It's a cold, bleak mid-December in Northern Ireland, and after repeated 12-hour days on the set, Barry Levinson is a tad weary. The man who turned wannabes like Kevin Bacon into stars, who coaxes turns from DeNiro and Sharon Stone, may not hanker for cell-phone chit-chat on his bumpy ride back to the hotel, but the chortling director is eager to talk about the one and only actor who has appeared in every single one of his 15 films.
"What Ralph does is mysterious to me," Levinson marvels. "In 20 years, I've never been able to describe the magic of what he does. He finds the humor in situations in this eccentric way that's totally natural.
"Ralph," he says, dissolving in laughter, "is just Ralph."
The director's thespian good-luck charm is Ralph Tabakin, 78, a rumpled character actor, producer, writer and show-biz teacher from Silver Spring. In Levinson's films -- including Baltimore stories "Diner," "Tin Men," "Avalon" and now "Liberty Heights" -- he often appears in a single scene and, by sheer force of rubber-mugged weirdness, epitomizes deepest Baltimore even as he bends those works slightly out of whack. Even his crabby coroner on "Homicide: Life on the Street," the just-retired Levinson TV hit, so delights in his gruesome chores you wonder if Tabakin could really be acting.
"I could never write what he does," says Levinson. "As long as he wants to keep doing what he's doing, I'll find a spot for him. Ralph is a genuine character."
Ralph Tabakin, having cell-phoned ahead three times, shambles into a Fells Point diner 30 minutes early, arms toppling with bags of resumes, illustrations, cartoons and collages that document a long, varied career in the world's most glamorous business. He wears a hunter's orange cap -- the letters "VIP" hand-painted on the front -- pulled low on his head. His weathered belt is so short he's punched a hole a half-inch from the tip. For some reason, drinking straws protrude from his shirt pockets.
"I really wanted to be a cartoonist," he mumbles in a gravelly voice. "Got in the business as a set designer. I always send Barry cards, notes, pic- tures, whatever. I want him to keep me in mind."
Among other wonders, Tabakin shows a resume that lists Emmy-nominated TV shows he's acted in (20) and his sock and briefs sizes (11 1/2, Med/Lg); a self-drawn cartoon in which he evolves from bespectacled ape to bespectacled actor; and a Warholesque collage of identical mug shots, each portrait as wooden as a coffin but captioned with words like "Zeal," "Passion," "Joy" and "Sorrow." "In this business you can't take nothing for granted," he grunts. "You have to sell yourself."
He's racked up some deals. Film buffs may not quite recall Tabakin as a cop in "The Last Detail" (1973) or a newspaperman in "All The President's Men" (1976), but he made oddball impressions as the ornery TV-set customer in "Diner" (1982); an offended barfly who felt real ballplayers drink booze, not coffee, in "The Natural" (1984); and the lone U.S.-born bobby in "Young Sherlock Holmes" (1985). He was the pro-war chaplain in "Good Morning, Vietnam" (1987), a casino guard in "Rain Man" (1988), an elevator operator in "Bugsy" (1991) and an inspector in "Sphere" (1997). Tabakin also has appeared in the rest of Levinson's Baltimore stories and blackened the dark-edged humor of "Homicide" with his mordant Dr. Scheiner.
In a typical scene, cops find a body floating in a pool. "Boys, I'm ready to go fishin'!" exults the coroner, rubbing his palms.
"Got every one of my scenes from that show on tape," he says gruffly.
Tabakin needs no Mr. Holmes to explain how he fits such a range of films and roles. "It's the way I look, the way I talk," he says with a shrug. "Let's face it. I'm ordinary.
"Wasn't raised rich. Brought up down New Orleans, in Richmond, Va. And I was in World War II. Saw way too much bad happen, all my buddies getting killed." Tabakin himself was lucky to survive; a severe neck injury, suffered in combat, leaves him unable to hold his head upright to this day. When asked to speak about D-Day, though, he tells "the funny side," and obliges with a yarn of meeting a hefty, bearded fellow who marched him to the Eiffel Tower during the liberation. "Hemingway!" he cries.
He'd sit all day and tell you more tales -- some perhaps a shade tall -- of friendship with Glenn Close ("nice girl; she's from this area"), spontaneous kisses from Barbara Hershey ("that impressed the students") and palling around with Hoffman, Beatty and Matthau on sets from London to Bangkok. "That guy Robin -- what's his last name? Williams? Good friend of mine. We were in 'Toys' and 'Good Morning, Vietnam.' My late wife was friends with his wife. We keep in touch."
Tabakin slides another resume page your way. One radio commercial was for the American Duck Pins Bowling Conference. Another part: Disagreeable Neighbor. He's done ads for Pep Boys, soy milk and American chiropractic.
"Too many serious things give you a negative approach to life," he growls, his voice as ill-tempered as the coroner's.
Tabakin's file lists 20 films, seven TV series, 21 other productions. But even in the life of a man who's shared screens with Robert Redford and Michael Douglas, the pivotal moments -- like those in some sleeper hits -- can be the ones no one sees coming.
Take the day Levinson cast him for "Diner." Tabakin was at the reading only to coach some young students through the script. "This prematurely gray young man comes over," Tabakin recalls. "Says, 'Hey you! Ever been in an appliance store?' 'Yeah.' 'You like black-and-white TV or color?' 'Black-and-white. Looks more realistic.' 'Good,' he says. 'I like that.' " Turns out it was an improv for a scene -- and the launching pad for an offbeat career.
As the crotchety "Diner" customer, Tabakin chafes at buying a color Emerson from Shrevie (Daniel Stern). In the process, he launches a deadpan tirade for the ages. "I don't like color. No way, no how," he says with a dismissive hand wave. "No SIR. Color is NOT for ME. I's over the in-laws' and saw 'Bonanza.' The Ponderosa looked faked." When Tabakin, blinking with nearsighted hostility, adds he "could hardly recognize Little Joe," the comment feels like the sad end of a better era. And you're rolling on the floor.
