Martin Balsam, a heavyset, baldish character actor whose talents earned him an Oscar, a Tony and roles in scores of films and plays and hundreds of television shows over more than half a century, died yesterday in his hotel room in Rome while on vacation there. Mr. Balsam, who lived on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, was 76.
The cause was a stroke, his son, Adam, said.
As versatile and ubiquitous as he was, Mr. Balsam was philosophical on the subject of character actors. He often told a story about a woman who walked up to one of them and said: "Hey, I saw you. You played the detective who does that bit with the piano.'
Mr. Balsam continued: "Then she goes on to describe just about every small piece of action he did in every movie he's been in. Tremendous amount of enthusiasm, smiles, congratulations; she thinks he's great. Finally she asks his name. He tells her, and she says: 'What? I never heard of you,' and walks away. That's the way it is when you play character parts."
But people tended to remember Mr. Balsam.
In films, he made his debut in 1954 as an investigator in "On the Waterfront," and went on to play everyone from a juror in "Twelve Angry Men" (1957) to a doomed detective in "Psycho" (1960) to military officers in "Seven Days in May" (1964) and "Catch 22" (1970) to a newspaper editor in "All the President's Men" (1976). He was a patent medicine salesman in "Little Big Man" (1970), a criminal in "The Taking of Pelham One Two Three" (1974), a police chief in "Cape Fear" (1962) and a judge in its 1991 remake. His portrayal of an earthy businessman in "A Thousand Clowns" in 1965 won him the Academy Award for best supporting actor.
On the stage, Mr. Balsam made his debut as a villain in 1935 in "Pot Boiler" and later appeared on Broadway in such productions as "Macbeth,"' "The Liar," "The Rose Tattoo," "Camino Real" and "Middle of the Night." And he appeared elsewhere as everyone from a gangster in "Detective Story" to Hickey in "The Iceman Cometh" and Willie Loman in "Death of a Salesman." He won his Tony for his three roles -- job-seeking actor, lovelorn husband, father -- in the 1967 Broadway production of "You Know I Can't Hear You When the Water's Running," four short plays by Robert Anderson.
In television, he appeared on hundreds of shows, from "Captain Video," portraying a Chinese peasant for $13 in 1948, to such monuments of the Golden Age as Philco Television Playhouse, Playhouse 90 and Studio One and later "Archie Bunker's Place" (1980), in which he played the bigoted Archie's Jewish partner in a saloon.
Born in the Bronx on Nov. 4, 1919, he was the son of Albert Balsam, a manufacturer of ladies' sportswear, and the former Lillian Weinstein.
He grew up on Mosholu Parkway and became involved in theater and music at DeWitt Clinton High School. He was a member of the drama club, took part in declamation contests, taught himself to play the piano and joined a group called Murray Levine and His Syncopated Five. "We played at weddings, bar mitzvahs, pizzerias, for $2.50 a weekend," he said.
Mr. Balsam also became a master of ceremonies at a vacation resort, where he later recalled forgetting the punch line of a story and being told by the owner he might be better off putting out the house newspaper.
Mr. Balsam acted in summer stock before World War II took him to the China-Burma-India theater of operations as a radioman in a B-24. On his return, he became one of the original members of the Actors Studio, working with Lee Strasberg and Elia Kazan. In 1948 he appeared in the Studio's first public production, "Sundown Beach,"' directed by Mr. Kazan.
"I shared an apartment at $9 a month on 24th Street between First and Second Avenues with an outside john, and ate a lot of mashed potatoes," Mr. Balsam said. "I became an expert at shepherd's pie. And I learned to be a plumber, a painter, a repairman."
In those days, it was mainly television that paid for the potatoes. "I mean I was there early on: all those early live things, where you had notes on the table and read the script off the floor," he said.
Discussing his career in a 1970 interview, Mr. Balsam said he didn't like every script sent his way and didn't always feel like acting. But he added: "This is what I do. What I do best. I don't hate it. I like it. What am I supposed to do? Make a pile and retire at 50 and rent a trailer and go to Mexico? I don't ever want to retire."
Mr. Balsam's three marriages -- to Pearl L. Sommer, the actress Joyce Van Patten and Irene Miller -- ended in divorce. He is survived by a daughter, Talia, of Los Angeles, from his marriage to Ms. Van Patten; a son, Adam, of Los Angeles, and a daughter, Zoe, of Manhattan, from his marriage to Ms. Miller, and a brother, Warren, of Norwood, N.J.