On the sunny afternoon of July 24, Bob Balaban held a meeting with a drainage specialist at his Bridgehampton home to discuss, among other issues, the death of his hydrangeas.
“I tried sprinkling them with aluminum-chloride flakes,” he said woefully to the man from Hampton Irrigation. Mr. Balaban addressed him as “Steve.” Steve wore work boots, tube socks and a nametag that said “Ethan.”
Mr. Balaban, in a crisp white Banana Republic dress shirt, squired him through a tour of his unfinished country estate, a 6,000-square-foot Cape Cod that is, after five years of work, not yet fit for habitation. The lawn is flooded. The kitchen is cabinet-less. When in town, Mr. Balaban sleeps in the three-car garage.
“The ground simply doesn’t have enough aluminum in it,” he said, as if all things ultimately came back to the colors of his garden. Comedy, tragedy, horror, real estate: blue flowers, rust-colored flowers.
Mr. Balaban—an actor, writer, director, producer, children’s-book author, book-on-tape reader and all-purpose, soft-spoken, central-casting Semite—has been chronicling his domestic travails for a sporadic documentary television series. Bob Builds His Dream House airs with no warning or regularity on Plum TV, a toity cable network that broadcasts only in six of America’s luxury vacation destinations—the Hamptons, Aspen, Martha’s Vineyard, the like. It is hardly Mr. Balaban’s highest artistic achievement, and in that regard it is a perfectly representative one: understated, clever, nicely shticky like the rest of his career and also, in its way, classic. Some people buy a giant house in the Hamptons and pay cash. Bob Balaban—and his wife, the screenwriter Lynn Grossman—spent more than 20 years looking for real estate and then sacrificed five agonizing years—so far—with building it themselves.
(Before “Steve” came over, Mr. Balaban had driven NYTV about the Hamptons in his black Volkswagen sedan. There had been a falafel sandwich at Bridgehampton’s World Pie. From the driver’s seat, Mr. Balaban wandered his way through descriptions of his innumerable upcoming projects. One of them is a children’s book, disturbingly called Do Not Open This Book. He described it as “my Slaughterhouse Five for the 12-to-16 set.” He thought for a while about being the sort of man who starts more things than he finishes. “I have a fabulous—I love my ideas for certain things,” he said. “I’m sort of an idiot savant.”)
Ten years ago, he settled on a plot located just off Sagaponack Road, opposite an open field, surrounded by heavy brush and next-door to the family that built either the Suez or the Panama Canal, Mr. Balaban can’t remember which. Sometime between then and now, someone built a 20,000-square-foot spec house, the largest in the Hamptons, right across the street.
His contractors turned out to be trouble. His landscaper couldn’t agree with the irrigation specialist. Last winter, despite extensive grading, lumping and topsoil-compacting countermeasures, the swimming pool filled with mud.
“But I’m very fond of our tile people,” Mr. Balaban said. He declined to discuss many of the unaired frustrations that have delayed his construction effort. “I will just say this was not about how fun it is to build a house,” he said. “I have to be judicious about this so as not to incur any further wrath.”
The half-decade of construction has yielded so far just two half-hour episodes for Plum TV. He is “in the process of accumulating material for No. 3.”
So perhaps Ethan, or Steve, could give him some narrative for that third episode. “What seems to be the problem?” the drainage specialist asked at the start of their meeting.
“When they came to put in the irrigation line,” Mr. Balaban said, gesturing wearily at a nondescript bit of greenery by the guesthouse, “they moved the plant—I must say very badly, but that’s O.K.”
Steve nodded. George, his assistant, scuttled off to the truck to get a “sleeve,” which Steve promised would protect the irrigation tubing without disturbing the shrubs.
“I’m in a constant state of worrying about these plants,” said Mr. Balaban, who sometimes refers to his plants as “these guys.”