But Tabakin, who moved here in 1946 to take a government job, is more than the sum of his bit parts. Since 1973, he has been director and guest equity artist at the Maryland Academy of Dramatic Arts in Wheaton. He's helped train some 300 aspiring professionals. He's always told actors "the director doesn't want you; he wants the character," and teaches how to find just that. Yet a remarkable sameness links his Levinsonian figures:
In "Tin Men": Danny DeVito as a siding salesman offers Tabakin's Mr. Hudson $4,200 worth of "tin" for free -- only to have his partner enter the house and plead that DeVito has lost his mind. The Tabakinesque twist of mouth, oscillating eyebrows and upward dishevelment of hair -- not to mention bow tie and American-flag lapel pin -- are baffled empathy personified. Sorry for the "lunatic," he cuts a $2,400 check.
In "Avalon": A 7-year-old student is sent to the hallway because he can't distinguish "may" from "can." Tabakin, the school principal, calls in the boy's immigrant grandfather to settle things. "We seem to have a PROBLEM with MAY and CAN," he says three times -- too loudly for the room -- as if volume and repetition could penetrate barriers of dialect. "I don't think you understand the SUBTLETIES of the English language, MISTER Krachinsky," says the well-meaning man who grasps none himself. The effect: benign cluelessness, like that of a violinist sawing away, just off-key, with all the zeal in the world. It amounts to a lesson in wisdom.
"Barry says, 'Real life is not written,' " Tabakin says. He recalls Levinson corraling him through hardware stores to get him in character for "Diner" and quizzing him on what kind of tie the "Avalon" principal would wear. "I said, 'Bow tie.' He says, 'Why?' I say, 'He's writing all day; long tie'd get in his way.' 'Good. That's in.' " It's why Levinson rewrites a script seven, eight times, Tabakin says. "He gets it through the actors. That way, it's not memorizing. It's moments."
It's a wisdom Tabakin passes on to his students. The more you cold-copy, he says -- that is, read the script aloud -- "the more you rephrase the lines your way, the more believable you become. When you believe you are the character, it works.
"You've got to be believable," he says. "A small part is like life itself."
Building a career
For every bit of film on-screen, there's 10 times as much you never see. For every bit player, there's a lifetime devoted to drama. Ralph Tabakin's career has been as much long-term doggedness as luck. After he left the Army in 1945, the Army Signal Corps recruited the ex-engineer and set designer to make training films, and in the process he scrutinized all aspects of the business. Eighteen years later, the Maryland Department of Education asked Tabakin to start an accredited school of drama, and to this day he teaches the nuts and bolts -- resumes, interview skills, screen-writing lingo -- and puts students from 8 to 63 through their paces in improvisational scene work.
"He changes lives," says Bonnie Latterner of North Potomac, whose 12-year-old daughter, Lora, has filmed an ad with Tabakin and aspires to sing and act for a living. "He knows when to be grim; he knows when to be a kid."
Lora is shy, says Latterner, as well as dyslexic, but Tabakin's method taught her the poise and confidence to read in public. Lora is now appearing in a Washington production of Mozart's "The Magic Flute."
Tabakin educates by example, too. He recently helped Chris Buchanan, 28, of Washington, with a screenplay that placed sixth out of 2,100 entries in a Charleston, S.C., contest. But he's learned still more from Tabakin's perseverance, noting that his mentor's worsening disability from the old neck injury barely slows him. "If that man can do what he does every day," says Buchanan, "I have no excuses. I can do what I want."
Tabakin needs daily acupuncture and a driver to get around, his work at the Academy has been curtailed, and his film and TV roles must be tailored to his physical limitations. Even so, Levinson raves about his art, recalling line after line uttered by his protege that he says he never could have coached.
"It's been years since I wondered whether I'd use him," the director says. "Now, it's just, 'OK, where do we put Ralph this time?' "
Funny thing is, Ralph Tabakin still doesn't know he's a made man in Barry Levinson's film family. He still believes that when he reads for Levinson parts, he's auditioning.
"He thinks that?" Levinson says, laughing. "That's the essential Ralph. The man's been in 15 [of my] movies and a TV series, and he hasn't got it yet?"
Maybe it's a safer bet that way. After all, what if he hadn't been there to help those students at the "Diner" auditions? What if he hadn't been wearing all those pins and buttons that caught the director's eye? "They were up and down his jacket, everywhere," Levinson remembers.
But Tabakin never wonders what might have happened had Levinson been looking the other way that day. "It isn't luck at all," he snaps. "My vision of things helps, sure. But I don't just show up." For a 9 a.m. cattle call, he'll make it by 7, "hang around, watch what's going on. Get a copy of the script. Read up."
Work hard, Ralph Tabakin says. Make your breaks. In acting as in life. "Can't take nothing for granted, no way, no how," he says.
Tabakin still doesn't realize he's going to be in the new Ireland movie (working title: "An Everlasting Peace"), and without even having to travel. "It'd be asking too much to get him over here," says Levinson, who's already plotted the logistics. "We're casting him as a guy who appears on a TV screen."
One way or another, Ralph Tabakin will be on the scene. But he keeps forking over mussed materials as if you're the next producer who could keep his checks coming in. He slips you one last flier, gives you a strong handshake and, leaning heavily on his cane, shuffles into the night.
Downing your coffee dregs, you give it a glance. It's Tabakin's craggy face in color, hair mussed, glasses slightly askew. The words below, in bold typeface:
"Ralph! A Character Type. Challenger Who Beat The Odds."
Pub Date: 12/23/99