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Dennis Farina's tough break continues to pay off
Dennis Farina has a secret. Tea Leoni is about to spill it.
"He's a pussycat," purrs his You Kill Me co-star. "So debonair. Leading-man good looks, but just a great character actor. Always working. Oh, he'd be a good catch."
Farina, 63, an 18-year vet of the Chicago Police Department, is a real tough guy in a town known for fake ones. It's a trait he has parlayed into a very successful Hollywood career -- TV series from Crime Story to Law & Order, movies from Midnight Run and Get Shorty to Big Trouble and now You Kill Me. You need a harder-than-hard cop, a hit man, a mob boss? Farina's on your short list.
And if he isn't, maybe you have some explaining to do. To Farina.
"Never had to get tough with anybody out here, I have to say," he says, laughing. "Never had to hit anybody. I'm a lot more laid back than the movie roles I play suggest, I guess."
"Laid back?" Cousin Avi from Snatch? Jack Bangs from Reindeer Games? Ray "Bones" Barboni from Get Shorty? The man's the king of the "F-bomb." Look him up on YouTube. Hollywood doesn't let him play "laid back." He's scarily convincing when he plays the opposite of "laid back."
"I did four movies this year, and only one of them, You Kill Me, has me playing a tough guy," he says in protest. He's an Irish mob boss out to strong-arm the street-plowing concession in Buffalo in director John Dahl's dark comedy. "I don't do mild-mannered, but the other films I have coming out this year are pretty varied roles, which is nice. I never choose a role based on what a guy does for a living; a cop, a tough guy, a soldier, a doctor or whatever.
"Honestly, the roles that get more notice are the tough guys. They're all in that vein. But I can't complain. I've played soldiers in things like Saving Private Ryan, a writer in That Old Feeling, with Bette Midler."
And he doesn't mind playing tough.
"You Kill Me started with this very clever script. I really wanted to work with John Dahl. They tell you you've got scenes with Tea Leoni and Sir Ben Kingsley, you don't pass that up. Even if you are playing another mob guy."
Farina's career path was set by Michael Mann's period-piece cops-and-criminals series, Crime Story. He played a no-holds-barred cop in 1950s Chicago. In the 20 years since, he's done the tough-as-a-.45-slug thing well, and often.
But the most fun he has is goofing on that image. Ask him his favorite roles, two pop to mind.
"I did a movie years ago called We're Talking Serious Money , with Leo Rossi and Fran Drescher. I love that character, Sal. Guy loses 10 grand he's borrowed from the mob and has to run for it. Leo and me were just low-life con men, and it was the first comedy I'd done, and I had a blast.
"And I just did one called Bag Boy [aka National Lampoon's Bag Boy]. Loved that character, too. Marty Engstrom. He's just a guy who owns a grocery store and was once a champion grocery bagger. Very unlike anything I've done before, and funny."
Then, there's an improv poker dramedy, The Grand, about a poker tourney, coming out later this year. It's another side of Farina, and would have been a challenge to any actor.
"Everybody thinks they can improvise," Farina laughs. "Hard to do. We had an outline, a way the scenes were more or less supposed to go. And then we played the hands we were dealt."
Lots of actors dove into the indie project, including Woody Harrelson, Ray Romano and Cheryl Hines of TV's Curb Your Enthusiasm.
"Dennis is the sort of guy you might be scared to run into in a dark alley, or even in broad daylight," Hines says. "But at the poker table? Didn't scare me a bit!"
"You see?" Farina says on hearing that. "Not that tough. For some reason, the public likes these tough guys. I couldn't tell you why."
But as long as Hollywood is calling, Farina will keep on doing the scary thing, on demand. Even if he is a pussycat.
Roger Moore can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 407-420-5369. Find all the latest movie news and gossip at his movieblog at Orlandosentinel.com.