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R.I.P. James Farentino, prolific TV actor

The Associated Press is reporting the death of prolific character actor James Farentino, a familiar face across four decades of movies and TV shows such as The Final Countdown, Melrose Place, and ER, and an actor whose tumultuous private life was almost as well known as his on-screen work. Farentino died of heart failure at the age of 73.

Farentino worked primarily in television, beginning by parlaying his Universal Studios contract (he was one of the last to be signed in Universal’s contract player era) into steady work on ‘60s television shows such as The Defenders, 77 Sunset Strip, Route 66, The Reporter, Ben Casey, The Fugitive, and Ironside. He turned up in two episodes of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour—playing a supporting role in the Sydney Pollack-directed “Black Curtain,” and in the later “Death Scene,” playing an auto mechanic who woos the daughter (Vera Miles) of a famous film director (John Carradine)—and later starred in two episodes of Night Gallery, first as a man who suspects that his wife’s aunt might be a witch, and later as a photographer haunted by “The Girl With The Hungry Eyes.”

Numerous attempts were made to launch series with Farentino in leading roles, but they all proved to be short-lived: Immediately after Farentino starred as one of the two young attorneys recruited to aid Burl Ives on NBC’s The Bold Ones: The Lawyers, the network cast him as a well-heeled private eye who charges the titular Cool Million to take a case; it lasted only four episodes. In 1984, he starred alongside Dana Carvey and the late Bubba Smith as one of the lead officers in a special ops team centered around a technologically advanced helicopter code-named Blue Thunder; it lasted 11 episodes. And his oddly parallel forays into sitcoms named for their leading ladies—the Mary Tyler Moore-starring Mary and the Julie Andrews-starring Julie—both suffered from poor reception and were quickly canceled (in Mary’s case, at the request of Moore herself).

Farentino fared better in guest-starring roles, often as a shady character who turned up to cause problems for the regular cast—as the doctor who toyed with Pamela Sue Martin’s affections on Dynasty, or the shady Mr. Beck on Melrose Place, or as George Clooney’s estranged father on ER. He was also a prolific and successful actor in TV movies and miniseries, most notably garnering an Emmy nomination for his role as Simon Peter among the all-star cast of Jesus Of Nazareth.

His other major awards nod came in 1967 with a Golden Globe for “Most Promising Newcomer,” which he won for his performance as the smooth-talking best friend to a sensitive Brian Bedford in The Pad And How To Use It. While his feature work never really lived up to that promise, he did star opposite a well-received Patty Duke in the otherwise corny teen drama Me, Natalie, as a sheriff investigating a series of horrible murders in the HBO horror favorite Dead And Buried, and he had a memorable role in the sci-fi thriller The Final Countdown, starring with Kirk Douglas and Martin Sheen as a Naval officer whose amateur historian skills come in handy when the U.S.S. Nimitz is mysteriously time-warped to Pearl Harbor, hours before the Japanese attack.

Off-screen, Farentino was a familiar tabloid presence for his multiple marriages: He was a four-time divorcee, and even reunited with one of his ex-wives, Michele Lee, to play an abusive husband in the TV movie When No One Would Listen. But as much as that raised eyebrows, it was nothing compared to what happened with Frank Sinatra’s youngest daughter Tina, whom Farentino pleaded no contest to stalking in 1994 after five years of a very public, very rocky relationship. Farentino was sentenced to three years of probation plus psychiatric and alcohol counseling, and the stigma derailed the later years of his career, leaving Farentino ostracized.

Although the roles on Melrose Place and ER helped, Farentino often expressed bitterness about the lack of jobs he was offered and the quality of films he was reduced to doing after the Sinatra incident—such as the Zalman King erotic thriller Women Of The Night, his last feature role. Farentino’s final credit would end up being the 2006 TV movie Drive/II, although he made headlines again in 2010 after being arrested on suspicion of battery while trying to physically remove an unidentified man from his home. Sadly, it would prove to be the last time anyone would hear of James Farentino, a solid actor who always did solid work, but who never quite got the opportunity to be a major star.

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