Bob Balaban seems surprised by my Twitter DM. Frankly, I’m surprised he even responded to my out of the blue message—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 about how Balaban, the charmingly rumpled actor who has been in everything from Midnight Cowboy to Close Encounters of the Third Kind to a few Wes Anderson films, has long represented a certain sensibility. He’s not a star, exactly, but he is nonetheless the sort of actor screenwriters write parts for. He usually plays the smart guy, the one whose voice never gets too loud. He is the sort of actor who helps others shine. He comes off as unselfish, deprecating and sweet. And, as people who know him have told me, that’s really how he is.
As much as I consider myself one of the leading experts on Balaban’s body of work, the truth is that I’ve built a little philosophy specifically around his personal style. It’s something I’ve been obsessed with for a long time. Bob Balaban is a sly master of a kind of smart but unremarkable dressing. Unmistakeable, simple, but also put together perfectly. The Japanese magazine Popeye calls it the “City Boys” look; Balaban dresses like a city man. He always has—and his look has evolved along with his age. He’s also always had excellent taste in glasses. So I start off our conversation by asking him about his eyewear through the ages: Did Mike Nichols tell you not to wear them in Catch-22; were those your glasses on Seinfeld; what notes did Ryan Murphy have about your wardrobe for *The Politician—*because the glasses really work.
“You’re sort of defining my style through my glasses through the last 40 or 50 years, which is a kind of fun way to be assessed,” he points out. Which, fair. So I try to explain my thesis.
His look in the late 1970s, I tell him, is a very particular Jewish dad style that I have a certain emotional attachment to. In Close Encounters and 1978’s overlooked masterpiece Girlfriends, you can see how he masters the three Bs many Jewish guys in their 30s experience: Bearded. Bespectaled. Balding. He looks like the dad who is going to pick you up from basketball practice in his Volvo station wagon and tell you you’re stopping to get some Häagen-Dazs at your local upscale supermarket. He likes jazz, classical, the Talking Heads, and considers Infidels Bob Dylan’s best album. He works in publishing, probably has a subscription to Artforum, and wrote a book review for Dissent when he was in college.