Bob Balaban is one of those actors who invariably, if unfairly, gets referred to as "that guy." He played the network executive on "Seinfeld" who fell in love with Elaine, he played Phoebe's elusive father on "Friends," and has scored countless laughs in the films of Christopher Guest, making appearances in "Waiting for Guffman," "Best in Show," "A Mighty Wind" and "For Your Consideration." He also has plenty of behind-the-camera credits to his name as well, including directing episodes of "Oz," "The Twilight Zone" and "Eerie, Indiana." In the early part of his career, however, his most commercially successful venture was unquestionably his role as David Laughlin in "Close Encounters of the Third Kind." We spoke to Balaban on the occasion of the 30th anniversary DVD release of the film, asking him how he scored the role in the first place, what it was like working with Francois Truffaut, and if he'd anticipated a lifetime's worth of reporters asking him if he believes in UFOs. We also quizzed him about his time on the Guest films as well as his newest directorial venture, "Bernard and Doris."
Bob Balaban: Hi Will.
Bullz-eye: Hello, Bob, how are you?
BB: I am fine. How are you?
BE: I'm great. It's a pleasure to speak with you.
BB: Thank you, same here.
BE: I will open with something that may be a surprising opening comment, but…I'm a fan of your "McGrowl" books.
BB: Well, I am surprised, but happy. Let me guess: you have a child you read them to, and you're not exactly reading them for yourself.
BE: Well, I picked it up for curiosity because I knew your name, but I do have a two-year-old daughter, so she'll be on the receiving end of that benefit.
BB: Well, terrific. I'm really happy to hear you liked it.
BE: Absolutely. So, "Close Encounters," we watched it again last night, and it's still just as good as it ever was.
BB: I love it.
BE: I guess it was the most high profile film you had in your career up until that point?
BB: Well, oddly enough, my first two movies were very high profile, but they didn't have the grosses that this did. My first movies were two movies…when I was in college, I was in "Catch-22," and the book had been so famous, and I had loved it so much. Mike Nichols directed it, and I had a great time. That and "Midnight Cowboy" were my first two movies, and "Midnight Cowboy" actually won Best Picture that year, so I had been in a couple of high-profile things, but nothing with an audience of this size.
BE: Right, I guess I misspoke. But it was certainly the most commercially successful up to that point.
BB: I would say that's absolutely true, because I think it was, for a moment, or for about five minutes, the highest grossing movie of all time, I think.
BE: What was the path that led you into the cast?
BB: I knew Richard Dreyfuss, I didn't know Steven Spielberg, and I, uh, don't know why it happened. They called me into a casting director's office, and the main requirement was that I be able to be fluent in French…which I wasn't. So I memorized a couple of poems and went into the office, and everybody said, "You just seem like the exact right person to do this." I had been in a couple of other movies. And they said, "But say a few words to us in French." So I said, "Il y avez beacoup d'annees depuis que j'ai en parler en Francais. Si vous me donnez ce role sera tres difficile," which means…what does it mean? It means, "It has been many years since I spoke French, and if you give me this job, it is going to be very difficult for me." But nobody in the room spoke French, they assumed I was absolutely fluent, and I got the job. That's how it happened.
BE: Is that in the Actor's Diary that you wrote? I've got a copy en route to me, but…
BB: Anything I am going to tell you is in the diary.
BE: Fair enough.
BB: But it is now called…it's been republished. It first came out and it was called "The Close Encounters Diary," and I think it costs about $100 on the internet if you can even find it. But it's currently being sold by Amazon.com, you can find it by Titan Press out of England,and it's called "Spielberg, Truffaut and Me."
BE: Right, actually, that's the copy that I ordered.
BB: Yeah, it's got pictures; it's a little easier to read.
BE: But it is essentially the same book that was released in '78?
BB: Yeah, essentially. And I did a chapter at the end, a Where are they now, which I had to do because…well, that's what they make you do.
BE: I read recently that you're still actually mistaken for Richard Dreyfuss once in awhile, despite the fact that you look less like him now than you ever did.
BB: We look nothing alike, but when I have a beard and glasses and he doesn't, I'm the same size and we're Jewish, and it kind of works. We actually were sitting in God knows what delicatessen, seven or eight years ago, somebody came by and asked for my autograph as Richard Dreyfuss…and didn't ask Richard for his. You know, it's a funny world.
BE: When you first read the script, did it occur to you that would be destined for a lifetime's worth of reporters asking you if you believe in UFOs?
