Michael Badalucco is just plain
irresistible. Rosie ODonnell called him a cutie patootie. Robert DeNiro spotted him
in a nonspeaking part in an off-Broadway play and called him in for an audition for Raging
Bull the next day. David E. Kelley, creator of the ABC drama The Practice,
auditioned him to play a flasher in the pilot episode and wound up creating a permanent
role for him as Jimmy Berluti, one of the shows attorneys. Theres something
about him that is just so likable. I recently enjoyed a two-hour conversation with
Badalucco in a Greenwich Village café, during which he demonstrated his talent as a
Badalucco grew up in the working-class neighborhood of
Flatbush, Brooklyn. His mother, Jean, encouraged a profound devotion to family,
which the actor values to this day. His father, Giuseppe
(Joe), is a Sicilian carpenter who was a builder on movie sets. A reporter once described
Badalucco, Sr. as a set designer. The actor balks at this misrepresentation. "My
father is a carpenter," Badalucco says with pride. "I know how much he put into
his work, how much pride he took in his work. Hes got that great immigrant work
ethic. One of my great regrets is that I didnt learn my fathers craft of
cabinet making and being a carpenter. The work ethic, the pride in perfection, of doing a
job well. I got that from my father, and it has a lot to do with how I work now."
Another thing Badalucco got from his
father was an entrée into the movie industry. When Badalucco was in third grade, his
father was working on the set of the Sidney Lumet film Fail Safe, and Lumet needed
a little boy for the movie. Badalucco, Sr. volunteered the services of his son. Arriving
on the set, eight-year-old Michael knew only that it was an Army movie and that he had to
wear his best navy blue suit. Lumet greeted him, called in another child and an actor
dressed in a Russian generals uniform, and proceeded to take several photographs of
the boys and the actor. After the photo session, all were dismissed. "When the movie
opened, the whole neighborhood came with me and my family to see it. Were watching
this movie, and it comes to the part where the president of the United States gives the
order to drop the bomb. You hear this long beeeeeep, which means that the bomb
has been dropped, and then the president looks down at a dossier on the Russian general,
and as he opens the file you see this picture of the general and his family, and there I
am. I was the little kid that got nuked."
Badalucco graduated with a bachelors degree in
theater arts from the State University of New York at New Paltz, where he was a prominent
figure in the drama departments productions, along with classmate John Turturro, who
has gone on to star in such films as Quiz Show, Mac (in which Badalucco
costarred), Barton Fink, and The Big Lebowski. "John was a freshman and
I was a senior," says Badalucco, "so I sort of mentored him in college."
The two were discovered by Robert DeNiro in an
off-Broadway production of Sam Shepards Tooth of Crime at the Westbeth Theater
Center. Badalucco had a nonspeaking role as a boxing referee. Even without words, his
performance was memorable enough to inspire DeNiro to call him and Turturro in to Martin
Scorceses office the next day to audition for small parts in Raging Bull.
"Theres a scene where were all by a swimming pool and Im the soda
fountain clerk. DeNiro comes up to me and says, Hey, Mikey, give me a
Coke." Twelve years later, Badalucco was cast as a bartender in DeNiros
Night and the City. "The day we shot my scene, I brought a picture that was taken of
us in Raging Bull, and I said, Hey, Bob, look at this. Twelve years ago, I was
handing you a Coke. Today, its gin and tonic."
Working with DeNiro was a dream come
true for the kid from Flatbush, who considers DeNiro one of his greatest influences.
"I saw everything he did: Mean Streets, Bang the Drum Slowly, and then I went to see
Godfather, Part II the day it opened. I watched the whole movie, and after it was over, I
said, Where was DeNiro? I couldnt believe the way he could change his
whole appearance from one role to the next to create a totally different character."
Prior to his leading role in The Practice, Badalucco
worked as both an actor and a prop person in movies for years. He appeared in such films
as Jungle Fever, One Fine Day, The Professional, Broadway Danny Rose, and Millers
Crossing, and had a starring role in The Search for One-Eye Jimmy. His most recent film,
Youve Got Mail, stars Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, and will open in 1999. As a prop
person, Badalucco worked with the leading directors in Hollywood, including Martin
Scor-sese, Woody Allen, and Francis Ford Coppola. But it is the role of Jimmy Berluti, the
lovable grunt on The Practice, that has made him a star.
"I couldnt ask for anything more,"
Badalucco says of the show and his character. "If I had all the money in the world
and I asked a guy to write a part for me, I dont think he could do as good a job.
Jimmys a terrific character. He has everything. He can make you laugh, he can make
you cry. Hes a real human being. Hes just a regular guy with shortcomings, and
he works to overcome them. Hes out there trying to do the best he can do. I like
that my character is an Italian guy, too, because usually when you see Italian guys on TV,
theyre not so nice."
