Michael Badalucco’s career began with a white-hot bang. His dad, Joe, who was working as a carpenter on the New York City set of the 1964 film Fail Safe, wangled the 8-year-old from Flatbush, Brooklyn, his first movie role, so young Michael showed up in a suit and had his picture taken. That was it. When he saw the film, that photo turned up near the end: His character’s city had just been obliterated by a nuclear bomb. “I’m the little kid who got nuked,” Badalucco says. “And it’s been uphill from there!”
Has it ever. With his ordinary-Joe looks, Badalucco paid his dues with years of bit parts—serving Robert De Niro a Coke in Raging Bull, playing Guy from Brooklyn in Desperately Seeking Susan—while repeating to himself the character actor’s mantra (“There are no small parts, only small actors”). He paid the bills by working as a prop man until as recently as 1996, but today he’s getting his props at last as the amiable Jimmy Berluti of ABC’s hit The Practice, and as the serial killer David “Son of Sam” Berkowitz in Summer of Sam. “He can be dark and menacing on the one hand,” says The Practice’s coexecutive producer Jeffrey Kramer, “and funny and endearing on the other.” In fact, Jimmy wouldn’t exist without Badalucco The actor auditioned for a small part in The Practice with its creator, David E. Kelley. “They thought I had given a wonderful reading,” Badalucco remembers. “They were all cracking up.” He also had a bit part in Kelley’s wife Michelle Pfeiffer’s film One Fine Day. Pfeiffer and Kelley discussed his talent, and Kelley decided to write a new character just for Badalucco. “When David finds a voice that he likes, he writes to it,” says Kramer. Everyone else on the set likes Badalucco’s voice too. “He is such a mensch,” says costar Camryn Manheim. “Michael is the guy who brings Yankees caps and salami from some deli in Brooklyn to everybody on the set. He’s also a boy scout—tried, loyal and true.”
Tried he has certainly been. Badalucco, 44 (whose brother Joe Jr. recently had a bit part in HBO’s The Sopranos; parents Joe, 83, and homemaker mom Jean, 79, live in Upstate New York), was a standout drama student at the State University of New York at New Paltz, but afterward, he says, he often wondered, “Is it ever going to happen?” His personal life, at least, began to click in 1991, after he landed a part in Spike Lee’s Jungle Fever, which earned him a trip to the Cannes Film Festival with his old college buddy John Turturro, who was starring in Barton Fink. (Turturro also does the voice of a dog who speaks to Berkowitz in Summer of Sam.) Back in New York City, Badalucco told his Cannes celebrity stories to a nice nurse, Brenda Heyob, he had met through friends. “There was some furious name-dropping,” Heyob jokes. “He was a little too much.” They went on their first date three months later and married in 1996 after he handed her a big box that held a Niagara Falls place mat and an antique engagement ring. “She’s my best friend,” says Badalucco, who lives with his wife, 41, in a three-bedroom Spanish-style stucco house in the Hancock Park section of L.A. and a Manhattan apartment.
Turturro’s still right up there, though. The pair sometimes take steam baths together at the New York Athletic Club (“He shaves through the steam with heated baby oil,” says Turturro. “He’s got a whole ritual. He’s like a Roman”) and even made it back to Cannes after Badalucco starred in Turturro’s 1992 film Mac. “He had so much luggage,” recalls Turturro. “But he couldn’t carry them because he hurt his neck. I’m carrying his luggage like a slave!”
Freed from his bit-part shackles, Badalucco says, “I feel very fortunate.” His fame has even reached his parents’ local pharmacy, where his picture is hung lovingly. “After all the years they were there to support me emotionally and financially,” Badalucco marvels, “it finally paid off.” With his next film, Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?, due next year, he says with a shrug, “Me and Brenda, we take everything in stride. We take what the Good Lord has to offer,” he adds, “and await the next adventure.”
Sue Miller in New York City