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Opening Doors Seasoned Everyman actor Michael Badalucco plays a doorman in the art-history mystery "The Rise of Dorothy Hale."
If Michael Badalucco is to be believed, his mother's cooking had a lot to do with his acting career taking off.

"I was at SUNY New Paltz, and I was majoring in theatre arts," recalls Badalucco, now appearing in the The Rise of Dorothy Hale at the St. Luke's Theatre. "I was a freshman, and I got the part of Pseudolus in A Funny Thing That Happened on the Way to the Forum. That was unheard of, for a freshman to get the lead.

"Then the whole family came up for the show, and my friends had meatballs for weeks. I kept getting good parts in the plays after that, I think because they figured, 'If Badalucco's in the play, we'll eat good.' "

The Forum connection stood Badalucco in good stead recently, when director Pamela Hall came onto oversee The Rise of Dorothy Hale (she replaced the previous director, Penny Templeton). Hall had played Philia in the 1972 revival of Forum with Phil Silvers.

"When I started to sing 'You're lovely, absolutely lovely,' to the director, I think that got me on her good side," says Badalucco.

Badalucco is not just a kidder. He's an Emmy winner for his work as salt-of-the-earth lawyer Jimmy Berluti on the ABC drama The Practice, a role which came after he paid serious dues acting in comedies and dramas alike at the former Westbeth Theatre Center in the West Village. His first big break came with a speaking part in Raging Bull.

"Robert DeNiro came to see me at Westbeth in The Tooth of Crime," recalls Badalucco, who played the referee in that Sam Shepard play. "Next day we got a call, they wanted me and 'the guy in the T-shirt'--that was John Turturro--to come down and audition for Raging Bull."

Badalucco says he and Turturro wanted to leave nothing to chance. So though the Raging Bull script was top-secret, Jake LaMotta's autobiography of the same name wasn't. They concocted and rehearsed a scene from the book and found period clothes. Seldom have bit players been more prepared.

"So we were up there at the audition slapping each other around, and DeNiro was sitting there with that smirk of his," Badalucco recalls. "In the end, I think he appreciated that these two kids tried to impress him. So they cast me as the soda fountain clerk; I had a few lines and I got my SAG card."

In The Rise of Dorothy Hale, Badalucco plays a New York doorman--and not just any doorman but one at the center of the story of the real-life socialite who was the subject of a famous Frida Kahlo painting from 1938 called The Suicide of Dorothy Hale. The painting was commissioned by the powerful Claire Booth Luce, who knew Hale. So did Harry Hopkins, the director of the Roosevelt Administration's Work Progress Administration.

From these shreds of fact, playwright Myra Bairstow has woven a mystery that goes to heights of pre-WWII New York society.

"The doorman knows who goes in and who goes out," says Badalucco, who otherwise won't say much about the revelations of the play, except to add, "It's really intriguing."

To prepare for the role, Badalucco says he watched Murnau's 1924 silent film The Last Laugh, about a destitute hotel doorman, and he reread the doorman chapter in Studs Terkel's seminal book Working.

For the most part, though, Badalucco says he did what every actor does: He followed the script. "It's all there in the words and in the actions of the character," he says simply of his performance.

As the meatball story proves, Badalucco is nothing if not modest about his work. Clearly, though, the guy spotted by DeNiro and later handpicked by David E. Kelley to star in The Practice doesn't need to bring anything more to the table than his talent.

For tickets to The Rise of Dorothy Hale at St. Luke's Theatre, go here.