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updated: 12/11/2013 7:44 PM

From wild child at Hersey to Hollywood actor

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  • Actor Keith Szarabajka, formerly of Arlington Heights, has starred in dozens of well-known movies and TV shows, including "The Dark Knight, "Argo" and "Cold Case."

      Actor Keith Szarabajka, formerly of Arlington Heights, has starred in dozens of well-known movies and TV shows, including "The Dark Knight, "Argo" and "Cold Case."

  • Actor Keith Szarabajka, formerly of Arlington Heights, poses with his two sons at his home in Los Angeles. Szarabajka, a Hersey High School alumnus, has starred in dozens of well-known movies and TV shows, including "The Dark Knight, "Argo" and "Cold Case."

      Actor Keith Szarabajka, formerly of Arlington Heights, poses with his two sons at his home in Los Angeles. Szarabajka, a Hersey High School alumnus, has starred in dozens of well-known movies and TV shows, including "The Dark Knight, "Argo" and "Cold Case."

 

Editor's note: This story was updated to reflect that "Duet" was not the first play Keith Szarabajka wrote, and its two main characters are a young black woman and a much older white man.

After being the recipient of a few too many "paddles" at his private Jesuit high school in Wisconsin, Keith Szarabajka switched to Hersey High School in Arlington Heights, where he fell in with a wild, fast crowd.

"I got in with the bad kids. I was cuttin' school, smoking pot during breaks ... and I pretended to be my dad when the principal called," said the now-61-year-old Szarabajka. "I started out as a Goldwater Republican and became a hippie by my junior year."

But he never cut drama class. Szarabajka became the school's star actor, which lead him to pursue an acting career, straighten out his life and, eventually, become a Hollywood actor.

"Drama saved me," he said.

Szarabajka went on to star in dozens of well-known TV shows and movies, including roles as Detective Stephens in "The Dark Knight" (he was the detective attacked by Heath Ledger's Joker); CIA agent Adam Engell in "Argo"; Deputy Police Commissioner Patrick Doherty on CBS' "Cold Case"; and Mickey Kostmayer on CBS' "The Equalizer."

"I ended up being in some really good stuff. I don't choose the projects. They choose me," he said. "I'm not a bankable commodity. I'm a character actor."

He's also a highly successful voice-over actor. A big part of Szarabajka's career these days involves using his different voices -- some scary, some authoritative and others soothing -- for commercials and video games. He's voiced ads for Braun products, the U.S. Postal Service, Coca-Cola and others, and video games like "Halo 4" (he's the main villain, The Didact) and "Skylanders: Giants."

He says his two sons regularly play the video games with their dad's voice in it.


"They love killing me. You'll hear them yell, 'I just killed Dad!' They're fulfilling their Oedipus urges," he said.

While trying to describe his voice, Szarabajka referred to one website's description of him as "having two voices: nasal and Satan."

"They either like it or they don't. I've had directors say to me, 'Is that really your voice?' And I say 'Yes." And they say, 'Wow!' And then they don't hire me," he said, in his self-effacing style. "I've got the type of voice that goes in and out of vogue. So I'm more lucky than good."

Szarabajka (pronounced Sarah-bike-ah -- and translates to "dark fairy tale" in some Slavic languages) grew up in a conservative, Catholic and political family in south suburban Summit. A few of his relatives, he says, spent time in jail for their political crimes. The scandals left his family in financial ruin. So to start over, they moved to Arlington Heights during his junior year of high school.

The oldest of six kids, Szarabajka said there was no money for college. So he went to the school that offered him an acting scholarship -- Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas. He eventually transferred to University of Chicago and. while there, saw two life-changing plays -- "Death of a Salesman" at the now-defunct Arlington Park Theater, and "Poe" by the Organic Theater Company in Chicago.

"It was just amazing. It was like I woke up out of a dream. I really had just gone off the deep end," he said. "I thought, 'You have to go become an actor now.'"

He went from acting in Chicago to acting in New York, and then to Hollywood.

Now living in Los Angeles, Szarabajka is branching into a new career beyond acting and voice-overs: writing. Having already written the hit play, "Bleacher Bums," he just finished a new script, "Duet," about a young black woman and an older white man who get to know each other during the Civil Rights era.

"I would love for some theater in Chicago or New York or L.A. to pick it up," Szarabajka said.

In the meantime, he'll keep juggling all of his career interests.

"I'll continue to do it until the entertainment business has had enough of me," he said.


• Dann Gire and Jamie Sotonoff are always looking for people from the suburbs who are now working in showbiz. If you know of someone who would make a great column, email them at dgire@dailyherald.com and jsotonoff@dailyherald.com.

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