R.I.P. Dennis Farina

Actor Dennis Farina has died, at 69, after being hospitalized in Scotsdale, Arizona with a blood clot on his lung. Farina was a Chicago police detective in his mid-thirties when he was hired by Michael Mann to serve as a consultant and play a small part as a thug in Mann’s first feature film, Thief (1981). Farina caught the acting bug, and happily, thanks to the rising prominence of the Chicago theater scene and the city’s popularity as a film location, he was able to hone his chops and build up his resume without quitting his day job. Between 1981 and 1985, he acted on the stage and appeared in various TV movies (including the American Playhouse production The Killing Floor) and the Chicago-set Chuck Norris picture Code Of Silence, while still manning a desk in the Chicago P. D.’s burglary division. He was also in a memorable two-part episode of Hunter co-starring another son of the windy city, Dennis Franz.

Farina’s new career really took off in 1986, when Michael Mann, who used him in a recurring role as a hard-to-dislike mobster in the first season of Miami Vice, came calling again. First, Mann cast him as FBI Special Agent Jack Crawford in Manhunter, the original movie version of Thomas Harris’ Red Dragon, which marked the screen debut of Hannibal Lector, as incarnated by Brian Cox. (The studio reportedly refused to let Mann use the novel’s title because they figured audiences would think it was a kung fu movie.) Released in late summer, the movie underperformed at the box office but swiftly earned a cult reputation when it was released to cable TV. 

In the meantime, Farina starred as the hardboiled Kennedy-era supercop Mike Torello in Mann’s TV series Crime Story, an ambitious tribute to early ‘60s fashions, longform pulp storytelling, violent male one-upmanship, tail fins, and Chicago architecture, at least until the action shifted to Las Vegas toward the end of the first of its two seasons. The series gave him the chance to work again with actor John Santucci, a former jewel thief who had also worked as a technical advisor on Thief.  In an earlier life, Farina had once arrested him.

His reputation established, Farina shifted back and forth between TV and movies, often playing either a cop or a crook. He was on the right side of the law in the Mann-produced TV film Drug Wars: The Cocaine Cartel (1992). Other films that fell into the latter camp included his role as Robert Stoud, A.K.A. the Birdman of Alcatraz, in the TV film Six Against The Rock (1987), one of the title roles in the 1989 TV film The Case Of The Hillside Stranglers,  the Macbeth-in-the-Mafia movie Men Of Respect (1990), and motor-mouthed mobster Jimmy Serrano in Midnight Run (1988).

In 1988, he came home to Chicago’s Organic Theater for a revival of their flagship production, Bleacher Bums. He was in John Turturro’s directing debut, Mac (1992); the Bruce Willis vehicle Striking Distance (1993); Another Stakeout (1993); and Little Big League (1994). But his biggest success since Midnight Run was as Ray “Bones” Barnoni in Get Shorty, which seemed to confirm that he had a special glow about him whenever he got the chance to play a ranting gangster who feels insufficiently respected.

Farina was Bette Midler’s autumnal romantic partner in the comedy That Old Feeling (1997); a Mafia don in the TV miniseries Bella Mafia (1997); Jennifer Lopez’s father in Steven Soderbergh’s classic Elmore Leonard adaptation Out Of Sight (1998); the Lieutenant Colonel who makes the fateful decision that Mother Ryan has lost enough sons in Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (1998); the title role of a detective whose best days were the Crime Story era in the short-lived TV series Buddy Faro (1998); a casino owner in the holiday favorite Reindeer Games (2000); and another crook with a mean mouth on him in Guy Ritchie’s Snatch (2000).

Beginning in 2004, he took on the older-cop role on Law & Order, as the well-dressed Detective Joe Fontana, The writers may have been thinking of Farina’s career path when they wrote his introductory scene, in which one of the patrolmen who spots him at a crime scene confesses to uncertainty as to whether he’s “a cop or a wiseguy.” Last year, he played Jake Johnson’s ne’er-do-well father on New Girl and co-starred with Dustin Hoffman in the ill-fated but acclaimed HBO series Luck. It was co-produced and partly directed by Michael Mann, effectively bringing Farina’s career full circle.