Ralph Tabakin could have been anyone and he often was. The scene-stealing character actor, who appeared in all but one of director Barry Levinsons films and ran a school for drama in the Maryland suburbs, died May 13 at Shady Grove Adventist Hospital in Gaithersburg of heart disease at age 79.
In his film roles, he is perhaps best remembered for a small part as a customer in a TV shop in 1982s “Diner,” in which his character complains about “Bonanza” in color.
“The Ponderosa looked fake,” he says. “I could hardly recognize Little Joe.” The role was Mr. Tabakins first with Mr. Levinson, who called him his “good-luck charm.”
The size of his roles often belied the impression he left on viewers. He confronted Tom Cruise as a casino shift boss in “Rain Man,” played a chaplain in “Good Morning, Vietnam” and was a favorite as Dr. Scheiner, the medical examiner, in NBCs “Homicide: Life on the Street.” Because of a bout with pneumonia, he was too ill to appear in Mr. Levinsons latest film, “An Everlasting Piece.”
But to many prospective performers in the metropolitan area, Mr. Tabakin was just “Ralph,” the beloved drama teacher at the Maryland Academy of Dramatic Arts.
“He was a sweetheart, but he was strict,” says his daughter Bonnie Tabakin. “There was a great kindness to him, almost an innocence.”
With his thick black spectacles, bushy eyebrows and perpetually stained left thumb he used it to pack tobacco in an omnipresent pipe that was never lighted during class he sat just to the right of the stage, peppering actors with advice, usually stressing the fundamentals.
Thomas Jane, the young actor who most recently starred as Mickey Mantle in HBOs acclaimed film “61*,” was a student of Mr. Tabakins.
“Ralph gave me the direction to do what I needed to do,” Mr. Jane says. “I was 17 years old. I dropped out of high school to be an actor.” He credits Mr. Tabakin with getting him his first big break, an audition for a Romeo-and-Juliet-type film made in India.
Mr. Jane slips into a remarkably accurate impression of Mr. Tabakin. In a voice that has the comic gentleness of the late Walter Matthau but the gruff tone of Popeye the sailor, he yells out one of Mr. Tabakins most frequent criticisms of him: “You cant walk on the stage.”
He says Mr. Tabakins style of teaching was old-fashioned, yet unconventional. Mr. Tabakin once fashioned a double-sided noose out of rope, which he made Mr. Jane tie to his ankles to correct his loping stride.
“Ralph used everything that worked,” Mr. Jane says of his teaching style.
As fondly as students remember Mr. Tabakin, they also say he was a very demanding teacher. He drilled students on diction and demanded that they always be prepared.
Few of the many students with whom Mr. Tabakin developed a warm, continuing relationship knew many of the details of his life.
He was born in San Antonio and grew up in poverty in New Orleans and Richmond. According to family lore, his father, an auto mechanic, once repaired the car in which Bonnie and Clyde were killed.
He joined the service before World War II simply to have a place to live, a steady diet and an education.
Mr. Tabakins students didnt know he had participated in the invasion of Normandy, had been awarded two Bronze Stars and five Purple Hearts in the war and had been so severely wounded in Germany by a mortar blast that took part of his jaw that he had been in a coma for six weeks. They didnt know he had earned masters degrees in industrial engineering, business administration and financial management.
He moved to Washington in 1946 and worked for the Federal Aviation Administration as an industrial engineer.
An actor since high school, he founded the Silver Spring Stage in the early 1960s. He retired from government work in the late 1960s.
Along with his wife, Madolyn Doress, who died in 1996, Mr. Tabakin opened the Maryland Academy of Dramatic Arts in 1973 in Bethesda. The academy moved to Wheaton in the mid-1990s.
He also served as director of the drama school at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington, was a Maryland representative to the American Community Theater Association and served on the board of directors of the Montgomery County Arts Council.
He was a member of Temple Shalom in Silver Spring.
Mr. Tabakin leaves two daughters, Bonnie Tabakin of North Potomac and Suzanne Taxin of Sedona, Ariz., and a granddaughter, as well as scores of filmgoers and acting students.
Matt Cella is a Metropolitan reporter for The Washington Times who studied with Mr. Tabakin.