Ticket buyers who've stood in line at the TKTS Discount Booth may do a double take when they sit down to watch Law and Order: Special Victims
Unit on Feb. 13. They may recognize the actor playing Lucio, a mobster's son under investigation by detectives played by Christopher Meloni and Mariska Hargitay, because it's John Palumbo, seen most days at his regular job behind one of a dozen windows at the bustling TKTS Discount Booth in Times Square.
"I'll say it's one of the toughest jobs in New York," says Palumbo of his job at the TKTS Discount Booth. But just a few breaths later, the tall, dark-haired part-time actor says, "I'll say it's one of the best jobs in New York. Everyone who does a Broadway show should come down and work a day at the booth."
It seems only fitting that Palumbo should be identified with an iconic New York institution like TKTS. His life story is fairly dotted with local landmarks: He still lives in the Fourth Ward of the Lower East Side, where he was born and raised; for two years he was a ball boy for the Knicks; he later worked at Cantor & Fitzgerald in the World Trade Center; he worked on stage crews for conventions at Javits Center, studied acting at Lee Strasberg and HB Studios and sold tickets at the New Amsterdam Theatre. For this native New Yorker, there's every reason that "toughest job" equals "best job."
"We work very hard at the booth," says Palumbo. "It's brutal. You're standing all day. It's old-school: The tickets are in racks; there's no computer. You know, Mike Tyson stood between rounds, so I feel like, if you sit you're not tough."
The acting trade is no cakewalk, either, and Palumbo admits that he started late. After playing basketball in high school and working on Wall Street, he only began to take acting seriously after he answered an open call in Back Stage
for a non-union part on the prison drama Oz.
One thing led to another, and creator/producer Tom Fontana eventually wrote a regular part for Palumbo. That got him his SAG card and an agent, but more important, Palumbo says, was the feeling of having arrived.
"An acting career is tough, because there's no set schedule to it," Palumbo says. "Tom Fontana, who was a real gentleman, giving me that character meant so much to me. I felt like I was part of something, and I felt like a true actor. I said to myself, 'Even if I never do anything after this, I'm happy, because I'm on the best show on television.' "
As it turned out, things proved a little lean after his Oz
initiation. Through his father, Robert Palumbo, who served for years as head of the city's Off-Track Betting Corporation, the young actor met Harry Jaffie, a treasurer at Broadway's New Amsterdam Theatre, who gave Palumbo a job selling tickets for The Lion King
When the New Amsterdam cut back its ticket staff last year, Palumbo--who was continuing to work in roles in independent films, as well as the series Jonny Zero
--met Billy Castellano, who manages the TKTS Discount Booth, and the rest is history. Palumbo describes the maelstrom of fast-paced, same-day ticket sales with a smile.
"We get a lot of, 'Where are we sitting, what row?' Now, these people are paying our salary, so they deserve to dealt with respectfully. But after about three or four hours of that, your head feels like it's been in a car crash--you can get a little punchy after three or four hours." That's where his New York-bred resilience comes in handy: "In this type of job, you better have a sense of humor. We work hard, but we also laugh a lot."
The job has even made him a better actor, he says.
"Once I started working at the booth, my whole personality sort of changed," Palumbo explains. "When you're not working, you get down, you don't wanna go out. You get kind of antisocial. Now I'm calmer, more relaxed, so when I go into an audition, I'm not desperate." His new attitude seems to be paying off: Last year he booked a role on Law & Order: Criminal Intent,
and recently added Special Victims Unit
to his resume.
It's a slow build, but he's not in any hurry with acting. "I know I'm not going to be DeNiro; I've got my own pace," he says. In the meantime and the lean times, Palumbo says, the TKTS Discount Booth gives him a place to go. "Life is short," he says, "and everyone should have a place to go."
Maybe one of these nights he'll even get around to sampling the wares he peddles. "I'm ashamed to say it, but I've never seen a Broadway show," says Palumbo. When he does, that will be just one more landmark this quintessential New Yorker will add to his repertoire.
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pictured above: Chris Meloni, John Palumbo, Mariska Hargetay on the set of Law and Order Special Victims Unit