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Looking back 'We had no idea of the power of the movie,' says Balaban

Bob Balaban has lived a lifetime since starring as the harried interpreter in Steven Spielberg's "Close Encounters of the Third Kind."

He has received a Tony nomination ("The Inspector General"); earned an Oscar nod (for producing "Gosford Park"); and authored a series of children's books.

Yet the busy actor-writer-producer, et al, doesn't hesitate when he's asked to talk to strangers about the latest DVD release for "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," despite making the film 30 years ago.

"I love this movie. I'll do anything I can to support it," Balaban says during a recent telephone interview.

Spielberg's accomplishments since making "CE3K" have people scrambling for new ways to describe him and his profound impact on the film industry. Still, you wouldn't expect to hear someone describe Spielberg in terms of, shall we say, comfort food. Somehow it makes sense when Balaban says it.

"Steven Spielberg is so meat and potatoes," Balaban says. "This is a man who loves what he's doing."

"This is a movie that has a very powerful message, but the message -- that out in the scary wilderness there is love and peace -- is never expressed in the dialogue. It had never been in a science-fiction movie before."

Watching the movie, it wouldn't be hard to imagine that there was a point where those involved would stand back and think "this is big." Yet, Balaban says, it wasn't like that.

"Some of the movies I've been on where people talk about how great a movie it will be, have done no business," he says. "This is a movie where no one talked about it. So we didn't think about it. It wasn't until we sat down in the Ziegfield theater in New York to watch the movie. All of us were blown away. We had no idea of the power of the movie."

His role as a mapmaker called into duty as an interpreter relied on him speaking French, something he had not done since high school. But this wasn't a role to be turned down because of a little rusty French -- the scientific team leader Balaban's character would interpret for was played by the great French director Francois Truffaut.

His "little white lie" is something Spielberg recalls in the retrospective documentary on the new DVD, "Close Encounters of the Third Kind: The 30th Anniversary Ultimate Edition."

"I didn't know he didn't speak French, because he said yes [he did]," Spielberg laughs.

To prepare for the role, Balaban says he "frantically studied Berlitz -- and how much can you really learn in six easy lessons? I ended up in some cheap Wyoming motel with Francois Truffaut . . . going out to dinner with him and translating chicken-fried steak. I realized that to Truffaut it was very Truffaut-film like that his interpreter didn't speak French."


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