Wednesday, July 24, 2013

I KNOW That Guy!

Dennis Farina was one of the few in Hollywood history who could say, "I AM a cop...AND I play one on TV." And in the movies.

Farina's name may not have been on the tip of everyone's tongue when they saw him on their screen---small or silver---but his face sure was. He was among the elite in the "I know that face but can't place the name" category of screen actors.

Farina, the ex-cop turned actor who often played a cop, is gone. He passed away Monday at the age of 69 due to a pulmonary embolism.

Farina was Chicago through and through. He was born there and for a time did Old Style beer commercials, which was another Chicago favorite.

"It's our great beer and they can't have it," was Farina's tag line.

But of course Farina was much more than a pitch man. He left the police business in his late-30s to give acting a shot, after he functioned as a consultant on the Michael Mann film Thief, which came out in 1981. Mann gave Farina a bit role in the movie, and a character actor was born.

Now, a word about the term "character actor." It can both be deadly accurate, but at the same time can trivialize an actor's impact on the industry.

Yes, Farina was a character actor. He was, by definition if you use the process of elimination, that. Farina wasn't a leading man, per se, so that by default makes him a character actor.

Not that there's anything wrong with that.



Farina had a face of a cop because he was a cop. But he also had a face that fit so many other roles, ranging from a mob boss in Midnight Run to an Army lieutenant in Saving Private Ryan.

Farina's face was distinctly Italian (his parents were Sicilian) but also had the rugged, worn look of someone who's been around the block a few times---even if that block was filled with illegalities and unsavory activities.

He had the familiar Chicagoan dialect---imagine him saying "Da Bears." He could play the put upon, the exasperated, the tormented. And he could also be cuddly, warm and sensitive.

Farina had some comedic chops as well, usually as the foil. Farina showed that a straight man is never funnier than when he looks like he could summon a group of thugs to take you out, out of frustration.

Farina made his mark mostly on television, whether as Det. Joe Fontana in Law and Order or as the "guy who hosted Unsolved Mysteries after Robert Stack died." People knew Stack by name. Farina? Not as much.

Farina's first impact on the world of television drama was his role as Lt. Mike Torello in Crime Story. The part wasn't much of a stretch---he played a Chicago cop, which he had been just months prior---but the quirky police drama was warmly received by critics and carved a cult niche.

Once word got out that Farina was a cop-turned-actor, his cult following grew.

But Farina was no Gil Hill, the real-life Detroit cop who did a few turns as Eddie Murphy's beleaguered boss in the Beverly Hills Cop franchise. Hill remained a cop, even when he was on Detroit's City Council.

Farina put his police career on hold, then eventually left it altogether, so he could live the acting dream.

Farina was a cop for 18 years, and an actor for over 30. By the time of his death, he was simply an actor---not a cop who became an actor.

A character actor? Sure. But one of the best. Even if you couldn't come up with his name right away.


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