Actor Dennis Farina dies at 69


Actor Dennis Farina arrives at the Hollywood premiere of the HBO series "Luck" in Los Angeles, California in this file photo taken January 25, 2012. Farina, a former Chicago policeman turned tough-guy actor, died in Scottsdale, Arizona, on Monday, the actor's publicist said. (GUS RUELAS/REUTERS)
July 22, 2013

Dennis Farina, a Chicago policeman who initially moonlighted as a movie actor for the comparatively easy money but quickly became an acclaimed staple of crime dramas and comedies, playing characters on both sides of the law, died July 22 in Scottsdale, Ariz. He was 69.

The cause was a blood clot in a lung, said a spokeswoman, Lori De Waal.

With his silvery locks, craggy face, well-tended moustache and flattened Chicago vowels, Mr. Farina became one of the most readily identified supporting performers of the past 30 years. He appeared in dozens of movies, from big-budget productions to independent fare.

Mr. Farina had little formal training and relied on a raw, Rat Pack charisma that could be as smooth as Chivas Regal one minute and explosive the next. He could play dumb, wily, dapper and intimidating with equal ease. Barry Sonnenfeld, who directed Mr. Farina as a heavily bandaged mob boss in the gangster caper “Get Shorty” (1995), regarded him as a master of the expletive.

“No one can say the F-word like Dennis,” Sonnenfeld once told USA Today.

The former police officer-turned-actor died suddenly in Scottdale, Ariz. Farina's career took him from action movies to TV drama.

As a ruthless mob boss in the chase comedy “Midnight Run” (1988), Mr. Farina more than kept up with far more experienced actors such as Robert De Niro and Charles Grodin. Writing in the Los Angeles Times, film critic Michael Wilmington singled out Mr. Farina for his “frighteningly convincing brutality.”

But like most of Mr. Farina’s characters, the mob boss had a sarcastic streak. Phoning one of his less-than-effective henchmen, he barks: “Is this Moron Number One? Put Moron Number Two on the phone.”

As Jennifer Lopez’s concerned father in “Out of Sight” (1998), Mr. Farina was an easy-going retired cop with old-school habits and a wiseguy wit. He asks his daughter’s clueless boyfriend, who is wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the initials FBI, “Do you ever wear one that says ‘Undercover?’ ”

Mr. Farina was in his late 30s and working in the burglary division of the Chicago police force when a chance encounter with director Michael Mann launched his acting career. Mann cast him as a thug in the film “Thief” (1981), and he remained part of Mann’s unofficial repertory company of actors.

They worked together on the serial-killer thriller “Manhunter” (1986), with Mr. Farina playing an FBI agent. He won a rare leading role on Mann’s TV series “Crime Story,” a moody police drama that aired on NBC from 1986 to 1988 and starred Mr. Farina as a Chicago cop chasing a gangster in the 1960s. More recently, Mann cast Mr. Farina in the horse-racing drama “Luck” on HBO as a bodyguard and adviser to an ex-con played by Dustin Hoffman.

From 2004 to 2006, Mr. Farina starred on NBC’s “Law & Order,” one of the most successful franchises in TV history, as a New York City police detective who favors camel’s hair topcoats and slips past suspicious landlords with the officious-sounding line, “Don’t worry — we’re authorized.”

He credited his convincing delivery to his 18 years as a policeman. “I got to meet all kinds of people in that job,” he told the Boston Herald. “I’d see maybe 10-20 personalities a day, so I learned how to read people and handle them.”

Dennis Farina was born Feb. 29, 1944, in Chicago, the youngest of seven children of Italian immigrants. His father began his life in the United States picking sugar cane in Louisiana and became a neighborhood doctor in the Windy City.

Growing up, Mr. Farina professed no great interest in the arts.

“I think my high-school acting career lasted a day,” he told the Newark Star-Ledger. “Myself and this other guy, we’d signed on for the play because there were some cute girls in it. But we started fooling around and were asked to leave during the quote-unquote rehearsals.”

After high school graduation, he served in the Army for three years before joining the Chicago police. He joked that his shooting aim was so bad that he was nicknamed “The Great Wounder,” but he otherwise disliked talking about his law-enforcement career.

A retired Chicago policeman, Charlie Adamson, was serving as a technical adviser for director Michael Mann on “Thief” when he called Mr. Farina. “Michael was looking for a couple of rough, ugly guys to play henchmen,” Adamson told the Chicago Tribune, “and I was like, ‘I got just the guy.’ I called Dennis and said, ‘You gotta get down here.’ ”

Mr. Farina, who was only recently divorced, said it was “a fun sideline, a good chance to pick up a few bucks.”

Survivors include a partner, Marianne Cahill; three sons from his marriage; and six grandchildren.

Mr. Farina was often typecast in crime and detective films, including the Bruce Willis film “Striking Distance” (1993) and Guy Ritchie gangster story “Snatch” (2000). But he also had a small role as a military officer in Steven Spielberg’s World War II drama “Saving Private Ryan” (1998) and starred with Bette Midler as ex-spouses at their daughter’s wedding in Carl Reiner’s comedy “That Old Feeling” (1997). He played a comically frustrated hit man in Sonnenfeld’s “Big Trouble” (2002), based on a book by the columnist Dave Barry.

Mr. Farina received strong reviews in a small-budget 2011 drama, “The Last Rites of Joe May,” playing a low-level street hustler.

Mr. Farina grew visibly irritated when journalists tried to entice him to expound on the psyche of a particular role. He said he preferred to get in character based on what he thought the person would wear, such as a kimono or a pink sport coat or a pinkie ring.

“Acting, sometimes I think the whole thing’s a little overthought, overworked,” he told the Star-Ledger in 2011. “I don’t know, maybe it’s because I’m just not that deep. And I always play a certain kind of guy — which is fine, I can’t help what I look like or what I’ve done or where I’ve been. But maybe there’s something to be said for that, too. I mean, I’m lousy at that kind of analysis.

“But before you actually become an actor, you know, maybe there’s something to be said for having lived a life.”

Adam Bernstein has spent his career putting the "post" in Washington Post, first as an obituary writer and then as editor. The American Society of Newspaper Editors recognized Bernstein’s ability to exhume “the small details and anecdotes that get at the essence of the person” and to write stories that are “complex yet stylish.”
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