Remembering Dennis Farina, the great cop-turned-character-actor
Dennis Farina had lived a life.
Even if you didn't know that Farina — who died Monday at the age of 69 after suffering a blood clot in his lung — had spent nearly 20 years as a cop in his native Chicago before director Michael Mann decided to cast him in his movie "Thief," it was clear from all Farina's performances that this was a man who had done things and seen things that your average character actor had not. He had enormous ease in front of the camera, and could be wildly funny and charming, but there was always something behind his eyes suggesting that the disarming smile could go away in an instant and be replaced by something very cold and hard and dangerous.
Farina would work often with Mann, starring in the underrated period cop drama "Crime Story," and recently playing Dustin Hoffman's driver on "Luck," but his best role was as mob boss Jimmy Serrano in the classic 1988 buddy comedy "Midnight Run," which celebrated its 25th anniversary over the weekend. As the mob boss of Chicago, and the man organizing the pursuit of Charles Grodin's fugitive accountant the Duke, Farina spends the bulk of the movie appearing briefly to deliver cold, amusing insults ("Is this Moron Number 1? Put Moron Number 2 on?") and threats ("Don't say a (bleeping) word to me; I'll get up and I'll bury this telephone in your head"). It's a comic relief part in a way, but Farina also has to come across as a real threat so that there's real tension as Robert DeNiro's ex-cop Jack Walsh tries to take the Duke to prison, even knowing Serrano will kill him there. It's been fun and games at times, but towards the end of the movie, the Duke winds up in the back of Serrano's limo, and Farina's chilling performance makes it clear that playtime is over, as he calmly tells the Duke, "I stopped by here to tell you two things. Number one is that you're gonna die tonight. Number two, I'm gonna go home, have a nice hot meal, I'm gonna find your wife, and I'm gonna kill her too."
As "Crime Story" cop Mike Torello, Farina had to marry hard-boiled crime archetypes with a kind of Rat Pack-era cool, and was so effective in the series' two seasons that CBS later built a whole show around that persona: the short-lived "Buddy Faro," in which he played a private eye who'd been pals with Frank, Sammy and Dean back in the day. In that case, the show was too light-hearted to work, taking advantage of Farina's comic chops without the gravity that added juice to the sarcastic one-liners.
He also was one of the more notable "Law & Order" casting misses, though that owed more to his Detective Joe Fontana ultimately being too similar to Jerry Orbach's departed Lennie Briscoe — another wise-cracking old-timer who had seen it all and could keep it all in perspective — than anything Farina specifically did.
You knew what you were going to get with Farina, and it was all about how well the people employing him took advantage of his particular gifts. One of his final roles (before a couple of amusing guest appearances on "New Girl" as the con man father of Jake Johnson's Nick) was as Gus Demitriou on "Luck." Farina was back with Mann (and working with writer David Milch for the first time), and the character was a classic Farina type. For the bulk of the series' first and only season, Gus is a relaxed, sweet guy who enjoys his life as Hoffman's driver, bodyguard and confidante, but there's always a sense that Gus isn't quite the simple retiree he presents himself as to the world. And sure enough, in what turned out to be the last episode, we see the brutal, competent thug beneath the laid-back facade, as Gus kills a hitman with his bare hands after a savage brawl in a restaurant men's room. The fight is one that could have gone either way, and after Gus emerges as the victor, the camera sits on his face for a long time as he studies his reflection in the bathroom mirror, thinking about all the times he's come close to death, all the men he's killed, and wondering exactly how much longer he can get away with a life like this.
Farina lived two wildly different lives as an adult, and he always used the first to inform him in the second. He'll be missed.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org