The actor Michael Tucker breezed through town the other day, with his emotions somewhere between his eighth year of acting on television's "L.A. Law" and his final year at Baltimore City College, three decades ago, where acting saved his life.
Tucker was inducted into his old high school's Hall of Fame last Friday, a fact he attributes not only to his role as the attorney Stuart Markowitz in "L.A. Law" and his role as the home-improvement salesman Bagel in Barry Levinson's "Diner" and "Tin Men," but also to some teachers at City who looked beyond his grades and reached for his potential.
"Oh, I was a terrible student," the 49-year old Tucker was saying the other night, driving in from Baltimore-Washington Airport. "A terrible student. To this day, it's tough for me to take instruction. But I loved acting. I figured it was the best way to meet actresses."
He's being glib, as well as factual. It helped him meet the actress Jill Eikenberry, his wife on "L.A. Law" who is also his real-life wife, but acting also gave some direction to a kid floundering without it.
"A terrible student," he says again, sounding as if he still doesn't believe how lost he was. There's a lesson in here, to be absorbed by high school kids with their own sense of failure: Whatever troubles exist inside the classroom, there is still the possibility of life outside.
For Tucker, it started with his own feel for showing off in front of his family: little living room bits, imitations of the comic Shelly Berman, mimicking various singers of the day. At 14, he found himself with the Baltimore Actors Theatre, as one of the Lost Boys in "Peter Pan," at the old Ford's Theatre. Plus, he did some Lancers Boys Club talent shows.
"It was in my blood early," Tucker says. "My parents tried a transfusion, but it didn't take."
At City College, while he struggled with subtleties of plane geometry, he kept bumping into teachers who looked beyond his academic troubles and encouraged his acting.
There was an English teacher named Jerry Levin, "who changed my life," Tucker says. "He got me into literature, poetry. He taught me to appreciate Shakespeare."
Then there were teachers like John Desch and William Bentley (whose wife was a Sun reporter who later took a wrong turn and went to the U.S. Congress). They directed City's class plays, where Tucker first began to find his way.
"They did exactly the right thing," says Tucker, looking back with a professional's perspective. "They encouraged me a lot, and they let me go with my own best instincts."
Plus, there was a geometry teacher named Luther Dittman. Tucker found himself, as summer vacation loomed, "flunking big-time. And I knew I'd have to go to summer school, but I'd already gotten a job working backstage at Painters Mill Music Theatre. So I went to Mr. Dittman and I said, 'Look, I know I'm flunking. But I want to act, and I have this summer job at Painters Mill, and I can't do it if I have to go to summer school.'
"And he thought about it for a moment, and he said, 'OK.' It made a certain kind of logic to him. And he passed me."
Growing up in Northwest Baltimore, Tucker went to Howard Park Elementary and Garrison Junior High before City. It was a time when another kid from Northwest Baltimore, Barry Levinson, was finishing up at Forest Park and the Hilltop Diner, and making mental notes.
Years later, when Levinson was casting for the movie "Diner," Tucker walked in with a real-life Baltimore accent. He got the part of Bagel, which called for him to give some guidance to a character named Boogie -- based more than a little on Leonard "Boogie" Weinglass, another real-life fellow who hadn't yet discovered his own potential.
"Yeah," Tucker says, "when I went to City, Boogie was the star on the basketball team. He was driven. God, I never saw anything like it, he was so great. Then, years later, I wind up in this movie.
"When I went in to audition, I didn't know what the film was about, except it was about Baltimore. So I reached for my accent, and drummed everything the Carnegie Tech Drama School ever said about articulating."
He comes back to Baltimore regularly, where he still has family. "It feels like home," he says. "It's where my history is."
Even if some of that history seemed hopeless, until Michael Tucker discovered he could act.