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Actor Martin Balsam Found Dead at Rome Hotel

February 13, 1996 GMT

ROME (AP) _ Martin Balsam, a character actor who won an Oscar for ``A Thousand Clowns″ and played the ill-fated detective in ``Psycho,″ was found dead this morning in a Rome hotel. He was 76.

The cause of death was not immediately clear, said police spokeswoman Ornella Migliaccio.

Balsam was found lying on the floor near his bed at the Ripetta Residence, an upscale, residential hotel in the center of Rome, Migliaccio said.

His Italian agent, Vittorio Squillante, said Balsam had been staying at the hotel for about two weeks while on vacation. Squillante said he was unaware of any recent health problems the Bronx-born actor may have had.


The balding, heavyset Balsam was a film Everyman, the face people recognize in innumerable pictures and TV shows but can’t always name. In his words, he played everyone’s ``rotten sergeant,″ the good friend, gangsters, producers and agents.

Broadway columnist Earl Wilson called him ``The Bronx Barrymore,″ and Balsam once said, ``I think the average guy has always identified with me.″

Balsam made his movie debut in 1954 in ``On the Waterfront,″ and also appeared in ``Twelve Angry Men,″ ``Marjorie Morningstar,″ ``Breakfast at Tiffany’s,″ ``Catch-22,″ ``Tora! Tora! Tora!,″ ``Little Big Men,″ and ``The Taking of Pelham One Two Three,″ ``Murder on the Orient Express,″ and ``All the President’s Men.″

He was especially well known for his role as the detective in Alfred Hitchcock’s ``Psycho.″ His death scene, in which he reels backward down a staircase as he is repeatedly stabbed, rivaled the famous scene in which Janet Leigh is stabbed in the shower.

Balsam won an Oscar for best supporting actor in the 1965 movie ``A Thousand Clowns,″ playing the stuffy brother to non-conformist Jason Robards. He won a Tony award for his stage role in ``You Know I Can’t Hear You When the Water’s Running.″

During the stage run of the play in 1967, Balsam told an interviewer: ``I’ll tell you, I still don’t feel whatever change you’re supposed to feel when your name goes up above the title. I think that’s because this star thing has never been the first consideration with me. Never. The work has always come first.″

Later in his career he played criminal figures or police in Italian movies, including a role as a Sicilian Mafioso in one of the most-watched Italian TV movie series, ``La Piovra″ (The Octopus), a thriller about the Mafia.


Martin Henry Balsam was born in the Bronx borough of New York City, the son of a ladies sportswear manufacturer. The drama club at DeWitt Clinton High School held more attraction for him than his father’s business, and he made his Broadway debut in 1941 in ``Ghost for Sale.″

He served in the Army during World War II, part of the time as a radio operator. After his discharge in 1945, he appeared frequently on stage and television, where he was a fixture in TV’s golden age of live drama.

Balsam was one of the first to join the Actors Studio, where Lee Strasberg taught ``method″ acting to a generation of stars including Marlon Brando, Paul Newman and Rod Steiger. He kept going back to the studio periodically in later years

Then came the film break in Elia Kazan’s ``On the Waterfront″ and the start of nearly five decades of movies. One of the last was the 1994 Italian production ``The Silence of the Hams.″ In the 1990s he also had roles in ``The Black Cat,″ and the remake of ``Cape Fear.″ He had appeared in the 1962 original.

He is survived by three children, actress Talia Balsam, by his second wife, actress Joyce Van Patten, and Zoe and Adam Balsam by his third wife, Irene Miller. He was also married to actress Pearl Sommer. The three marriages ended in divorce.

``He adored Italy, especially Rome, and even when he wasn’t working here, he would spend several months of the year here,″ said Squillante, his Italian agent.

He said Balsam frequently stayed at the hotel where he died, which is near the Tiber River and just down the street from Piazza del Popolo, a square with popular cafes.

Funeral arrangements were pending.