Badalucco finds a lot of himself in his character.
"I asked our producer, Jeffrey Kramer, if he had given David Kelley my mothers
phone number! I said, How does Kelley know all these things? I think
thats one of the strengths of David Kelley as a writer. In The Practice, he
has accumulated a wonderful group of actors, but also a wonderful group of personalities.
He taps into your strengths or weaknesses, and he knows what gets you, and he just writes
it in there, and you think, Wow, I can really sink my teeth into this. Its terrific
to be able to do that. And every week is a surprise, because we never know whats
going to happen. We open the script and say, Whats going to happen next to this
group of people? Its great."
Badalucco is enjoying his newfound visibility.
"Its nice when people come up to you and say, I really like the show. It
really means something. When you can affect people like that, you think, Wow,
Im really doing something. Hopefully, it will lead to being able to do something in the community. That would be my
ultimate goal." Badaluccos commitment to his community is a natural outgrowth
of his commitment to his family. "The best part of this success is the fact that my
parents are still here to enjoy it," he says. "Im so glad that they get to
see me on the show, and in TV Guide, and on The Rosie ODonnell Show."
Badaluccos family has always been supportive of
his career. While he was in college, his parents, brother, and relatives attended all of
his plays. "My mother would bring the baked lasagna and eggplant parmigiana.
Wed have a family banquet, and then go to the show."
Badalucco remains very family oriented. He recently
married Brenda Heyob, a nurse from New York, whom he had dated for five years.
"Shes special," he says, beaming. "Shes a very loving, caring
person, and Im blessed to have met her. My joy is spending time with our families,
and shes that way, too."
"We didnt want to live together before
marriage," he says. "And I wanted to have a steady income before we got
married." That plan was altered when his landlord told him that he was selling his
house and Badalucco would have to move out. "So I called her and said, The bad
news is, I gotta move out of my apartment. The good news is, I guess Im gonna marry
you. So she goes, okay, very good, fine. It was her birthday weekend. I was known in
my college days as the raj of romance: thats what they called me, because I really
sent in for romantic gestures. So now I had asked this woman to marry me, and we were
walking on the beach the next day, and she said, You know, Im really surprised
at the way you asked me to marry you. Youve always been so romantic, and weve
done all these things together, and then you just said, "I gotta move," so
boom." But the raj of romance had no intention of depriving his future wife of
a proper proposal. "When we got back to the house and everybody was giving her
birthday presents, I pulled out this big box. In it, there was a picture of Niagara Falls
and a diamond ring, and I got down on one knee and said, I love you, Brenda. Will
you marry me? We got it on video. So the raj came through. Right after I asked her
to marry me, this job came along. So the Lord works in mysterious ways."
is rooted in his devout Catholic upbringing, to which he remains
very committed. During the interview, he opened his planner to show me a picture of
Brenda, and interspersed among the photos of their nieces and nephews were several prayer
cards with pictures of saints on them. The planner paints a vivid picture of
Badaluccos values: family, church, and the busy schedule of an actor whos
balancing a television career and a movie career. The values that guide his personal and
professional life also define his self-image. "Years ago, I was told, Lose
weight and youll get jobs. Thats not me. I have to be me. This is my
body. This is what it is. My body goes through a lot of changes. Im pretty big. I
could be thinner, but this is who I am. I have to be at peace with myself. If I am
comfortable inside myself, I feel that I can go out from that point and do what I have to
do. Youve got to ask yourself, How do I relate to this world? What am I bringing to
this world? What can I bring to this world? Ive seesawed. I actually have two
sets of clothes. And this is the second!" He laughs, pointing at the waistband of his
brown corduroy pants, and tells a story about a recent shopping trip with Brenda during
which he found a comfortable pair of pants but couldnt decide whether to buy them in
case he lost some weight. "Buy two pairs," was Brendas wise response.
"Shes happy with me like this, and shes happy with me like that," he
Reflecting on the fluctuations in his weight, he says,
"When I go from one size to another, I look different. Do I look better? No, just
different. Ive looked at myself both ways. Ive seen myself when I weighed more
and when I weighed less. I remember a guy I went to high school with saw me a few years
after graduation and he said, Hey, the extra weight looks good on you.
Im happy here." In the final analysis, Badalucco doesnt measure himself
by the width of his waist. "I look at myself and if I can say, I feel good, I
look good, Im okay. You gotta make it be all right in here," he says,
pointing to his heart. "And then the rest of it just works out." ©
In addition to writing for Radiance and working at
NYU, GLORIA CAHILL spends lots of time with her two wonderful dogs, Duncan and Ginger, who
were adopted from the Bide-a-Wee animal shelter. She encourages people who are considering
getting a pet to adopt an adult dog from their local animal shelter.