Sopranos, 30 Rock, and more — small roles, small guy, big heart
You probably don’t know the name Tabb Carter, but he’s part of television history.
If you watch your share of television, there’s a good chance you’ve seen him. He’s black and diminutive, four feet seven inches to be exact. In the final episode of The Sopranos, he’s featured in an extreme close-up, no lines. In 30 Rock, he uttered a line to Alec Baldwin in a memorable exchange. Yes, again, it was one line. For almost twenty-five years, Tabb Carter has been a background actor or extra. In large part, this means that Tabb remains a silent, a background blur.
Tabb was born in Bushwick, Brooklyn in 1960. Nine years later, his family moved to Freeport, Long Island, where he lived with his mother, grandmother and uncle. Except for a few cameos, Tabb’s father was not in the picture. As a child, Tabb says he became easily irritated by his peers. Ultimately, he shut himself off from others. “I wanted to be a hermit,” Tabb recalls. “I wanted to be the only person on earth.”
At his mother’s insistence, Tabb attended Queens College but did not graduate. Instead, Tabb decided to pursue a career with the railroad, his first love. He was eventually hired by Amtrak, where he worked in the towers as a Block Operator controlling traffic. One day, Tabb became extremely agitated at work. He felt overworked and underappreciated – and he started to hear negative voices: “You’re not gonna keep this job. You’re gonna lose this job!” Ultimately, those voices got the best of him, and Tabb lost control. He tossed everything off his desk and damaged a machine. Consequently, Tabb was fired. At his mother’s urging, Tabb went to see a psychiatrist, and he was eventually diagnosed with bipolar schizophrenia. With the aid of impulse control disorder medication and psychiatric help, Tabb got a handle on his condition. Now, Tabb refers to himself as a “mental health consumer.”
With his railroad career done, Tabb needed a second act.
In the early 90s, Tabb got his cue via a New York Times classified ad: “Actors needed no experience necessary.” Tabb, who had always been interested in theater, responded. Tabb was interviewed, photographed and sent out on assignments. For his first major film, he played a subway rider with Al Pacino in Carlito’s Way. (Tabb didn’t make the film’s final cut, which is often the case with extras.) Since, Tabb has appeared in hundreds of projects, everything from student films to commercials to the relatively recent Jason Bateman film, The Family Fang, in which he plays a department store elf. Tabb also played an elf in a Black & Decker commercial.
For his 30 Rock appearance, in the Season 3 debut, Tabb’s line wasn’t in the original script, but Alec Baldwin thought the scene was lacking, and he suggested a line for Tabb. In the scene, which took place in Central Park, Baldwin and Tabb play mailroom employees.
“And what I’m saying is don’t dress for the job you have, dress for the job you want to have, so now Manny …” says Baldwin, and then Tabb picks up the line: “…Tomorrow I’ll show up for work dressed as a Mexican wrestler” replies Manny, Tabb’s character. It’s a great little moment, and earned mention on IMDB and AVClub.
Yes, it was only one line. But it’s a huge deal for an extra to land it, as fans of the Ricky Gervais show Extras understand. With that line, Tabb got a pay raise to $400 for the day, plus residuals. Perhaps more importantly, at least to Tabb, he was listed in the 30 Rock credits. “I will always be grateful to Alec Baldwin for doing that,” says Tabb.
With that appearance, Tabb was no longer strictly background.
When Tabb showed up for his first and final day on the set of The Sopranos, a hospital, he had no idea what to expect. When the director spotted Tabb in the holding area reserved for extras, he ordered him to set immediately. “They wanted to work out a scene between me and James Gandolfini, but it didn’t work out because of my height and his height,” says Tabb. “They couldn’t get him and me in the same frame the way they wanted to. The director told me ‘this is not gonna work but don’t worry I’m gonna use you in a special way.’”
Ultimately, Tabb went solo.
As the scene opens—Tony’s emotional farewell to Uncle Junior—the camera focuses on Tabb staring directly into the lens. It’s a dramatic image, and it sets the tone for the forthcoming melancholy. When the director yelled “cut,” Gandolfini came across the room with a warm smile, his arm extended. “You did a good job!” Gandolfini told Tabb as he shook his hand.
When Tabb made a visit to his local pizzeria the day after the episode aired, he received the star treatment. “Aay Soprano!” beamed the pizza guy.
Tabb often works as a stand-in, which means that he’s the place holder for the principals as the crew prepares. Stand-ins do not appear on screen, but they’re required to be in the Screen Actor’s Guild, which is the union for actors. Tabb’s father, who had reentered Tabb’s life once again in 2007, this time for much more than a cameo, paid for Tabb to join the union, which cost a few thousand dollars at the time.
Often, the days on set are 12 hours or longer, and require the extras to report to set before dawn. When Tabb was working as a stand-in for a child actor on In Treatment, he had to be on set, which was at Silver Cup Studios in Astoria, Queens, at 5 am. In order to arrive via public transportation from his home in Valley Stream, Long Island, Tabb had to awaken at 2 am to catch a 3 am train. A few weeks into the shoot, the long days with little sleep got to Tabb, and he started to hear those inexplicable, negative voices again. This time, they told him to jump in front of an oncoming train.
Tabb didn’t take the fatal plunge.
Fortunately, Tabb was able to drown out those voices and stop himself. Without the medication, Tabb doesn’t know if he’d have been able to do that. When he arrived on set, Tabb called his therapist for reinforcement “You’re a good actor,” said the therapist. “You’re a good person,”
These days, Tabb’s enthusiastic about his future prospects, but he wants more speaking parts.
“I want lines,” he says flatly. He lives in an assisted-living facility with a roommate. In his spare time, he enjoys making mix tapes and watching movies and television. He prefers stories of redemption with happy endings. “That kind of story really gets to me,” he says.