Bob Balaban and Kristin Scott Thomas: Mark Tillie
Nicholas Fonseca
March 11, 2002 AT 05:00 AM EST

Take one look at Bob Balaban’s résumé and you have to wonder how more than 30 years have passed without the diminutive actor-director-producer earning even one Oscar nomination — until now. It’s even stranger considering showbiz is in his blood. His father’s family founded Chicago’s famed Balaban & Katz theater chain, and his uncle Barney was the longtime head of Paramount Pictures.

So what’s the Academy been waiting for? ”I’m not exactly regular,” admits Balaban, 56. ”But you know what? I’ve been fairly lucky. I’ve always been attracted to material by director…. It didn’t get me lots of money or notoriety, but I learned a lot and had the pleasure of being in a lot of interesting projects.”

Indeed, his pivotal roles in such films as ”Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” ”Absence of Malice,” and another of this year’s Oscar nominees, Best Adapted Screenplay contender ”Ghost World,” have brought Balaban attention and respect.

Over the years, he has also built a solid, 25-year friendship with director Robert Altman, whom he approached with his idea for the ensemble murder mystery that would become ”Gosford Park.” ”I knew it would be special,” says Balaban, who also plays a persnickety American producer in the film. ”It would never be accused of being boring or predictable.” That description might just as easily apply to Balaban himself.

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