Martin Balsam was born in the Bronx borough of New York City, to Russian Jewish parents, Lillian (née Weinstein) and Albert Balsam, who was a manufacturer of women's sportswear. He attended DeWitt Clinton High School, where he participated in the drama club. He studied at the Dramatic Workshop of The New School in New York with the German director Erwin Piscator and then served in the United States Army Air Forces during World War II.
Martin Balsam made his professional debut in August 1941 in a production of The Play's the Thing in Locust Valley. During World War II he served as a sergeant radio operator in a B-24 in the China-Burma-India theater of operations.
In early 1948, he was selected by Elia Kazan to be a member in the recently formed Actors Studio. Balsam would go on to perform in several episodes of the Studio's dramatic television anthology series, broadcast between September 1948 and 1950. He appeared in many other television drama series, including Decoy with Beverly Garland, The Twilight Zone (episodes "The Sixteen Millimeter Shrine" and "The New Exhibit"), as a psychologist in the pilot episode, Five Fingers, Target: The Corruptors!, The Eleventh Hour, Breaking Point, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Fugitive, and Mr. Broadway, as a retired U.N.C.L.E. agent in The Man from U.N.C.L.E. episode, "The Odd Man Affair", and guest starred in the two-part Murder, She Wrote episode, "Death Stalks the Big Top". He also appeared in the "Route 66" episode, "Somehow it Gets to be Tomorrow".
Balsam appeared in such films as On the Waterfront, 12 Angry Men (as Juror #1), Time Limit, Breakfast at Tiffany's, The Carpetbaggers, Seven Days in May, The Anderson Tapes, Hombre, Catch-22, Tora! Tora! Tora! (as Admiral Husband E. Kimmel), Little Big Man, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, All the President's Men, Murder on the Orient Express, The Delta Force, and The Goodbye People.
In 1960, he appeared in one of his best remembered roles as Detective Arbogast in Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho. Along with Gregory Peck and Robert Mitchum, Martin Balsam appeared in both the original Cape Fear (1962), and the 1991 Martin Scorsese remake. He won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his role as Arnold Burns in A Thousand Clowns (1965). In 1968, he won a Tony Award for his appearance in the 1967 Broadway production of You Know I Can't Hear You When the Water's Running.
Balsam played Washington Post editor Howard Simons in All the President's Men (1976). and a film that eventually became a highly popular Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode, the Joe Don Baker police drama Mitchell (1975). He played Dr. Rudy Wells when the Martin Caidin novel Cyborg was adapted as a TV-movie pilot for The Six Million Dollar Man (1973), though he did not reprise the role for the subsequent series. He appeared as a spokesman/hostage in the TV movie Raid on Entebbe (1976) and as a detective in the TVM Contract on Cherry Street (1977). He also appeared on an episode of Quincy ME. Balsam starred as Murray Klein on the All in the Family spin-off Archie Bunker's Place for two seasons (1979–81) and returned for a guest appearance in the show's 4th and final season. He even filled in for Charles Nelson Reilly on Match Game for one question when Reilly was late for a taping.
In 1951, Balsam married his first wife, actress Pearl Somner. They divorced three years later. His second wife was actress Joyce Van Patten. This marriage lasted for four years (from 1958 until 1962) and produced one daughter, Talia Balsam. He married his third wife, Irene Miller, in 1963. They had two children, Adam and Zoe Balsam, and divorced in 1987.
On February 13, 1996, Balsam died of a sudden stroke in his hotel room in Rome, Italy, while on vacation. He was 76. Balsam is interred at Cedar Park Cemetery, in Emerson, New Jersey. He was survived by his three children and Renee Landau, his companion.
National Board of Review –(1964) Best Supporting Actor – The Carpetbaggers (Won)
Academy Awards –(1966) Best Actor in a Supporting Role – A Thousand Clowns (Won)
Tony Awards –(1968) Best Actor in a Play – You Know I Can't Hear You When the Water's Running (Won)
Golden Globe Awards –(1974) Best Supporting Actor – Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams (Nominated)
BAFTA Awards –(1976) Best Supporting Actor – The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (Nominated)
(1977) Best Supporting Actor – All the President's Men (Nominated)
Primetime Emmy Awards –(1977) Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Miniseries or a Movie – Raid on Entebbe (Nominated)