Dennis Farina infused grittier roles with two decades
of experience as a Chicago policeman.
The Italian-American character actor Dennis Farina, who has died at the age of 69 after suffering from a blood clot in a lung, effortlessly evoked the grittiness of a life beyond cinema’s gloss and glamour. No wonder: acting was his second career, and he came to it after an 18-year stint in the police department of his beloved home city, Chicago.
Cinemagoers came to prize Farina’s no-nonsense toughness, which could be played equally effectively for laughs or menace – and sometimes, both at the same time, as in the case of his frightening and comically foul-mouthed turn as Robert De Niro’s bete noire in the 1988 comedy thriller Midnight Run.
When he promised to stab an inept underling through the heart with a pencil, the audience could be in no doubt that he was up to that task, and worse.
He was a recurrent presence in the film and television work of the director Michael Mann, who had been the catalyst for Farina’s entrance into acting.
After hiring him as an adviser on his thriller Thief (also known as Violent Streets) in the late 1970s, Mann gave him a small part in that movie, which was released in 1981. They worked together on a further four projects: the film Manhunter (1986); episodes of the television series Miami Vice; Crime Story (1986-88), widely considered Farina’s finest hour; and the recent ill-starred racing drama Luck, which was cancelled after one season.
“He had the charisma and ability of a storyteller and raconteur to hold your interest,” said Mann.
“He appreciated the fullness and roundness of human life. He located himself in a certain cultural niche that included manicured nails, pocket handkerchiefs, Sinatra, Tony Bennett, My Way. He loved it all.”
Even when he strayed far from the mean streets of Mann’s world – playing, for example, Bette Midler’s husband in That Old Feeling (1997), a romantic comedy about the rekindled love between an estranged couple – he retained an unsentimental, nuts-and-bolts approach to his craft.
“Some people approach acting with all these things in their head, making it more complicated than it needs to be, way too cerebral,” he complained.
“I don’t want to know that an actor lived in a cave for 12 days so he could prepare for a part.”
That said, Farina’s upbringing was its own preparation of sorts. “My personality was formed by Chicago,” he once said. “It’s very American, very straightforward. If you can’t find it, or make it there, you won’t make it anywhere. It’s a very honest place.”
He was the youngest of seven children born to Joseph, a doctor, and Yolanda, a housewife. After graduating from St Michael Central High School in 1962 and completing three years in the army, he entered the police force upon the suggestion of one of his brothers, an attorney.
He was a detective in the burglary division when Mann hired him as a guide to the Chicago underworld upon the recommendation of a mutual friend. The director liked him so much that he gave Farina a minor part as a heavy.
“It was a fun sideline, a good chance to pick up a few bucks, and I was treated very nicely,” the actor said. “The process was interesting to me, very interesting, but in no way did I think this was a full-time career. I was 35 years old and had put in more than a decade as a policeman.”
However, he registered with a local talent agency and took on several stage parts, making his theatre debut in 1982 in A Prayer For My Daughter, directed by John Malkovich. When Mann wanted to cast him in his NBC series Crime Story, set in the early 1960s, Farina was ready. He took a year’s leave from the force but never returned.
Crime Story shows Farina at his minimalist best as Lt Mike Torello, who tries to smash organised crime in the early 1960s.
With little more than a moustache, an intense gaze, a jutting canine jaw, and that peeved and chewy Chicago accent, the actor created a rich character study defined by great economy of gesture. The show ran only two seasons, but greatly influenced later television crime dramas such as The Sopranos and The Shield.
He worked steadily throughout the 1980s and ‘90s. Notable film roles included two Elmore Leonard adaptations, Get Shorty (1995) and Out Of Sight (1998).
In the former film, he was another hood, mahogany-tanned and preening, but not above throwing Gene Hackman around the room like a rag-doll. In the latter, he showed his tender side as the protective father, himself a cop, to the US marshal played by Jennifer Lopez.
He also appeared in Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (1998), Guy Ritchie’s Snatch (2000) and, in a break from violence and machismo, Edward Burns’s Sidewalks Of New York (2001), where he played a would-be agony uncle to the recently jilted hero.
Farina’s film appearances had become scarcer in recent years, and he suffered a brief setback when he was charged in 2008 with attempting to carry a concealed and unregistered weapon onto a plane.
Most of his later work was in television, including a two-season recurring role between 2004 and 2006 as Detective Joe Fontana in the series Law & Order, and a regular part last year in the fluffy comedy New Girl.
He and Marianne Cahill, his partner for more than 30 years, lived in Arizona. She survives him, as do his three sons, Dennis, Michael and Joseph, from his marriage to his wife, Patricia, which ended in divorce in 1980, and six grandchildren. – Guardian News & Media