Monday, July 22, 2013

Hail and farewell to a natural-born actor: Dennis Farina

Between his early career as a Chicago cop and his recent gig as Xfinity Internet pitchman, Dennis Farina, character actor par excellence, amassed an impressive resume of distinctive performances in movies (including Get Shorty, Out of Sight and the under-appreciated Sidewalks of New York) and TV dramas (including Law & Order, the cult-fave Crime Story and last year's undeservedly short-lived Luck). He was a personal favorite of mine -- yep, I was a fan as far back as Manhunter -- and I was unabashedly delighted when, during the 1988 New York junket for Midnight Run, I had the opportunity to speak with the gentleman. Dennis Farina passed away today at age 69. To celebrate his life, I offer this reprise of my original '88 interview. 

When Dennis Farina smiles, he's the next-door neighbor you'll invite over for barbecue, or the guy on the next barstool who doesn't remain a stranger very long.

But when Farina frowns, he's someone you wouldn't want to meet in a brightly lit alley, never mind a dark one.

With his craggy features, his dark hair and thick eyebrows, Farina, 45, looks a little like a cartoonist's caricature of a tough customer. Still, there's an ingratiating warmth and good humor to the man in private conversation. In films, plays and TV productions, he has averaged, by his own estimate, ''a 50-50 split'' between good guys and bad guys. At either extreme, he doesn't have much trouble establishing credibility.

In the newly released Midnight Run, Farina turns the art of scene-stealing into grand larceny, playing a quick-tempered mobster who menaces, and occasionally upstages, Robert De Niro and Charles Grodin. Before Midnight, Farina was best known as Lt. Mike Torrello of Crime Story, a neon-colored fantasia of pre-Miranda crimebusting and garish early-'60s Americana. Farina was exceptionally well-trained to play the top cop in the recently cancelled TV series: For 18 years, he was a proud member of the Chicago police force, serving as detective for the department's Special Investigative Unit.

Farina first stepped before the cameras in 1980, when a friend got him a small role as a murderous thug in Thief, a stylish thriller directed by Michael Mann (who would later produce Crime Story and, not incidentally, Miami Vice). In the movie, shot on location in Chicago, Farina gunned down James Belushi, and was in turn gunned down by James Caan. Farina enjoyed himself immensely.

 ''I'll never forget it,'' Belushi says. ''Dennis came up to me on the set one day, and says, 'You know, Jim, this is kinda fun. What do I do to make a living off this?' And I gave him the same speech I give everybody: 'Well, first you get an 8-by-10 glossy, and a resume, and find an agent...'"

Farina took Belushi's advice, and found a Chicago casting agent who helped him begin what he calls ''a great part-time job'' as an actor. He soon had some impressive credits on his resume: Stage roles with Chicago's prestigious Steppenwolf Theatre. Screen roles opposite Chuck Norris in Code of Silence, and Richard Pryor in Jo-Jo Dancer, Your Life is Calling. The resume is all the more impressive when you consider that, until Thief, Farina had never acted before in any medium. He never even took a drama course while attending St. Michael Central High in his native Chicago.

''Well, there was a high school play,'' Farina recalled during a recent interview. ''But even prior to the rehearsal process,'' he added with a chuckle, ''a friend of mine and I were asked to leave.'' Farina didn't go near a stage again until years later, when, after launching his part-time acting career, he wound up playing a small role in the TV series Chicago Story. His co-star for the 1982 episode was a quietly intense actor-director named John Malkovich, famed for exploits at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre.

''John and I struck up a conversation,'' Farina said, ''and he said, 'Look, I'm doing this play, A Prayer for My Daughter, written by Thomas Babe -- I'd like you to audition for it.' And I said, 'Yeah, OK, sure.''' A few hours later, Farina was at his favorite bar -- not for drinks, but for advice. The bartender, his friend, was a professional actor when he wasn't serving beers. Farina told him of Malkovich's invitation, then posed a pressing question: "How do I audition for a play?"

Fortunately, Farina had a week before auditions, so his friend was able to coach him through basic stage movements. (They rehearsed on the stage of another friend's comedy club.) Fortuitously, Farina was hired as an understudy, then took over a lead role when another actor left the show. On opening night, Farina was on stage at the Steppenwolf. On the morning after, his name was in the papers.