BB: Nope. I just knew that Steven Spielberg was a wonderful director who intended to make…well, he had only made one huge movie before "Jaws," but before that, "Sugarland Express" was one of my favorite movies, so I pretty much knew his background and had no idea what we were destined for, except I liked it a lot. It was very exciting to read and very odd. I mean, as usual with these scripts, they say things like, "When you're finished reading it, burn the script; don't show it to anybody." But you knew in this case it really was important, because this was a movie the likes of which I had never read before, and I was very happy to help keep the secret, and I could see why. The last 20 pages of the script, there was no dialogue, it was basically 20 minutes of stage directions, which I had never read in a script before. But Steven thinks with his eyes; he doesn't only think with his brain.
BE: I presume you were one of the many who were in awe of François Truffaut.
BB: I was completely in awe. I met him in a little motel in Wyoming. Gillette, Wyoming, and I was…I went to dinner with him at some little local sort of barbecue restaurant, and I kind of was able to explain to him that, even though I was playing his interpreter, I didn't really speak French, which he thought was a very Antoine Doinel-like kind of circumstance. Antoine Doinel being his alter ego hero from "Four Hundred Blows" for about seven or 10 movies; so he thought it was funny. I realized then that even though he looked imposing and was rather serious appearing, he was really funny and silly underneath it all, and I was kind of lucky to kind of get under that surface for eight months of standing next to him and bugging him. But my French was terrific.
BE: Did you stay in touch with him following the film?
BB: I did, yeah.
BE: Did you just maintain a passing correspondence, or did you visit him on occasion?
BB: I wrote, I saw him occasionally. He didn't die that much later. Was it seven years later? I don't remember.
BE: I think six, seven, something to that effect.
BB: I mean, I saw him probably once a year, and he lived in France and I lived here, but we wrote and sent things back and forth and talked. And he was great. He was very funny. In my diary…well, it may save you the trouble of reading this thing, you know, but many funny things happened. If you want, I will give you a Truffaut anecdote now, but you could read it and then just pick your own. Whichever you prefer.
BE: (laughs) I'll let you go ahead and tell me one personally.
BB: Here's one, for example. There was a scene in which François had to come into a scene and say something that he thought was kind of stupid; at this point, I don't remember what the line of dialog was, but he said, "I don't really understand it; I can't say it very well." He was really worried about it. We used to talk all the time about these things because, for one thing, Truffaut had never acted in a movie before that wasn't directed by himself. He had been in "The Wild Child," and I think some of his other movies, but he was actually writing a book about acting and movies, and he thought this would be a really interesting opportunity, and he loved Steven Spielberg's work. So he use to keep me apprised of his various actor feelings when he was on the set, and he did keep worrying about this. It was going on for several months, and finally the day arrived when he was supposed to say this line that he didn't understand and couldn't say very well, and he was really worried about it. I saw him at the end of the day and I said, "François, you don't look happy. What's wrong?" And he said, "They gave my line to somebody else." It was the line he had been worried about for three months, and when it came down to it, he was, at that moment, an actor.
BE: These days, you're probably known as much to people for your work on Christopher Guest's films as "Close Encounters."
BB: Well, I have no idea what, if anything, people would know me for, but I loved being in the four Christopher Guest movies, and I have had some of my most wonderful experiences. I had a great time producing "Gosford Park," which was based on an idea of mine and Robert (Altman's) that we worked on together and loved being in that movie; so that's kind of a highlight as well. And, you know, the other things that we all do.
BE: Do you have a favorite of the Christopher Guest films?
BB: I like them all, because they were all really different, and for me the experience of being in them…it's very hard for me to separate being in them and watching the movie, so for me, they're all joyous experiences where friends get to get together and play for several weeks, and they even pay you a little. That's all I remember when I think about those movies.
BE: Do you happen to recall if there was a version of a scene that didn't make the final cut that you secretly hoped would?
BB: Oh 2/3 of them, 2/3 of them. As you know, these are improvised movies, and we go on forever and do trillions of things, and maybe 90 percent of them don't get into the movie, but the ones that do have been highly informed by the ones that didn't. I had a whole subplot in "Waiting for Guffman," I was a bee keeper, and at one point, I limped in to a meeting or some kind of rehearsal late. As it turned out, I actually was late; I had been attending the opening of a movie I had directed and got back to Austin, Texas, in the middle of the day. The scene was already going on, and they were already working on it, so they were filming and I just walked right into the scene and started limping and when they asked me what was wrong, I said, "I had a terrible problem with my honey bees." I had stepped on the queen, and was going to, like…my crop was destroyed, and then I limped for the rest of the movie, or at least for the next few scenes. My limping remains, but they cut out all the stuff about my bees and stepping on my honey bee, which I thought was delightful and funny, but for Christopher, he keeps the stuff he needs, and he is a wonderful film maker, so you can't complain. You can only mourn.
