Bob Balaban on the easy way he scored role in George Clooney's 'The Monuments Men'

Bill Murray, left, co-stars with Bob Balaban in Bill Murray, left, co-stars with Bob Balaban in the war movie "The Monuments Men," opening Feb. 7. In the film, Balaban plays a cultured but trigger-happy private. Photo Credit: Columbia Pictures / Claudette Barius

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Along with George Clooney, Matt Damon and Bill Murray, there's another face you might recognize in the upcoming movie "The Monuments Men" -- that of Bridgehampton-based actor Bob Balaban.

In the film, directed and co-written by Clooney, Balaban plays an art historian who joins a group of soldiers tracking art stolen by the Nazis. It's the latest in a string of nearly countless roles for the 68-year-old character actor, whose resumé ranges from 1977's "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" (as François Truffaut's translator) to 2012's "Moonrise Kingdom" (as the on-screen narrator). Balaban is equally active off-camera: He has directed plays, films and television series, helped produce Robert Altman's "Gosford Park" and recently launched his second series of children's books, "The Creature From the Seventh Grade."

"It's why I write, produce, direct and act: because then there's a chance I could be working all the time," Balaban says. "Each time you stop working, you think, 'OK, what will I do next?'"

Balaban recently spoke over lunch in Manhattan about his latest role, his unceasing work ethic and life in the Hamptons.

Tell me how you joined the cast of "The Monuments Men."

I was at the premiere of "Argo," at some fancy steakhouse. Grant and George are there, and we say hello and chat. The next morning, I get a phone call. So it just goes to show you that you must go to all parties.

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You're Jewish. Is your character?

My character is Jewish, but we didn't mention that – for many different reasons, legal and creative. We didn't adhere to one single person, we're all conglomerates of different people. I'd been to Berlin about 30 years ago, right after the wall came down. Eastern Germany was so devastated. I was really amazed when I got to Berlin this time. Berlin is in a great place, culturally and artistically. And the fact that people have taken on the effort to deal with what happened, accept responsibility and not close their eyes and pretend that everything is fine – I was really happy to see the city do that. There are beautiful little plaques on doorways everywhere you go: These Jews were taken away here, or the underground passageway was here.

And, of course, the Germans are doomed to always play Nazis.

I did a movie with Robin Williams that you probably didn't see, called “Jakob the Liar.” It was in Poland and Hungary. We get rounded up at some point, and the Nazi commandant then, 15 years ago, was our Nazi commandant in this movie [German actor Justus von Dohnányi]. I went, “I know you! You oppressed me in 'Jakob the Liar!' ” I said, “It must be hard for you having to play Nazis all the time.” He said, “We get to play some other things, but that's mostly the reason Americans come to us, is because they need some Nazis.”

You've probably been in more movies than the other actors.

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Well, I've been around a lot. Sometimes I'm the third lead in something, and maybe I have a few interesting scenes somewhere. And if that was my whole life all the time, I'd kill myself, actually. But since it's one of four or five things I'm doing, it's really fun. I can use it to meet people and hire them for things I'm doing. I get to work with millions of directors. I've had the privilege to watch Steven Spielberg directing, and Sydney Pollack and Robert Altman.

While filming "The Monuments Men" in Germany, you worked on your own projects?

In the middle of it, I went back to Las Vegas to direct four commercials. I'm from the school of, you better do it while it's happening. I can put it off for a year or two, but next year I could be sitting around doing nothing.

You come from a movie industry family. Were you fated to join it?

My uncle Barney took over Paramount from Adolph Zukor in 1936. And my other relative, Sam Katz, went and started a musical unit at MGM in the 1930s. But I didn't know them too well. I was very excited to have relatives in the movie business, although as a child in Chicago I felt a billion miles away from anything exciting and glamorous like that. Almost none of my relatives have anything to do with any of this stuff.

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So what drew you to it?

When I was 3 or 4, I started collecting puppets and putting on shows. I was always pretending stuff, which most people do, but in my case it stuck. When I was in high school I studied with Viola Spolin, who literally wrote the textbook on theater games. I studied with Uta Hagen, took voice lessons, took every kind of lesson you could think of. I always thought, “When this doesn't work out, I'll go back to Chicago, and I must try and be a writer, because I'll bet you I could be a writer.” And that never happened. I've essentially been working on and off ever since.

So, why live in Bridgehampton? It's pretty far from the city.

Not far enough, actually! It's very easy -- I hop a jitney, come out here, eat, sleep, go back. I'm very happy out there. It's conducive to writing, and I have a lot of friends out there. I love the seasons there, I love the dead of winter. It's fun to go to a movie theater with only three people.

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NOTABLE ROLES

Bob Balaban's resumé is too long for this short space, but here are a few of his best-known roles and stealth appearances:

"Catch-22." In Mike Nichols' 1970 adaptation of Joseph Heller's anti-war classic, Balaban has a small role as bomber pilot Orr. You can see him in a crucial scene that explains the twisted logic of the movie's title.

"Altered States." Ken Russell's 1980 freakout about a rogue professor (William Hurt) whose drug research goes haywire features a bearded Balaban as the sensible colleague. "Listen, it's your life. I'm sorry I even asked," he tells Hurt.

"Seinfeld." During the NBC show's fourth season, Balaban played Russell Dalrymple, a thinly veiled version of network executive Warren Littlefield, who becomes obsessed with Elaine (Julia Louis-Dreyfus). Balaban later played the real Littlefield in the HBO movie "The Late Shift."

"Waiting for Guffman." Balaban's love of improv -- he studied with theater legend Viola Spolin -- made him a natural for various roles in Christopher Guest's ad-libbed mockumentaries. In "Guffman" (1996), Balaban played Lloyd Miller, a button-down musical director surrounded by hopeless amateurs.

"Girls." Last year, Balaban showed up on Lena Dunham's HBO series as a therapist who also wrote a bestselling series of children's books about a bionic dog. That part is true: Balaban's six "McGrowl" books sold about 2 million copies.

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