That his good fortune bordered on the miraculous never really fazed him.

"Believe me, I don't want to minimize what's happened to me,'' Farina said. ''But it never really hit me.

"But, again, I was surrounded by these guys who really knew what they were doing... Malkovich was the guy who really took a chance. See, at the time, I had nothing to lose. If I fell on my face, the people in the theater, in the papers, they'd just say, 'This guy's just a cop, he doesn't know what he's doing, forget about him.' But John, and the Steppenwolf company, they would have been the people to suffer.

''I was doing something else, I had a job. If they had said, 'This guy's no good,' well, hey, I'll just go back to work next week.''

Encouraged by his early success, Farina continued to divide his time between the make-believe of acting and the dead-seriousness of police work. He also remained active in Chicago theater, appearing in a production of David Rabe's Streamers that eventually was presented at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. In 1985, Farina took a leave of absence from the Chicago Police Department for a brief Los Angeles sortie to find TV jobs. He renewed his acquaintance with producer Michael Mann, who cast him in two episodes of Miami Vice. Then, in 1986, Farina was forced to make a fateful choice about what he would do with the rest of his life.

''It took a while for me to make up my mind,'' Farina said, ''because I really liked being a policeman. I enjoyed my years on the police department.

"But the decision was finally made for me when Michael Mann asked me to do a part in the movie Manhunter, and at the same time started doing the groundwork for me to do Crime Story. I thought those were two opportunities that I really couldn't pass up.''

So in barely more than five years, Farina moved from untrained amateur to hard-working Chicago stage actor, then from movie bit player to network TV series lead. It's a Cinderella story that could drive some drama school graduates to despair.

Tony Award-winning actress Joan Allen (Burn This), who also appeared in Manhunter, thinks Farina is ''a natural actor . . . very self-confident.'' Director Martin Brest (Beverly Hills Cop) wanted Farina and no one else for the role of the mob boss in Midnight Run. ''It just struck me, the moment I met him,'' Brest said, ''that he had a sort of star presence. A very powerful presence. And, as you can see in the movie, he held his own with De Niro. He even got in a couple of shots in their scene together.''

Farina accepts these compliments with gratitude and unaffected graciousness. ''I was at ease around De Niro,'' he said, ''because he put me at ease. I walked onto the set, and within 10 seconds, I felt like I had been around that guy for my whole life . . . And Charles Grodin was very helpful, giving me little deadpan looks that only he can do.''

Any major disappointments in his career so far? Well, Farina regrets that Crime Story was axed by NBC. He suspects the show would have found a larger audience in a better, more permanent time slot. ''But I'm pretty philosophical about it. I think, it's over, OK, for two years I was very proud to be a part of it. I thought it was a very good show . . . But, frankly, I'd rather have the show end now, with people clamoring for more, than to go back on.''

Between movie and TV jobs, Farina continues to live in Chicago, "in a neighborhood where all this gentrification is going on.'' (He politely but firmly refuses to talk about his marital status.) He counts among his closest friends, and harshest critics, the policemen he used to work with. He doesn't think he has been affected much by his success as an actor: ''I was 36, 37 years old when I started doing this, so I pretty much think the same way I always have.''

Indeed, he often appears to be keeping his career at arm's length. He doesn't watch himself in movies or TV shows. And he rarely reads his reviews. ''I get my satisfaction just from the doing of the work,'' he said. "And in thinking that I did my best, that I contributed all I could.'' Farina remains modest, and even a little wary, about discussing his accomplishments. "I don't want to get maudlin or anything, but I believe, yeah, there's somebody, like, watching over me or something. I have to believe that. Someone who has taken very good care of me.

"I don't question it, and I don't look into it too much. Because I don't want to, I don't want to analyze it. So I just kind of accept it.''

A choice Dennis Farina moment from Midnight Run:


Anonymous said...

What an amazing career he had! And from this interview, it sounds like luck, talent, and just plain being bold enough to "go for it" all played a part.

Joe Leydon said...

I love that he freely admitted having to ask a friend how to audition for a play. I wonder if he ever told John Malkovich that story?