BE: Do you have a favorite film that you have done that doesn't get the love that you feel it should?
BB: I never think that way….um, let me think if I could. I am sure there have been some. Well, actually, I was just in a movie that I thought was delightful and nobody went to see it, called "Dedication" with Billy Crudup and Mandy Moore. It was a big hit at Sundance; I sat there in an audience of 600 people who screamed and laughed and cried and thought it was brilliant, and when it came out, it got pretty good reviews and nobody went to see it. So you never know.
BE: One of the films that you did that I really love that never seems to get as much love as I always feel like it should is "Greedy."
BB: Is what?
BB: Oh, "Greedy." I don't think I have ever seen that movie. I don't remember it, but I had fun, and made some good friends during it.
BE: There are scenes in there that make me laugh out loud every time I watch it.
BB: Well, good.
BE: My father is also partial to "End of the Line."
BB: Oh, well, I really had a great time. The young man who wrote and directed that (Jay Russell) was a student of mine at Columbia University. It was quite exciting when my student called one day and said, "We have $3 million, we're making the movie. Will you be in it with me and Mary Steenburgen and Kevin Bacon and Holly Hunter and a cast of billions of great people?" It was very nice. And now he is very successful again. Jay did "My Dog Spot" and a bunch of other great movies in the last five years.
BE: Ah, yes, the end of "My Dog Spot" makes me cry every time. You have a unique mix of behind-the-camera credits as well; there's the producing of "Gosford Park," but then you've also directed "Parents" and "My Boyfriend's Back."
BB: I also produced and directed a hit play in New York called "The Exonerated," and we did a national tour and had a London company and some other things as well.
BE: How do you go about choosing your projects? Is it just whatever strikes your fancy?
BB: I like working a lot, so I figured out about 10 or 12 years ago that if I only acted I would be employed about 30 percent of my life, and I would spend 70 percent waiting for the phone to ring. So I began to produce and direct. I directed about 20 hours of episodic television; I've directed five movies. Oh, I've just finished a nice thing which I would love to talk about.
BE: "Bernard and Doris?"
BB: Yes, I produced and directed a movie called "Bernard and Doris" that HBO bought, and it will be on HBO in February. It stars Susan Sarandon and Ralph Fiennes as Doris Duke and her butler.
BE: Actually, I was just reading that it…I guess it just played The Hamptons Film festival?
BB: It did, we opened The Hampton Film Festival, and it got a very lovely reception there.
BE: Excellent. How did you get involved with that project? Were you familiar with the story?
BB: I've always dimly knew about Doris Duke, and I had read some screaming tabloid headlines about her butler and what happened between them, and somebody sent me a movie, and I thought, hmm, this is really interesting. I happened to be working with Susan Sarandon at the time, on the television version of "The Exonerated," I gave the script to her, she said, "This is a great character." We worked on the script together for a while, sent it to Ralph Fiennes, and then went out and made a movie for $500,000 that is now going to be seen by hopefully many millions of people on HBO. And it was a great experience.
BE: Do you enjoy doing the occasional sitcom work? You certainly had some memorable appearances between "Seinfeld" and "Friends."
BB: I have only done it a few times. I was also…my other sitcom work is from 1925. No, I was on "Room 222," I was on "The Mod Squad," and something else that was really fun. (Writer's note: I don't know if he's referring to "Love, American Style" or "Maude," but he made appearances on both of those shows as well.) But you know what? I do it when something unusual comes up, but not unless it's really strange and special, like being Phoebe's father. I love Lisa Kudrow. I have worked with her a million times, I think she is a genius, so the chance to be her father was, like, "Sure, I'll go." They don't even have to pay you. And they don't, really.
BE: Well, I know we're out of time, but I'm awaiting "Celebrity Charades: The Complete Series" to come out on DVD. (laughs)
BB: I wish they would release the second season. It's better than the first, and the network kind of changed their profile and never showed it, but we got some great things on tape, including Joel Siegel playing, which I thought would be a lovely kind of…you know, another thing to remember him from, how silly and funny he also was.
BE: Absolutely. Well it's been a pleasure speaking with you.
BB: Thank you, Will.
BE: Thank you very much.
BB: Bye bye.