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Ralph Tabakin; Character Actor Was in 15 Barry Levinson Movies

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ralph Tabakin, an unlikely character actor who became a favorite of director Barry Levinson, appearing in 15 of his movies and as the gleefully morbid coroner Dr. Scheiner in the television series “Homicide,” has died. He was 79.

Tabakin died Sunday in Silver Spring, Md., of heart disease. He was absent from Levinson’s most recent release, “An Everlasting Piece,” only because he was suffering from pneumonia during the 1999 filming.

A Federal Aviation Administration engineer, Tabakin did not get heavily involved in acting until the 1960s, when he retired from his government job. Working in community theater in Washington and Baltimore as a director and coach, he met Levinson when he accompanied some students to a reading for the director’s 1982 “Diner.”

“Hey, you!” yelled a man he didn’t recognize. “You like black-and-white TV or color?”

“Black and white. Looks more realistic,” Tabakin shot back.

That was Levinson’s impromptu screen test, and Tabakin was hired.

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He became the crotchety “Diner” customer chafing over buying a color television from Daniel Stern. With his appearance gnarled by a neck and jaw injury suffered in World War II and a natural rubber face, Tabakin looked like he meant it when he groused deadpan: “I don’t like color. No way, no how. No sir. Color is not for me. I’s over the in-laws’ and saw ‘Bonanza.’ The Ponderosa looked faked.”

After that, Levinson never considered omitting Tabakin from a film, only how and where to slip him in.

“I could never write what he does,” Levinson told the Baltimore Sun in 1999. “Ralph is a genuine character.”

Tabakin was Levinson’s barfly who insisted that real ballplayers drink booze, not coffee, in “The Natural”; the only American bobby in “Young Sherlock Holmes”; the pro-war chaplain in “Good Morning, Vietnam”; a casino guard in “Rain Man”; a businessman duped by salesman Danny DeVito in “Tin Men”; a dictatorial principal in “Avalon,” and an elevator operator in “Bugsy.”

The actor saw no mystery in Levinson’s putting him in such varied roles, commenting two years ago: “It’s the way I look, the way I talk. Let’s face it. I’m ordinary.”

Tabakin found a new fan base when Levinson cast him as the coroner in his 1990s television series, “Homicide: Life on the Street.” Despite the large and changing cast, Tabakin became a favorite as the ghoulish comic relief of the gritty series.

Viewers waited for Tabakin moments, like the scene in which cops find a body floating in a pool and Dr. Scheiner enters rubbing his hands together and exclaiming, “Boys, I’m ready to go fishin’!”

Or the Christmas episode in which he walked through Baltimore County’s morgue wearing a Santa hat and muttering, “Humbug.”

Tabakin was cast in commercials for radio and television, promoting such things as bowling, soy milk and chiropractic services.

Born in San Antonio and reared in New Orleans and Richmond, Va., Tabakin disliked talking about his experiences in World War II, which earned him two Bronze Stars and five Purple Hearts. “Saw way too much bad happen,” he said in one interview. “All my buddies getting killed.”

After his retirement from the FAA, Tabakin co-founded Silver Spring Stage and the Maryland Academy of Dramatic Arts, both with his late wife, Madolyn, and directed the drama school of the Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington.

He is survived by two daughters, Bonnie Tabakin of North Potomac, Md., and Suzanne Taxin, of Sedona, Ariz.; two sisters; and a granddaughter.


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