Ralph Tabakin, a character actor who played a grizzled coroner on the "Homicide: Life on the Street" television series and appeared in all of Barry Levinson's Baltimore movies, died Sunday of arteriosclerosis at Shady Grove Adventist Hospital in Gaithersburg. He was 79 and lived in Silver Spring.
Mr. Tabakin was in his 60s when he began appearing in Mr. Levinson's movies. He played the school principal in "Avalon," the elderly man in the appliance store in "Diner" and the Gayety burlesque house spotlight technician in "Liberty Heights."
Slightly stooped and weighing about 200 pounds, he had a face with a downward cast - the result of a World War II injury when a mortar shell fragment hit him in the jaw - and the demeanor of what critics described as an "everyman."
"He was a major scene-stealer," said a Baltimore casting agent, Pat Moran of Mount Vernon. "He was very much a Baltimore-type character."
"What Ralph does is mysterious to me," said Mr. Levinson, the director, in a 1999 Sun article. "In 20 years, I've never been able to describe the magic of what he does. He finds humor in situations in this eccentric way that's totally natural."
In the article, Mr. Tabakin told of his approach to acting: "It's the way I look, the way I talk. Let's face it. I'm ordinary."
He had roles in the motion pictures "The Last Detail"(1973), "All the President's Men"(1976), "The Natural" (1984) and "Good Morning, Vietnam" (1987).
But he was perhaps best known for his 50-odd appearances as the gruff, skeptical medical examiner, Dr. Scheiner, in "Homicide" from 1993 to 1999.
"In real life, he was an exact opposite, a real sweetheart. He was kind, generous. He appreciated meeting his fans," said Kathy Wilhelm, a Towson legal secretary. "He was honestly surprised at how large a following he had. He loved every minute of it."
Mr. Tabakin was remembered as an actor who arrived an hour early on the set and often brought gifts of trinkets to the technicians. He would sketch cartoons and give them to cast members and directors.
"When Barry Levinson met Dad, he was just getting off the ground. He always referred to dad as his good-luck character," said his daughter Bonnie T. Latterner of North Potomac.
Born in San Antonio, Mr. Tabakin was reared in Richmond, Va.
During World War II, he enlisted in the Army, rose to staff sergeant and led a unit during the D-Day invasion of Normandy. Severely wounded in a battle at the German front, he was in a coma for six weeks. While recuperating, he had to undergo therapy to be able to speak, walk and eat.
He was awarded two Bronze Stars and five Purple Hearts.
Educated as an industrial engineer, he worked for the Federal Aviation Administration and retired in the early 1970s.
In the early 1960s, Mr. Tabakin and his wife, the former Madolyn Doress, whom he married in 1942, founded Silver Spring Stage, an acting company.
In 1973, they founded the Maryland Academy of Dramatic Arts, an acting school in Wheaton.
Mrs. Tabakin died in 1996.
"There was no one who prepared you better for a commercial audition than Ralph," said Don E. Black, a former Montgomery County police captain who became an actor.
Funeral services will be held at 2 p.m. today at Judean Memorial Gardens, 16225 Batchellor's Forest Road, Olney.
He is also survived by another daughter, Suzanne Taxin of Sedona, Ariz.; two sisters, Betty Levine and Hattie Schocket, both of Richmond, Va.; and a granddaughter.
Sun staff writer Jonathan Pitts contributed to this article.