From Radiance Fall 1998
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 storyteller.
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."
Badaluccos philosophy 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 says.
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.
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