Mr. Balaban’s phone rang. He scrambled to untangle the headset cord and began to yank the BlackBerry out of his shirt pocket. It wouldn’t come. He gave up, then decided to try again, then gave up, then tried again. “Could you just tear off my shirt?” he asked Steve.
“Maybe pull the cord out first,” Steve said.
“That’s a brilliant idea,” Mr. Balaban said. “It’s just like irrigation.”
Steve agreed. Then several of the surrounding sprinklers clicked on, spraying Mr. Balaban and his BlackBerry and Steve. The section of grass being doused was already under an inch of
Steve promised to reset the timers on the irrigation system. “You’re Ethan,” Mr. Balaban said, noticing the man’s shirt. “I’ve been calling you Steve.” He apologized and apologized.
“Better than late,” Ethan said. Mr. Balaban nodded solemnly and apologized some more.
A Chicago native and permanent resident of the Upper West Side, Mr. Balaban is an entertainment-industry Renaissance man and a member of one of the great American show-business families. The seven sons of his Russian émigré grandmother came to own more than 70 movie theaters in the Midwest. Later, the eldest, Barney, ran Paramount Pictures for nearly 30 years. Elmer, Bob’s father, invented pay cable. Robert Elmer Balaban was born in 1945 and is the only member of the family to cross over to acting. He began his film career in earnest in 1969, when he played the young student who blew Jon Voigt in Midnight Cowboy.
His television career has been more wide-ranging. He has twice played the president of NBC—once as his friend Warren Littlefield in HBO’s The Late Shift, and again, as a generic network executive, during a five-episode stint on Seinfeld. He has developed countless pilots over the years, including one called Deadline, in 2000, that featured his friend Oliver Platt as a conniving but lovable New York tabloid reporter. He did an animated dating series for VH1, a postmodern love story for FX and a science-fiction project that has not yet found a home. Hopeless Pictures, a cartoon spoof of the independent-film world he did in 2005 for the Independent Film Channel, is a point of particular pride—not just for its takedown of weepy indies, but also for its sexual explicitness. “We had penetration,” he said proudly.
Mr. Balaban’s talents extend to the theater and to precisely two other areas of life: the checkout line at Costco, where he can guess the total cost of purchases, without tallying, to within a dollar; and to distance, which he said he can measure mentally to within an inch. He has a terrible sense of direction and a lousy memory. “I know only half the names of everything,” he said, “so I’m useless to an interviewer.”
This is true. His faulty memory omits the names of many of his current and former projects, co-stars, directors and favorite films. His first made-for-TV movie was The Brass Ring, or Only My Mouth Is Smiling, “one or the other.” One of his favorite movies is a Hungarian film called Time Stood Still. Or maybe Time Stands Still? Another is a French movie Toto le Héros, directed by …. “We’ll IMDb it.” He is in the process of recording a book on tape written by some guy—Lawson?—whose first book “had the color white in the title.” He has a movie coming out soon “that I think could be very good. It involves that man who’s so nice—Jim? I forget his name. He did In the Bedroom with Sissy Spacek.”
It’s not that Mr. Balaban is uncaring or oblivious; if anything, he’s over-attentive. Later that day, long after the unexpected lawn-soaking and after a dinner in Westhampton with Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen and his girlfriend Mona Ackerman, Mr. Balaban placed a call to NYTV. It was 11:30 p.m. After apologizing profusely, he asked if it would be O.K. if Jennifer Coolidge—his co-star in Best in Show and the forthcoming Christopher Guest mockumentary For Your Consideration—phoned. She called at midnight.
“I just love him to death,” she said, and went on to list Mr. Balaban’s virtues, including his modesty, charm, profound ability to multitask and the fact that he “busts ass, except he’s so much more gentlemanly than that word.”
Told of Bob Builds His Dream House, Ms. Coolidge expressed interest. “Ooh!” she exclaimed, with her trademark off-key musicality. “Does it have Bob acting all nervous with contractors?”