Bob Balaban’s unlikely cool

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Bob Balaban seems surprised by my Twitter DM. Frankly, I’m surprised he even replied to my unexpected post – I was hoping he could answer a few questions about his style.

“I have a style? ” he asks.

An hour later we’re on the phone, and I’m trying to explain my thoughts on how Balaban, the charming and crumpled actor who has been in everything since. Midnight Cowboy To Encounters of the Third Kind to a few films by Wes Anderson, has long represented a certain sensitivity. He’s not a star, exactly, but he’s the kind of actor the writers write roles for nonetheless. He usually plays the smart guy, the one whose voice never gets too loud. He’s the kind of actor who helps others shine. He presents himself as altruistic, contemptuous and gentle. And, as people who know him have told me, that’s really how he is.

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Bob Balaban in Waiting for Guffman, 1996.Everett Collection / Courtesy Sony Pictures

As much as I consider myself to be one of the foremost experts in Balaban’s work, the truth is that I have built a little philosophy specifically around his personal style. This is something that has obsessed me for a long time. Bob Balaban is a crafty master of a classy but unremarkable sort of dressing. Indispensable, simple, but also perfectly assembled. Japanese magazine Popeye calls it the “City Boys” look; Balaban dresses like a city dweller. He always has and his look has evolved with his age. He also always had an excellent taste for glasses. So I start our conversation by asking him about his glasses through the ages: Did Mike Nichols tell you not to wear them in Catch-22; It was on your glasses Seinfeld; what notes did Ryan Murphy have on your wardrobe for * The Politician— * because the glasses really work.

“You kind of define my style through my glasses for the last 40 or 50 years, which is kind of a fun way to be evaluated,” he points out. Which one, just. So I try to explain my thesis.

His look in the late 1970s, I tell him, is a very peculiar Jewish daddy style that I have a certain emotional attachment to. In Close encounters and little-known masterpiece from 1978 Girlfriends, you can see how he masters the three B’s of many Jewish guys in their 30s experience: Bearded. With glasses. Baldness. He looks like the dad going to pick you up from basketball practice in his Volvo station wagon and tell you you’re stopping to buy Häagen-Dazs at your local high-end supermarket. He loves jazz, classical, Talking Heads and considers Infidels Bob Dylan’s best album. He works in publishing, probably has a subscription to Art Forum, and wrote a book review for Contestation when he was in college.

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