A Thousand Clowns" at last made him a '60s cultural icon and preserved his image in the amber of memory forever. In that film, again, he is reality: decent, practical, unexcitable, the perfect foil to Robards' bitter, spent dreamer.

It's sad that after, perhaps, "Summer Wishes Winter Dreams," in 1973, Balsam never caught a really good movie.

Still, he was almost always the best thing in the mediocrities he occupied so valiantly, and he will be missed.

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