Tall, dark, and scarecrow-thin, James Urbaniak is probably best known to art house audiences for his work in Hal Hartley's Henry Fool (1997) and The Book of Life (1998). Urbaniak, who met Hartley in the mid-1990s, made his film debut courtesy of the director, who cast the actor in his short Comedy Central film Opera No. 1 (1994), which also featured Adrienne Shelly and future Henry Fool co-star Parker Posey.
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A product of New Jersey, where he was born in 1963, Urbaniak graduated from high school in 1981. Following a brief stint at community college, he spent the next several years "bumming around" (in his own words) New Jersey, working odd jobs, and doing community theatre. A 1987 introduction to theatre director Karin Coonrod led to the creation of the Arden Party theatre company, which had its debut on the Jersey shore that same year. The company moved to New York the following year and eventually became something of a downtown theatre institution with productions of such works as The Importance of Being Earnest and Romeo and Juliet. In addition to his work as the co-founder of the Arden Party, Urbaniak also performed with a number of other off-off-Broadway theatre companies, and in 1996, he won a Village Voice Obie award for his performance in avant-garde director and playwright Richard Forman's The Universe.
After becoming acquainted with director Hartley, who cast him in his aforementioned 1994 film debut, Urbaniak starred in Henry Fool as Simon Grim, an unassuming and oft-abused garbage man who turns out to be a Nobel Prize-winning literary genius. The film, and Urbaniak's performance, earned a number of positive reviews and a strong art house showing, and the following year the actor could be seen in Hartley's Book of Life, a comedy about Christ's Second Coming that premiered at the Cannes Festival. In addition to his work for Hartley, Urbaniak began appearing in the films of other directors, most notably Hilary Brougher's The Sticky Fingers of Time (1997), which cast him as a 1950s science editor who travels across time; and Woody Allen's Sweet and Lowdown (1999), which featured the actor in a small role as a musician in Sean Penn's band. ~ Rebecca Flint Marx, Rovi