R.I.P. Dennis Farina: How a Chicago cop became a character actor

Dennis Farina, who died Monday morning at the age of 69 of a blood clot in his lung, had two distinct careers. He was a veteran Chicago police officer until a chance meeting with director Michael Mann, who was in the Windy City to make his first feature film, 1981’s “Thief,” changed his career path.

In a 2001 interview with the Los Angeles Times, Farina joked that he “blamed” Mann for turning him into an actor. The two had a mutual friend, a retired cop, who was a writer on “Thief.”


“Michael is a Chicago guy anyway,” Farina said. “He says he wants to talk to some real-life characters. I talked to him, and he asked me to do a part in the movie. I said, yes, sure.”

PHOTOS: Dennis Farina career highlights


But he still didn’t give up his day job as a cop. Mann gave him a guest-starring role on his landmark NBC series “Miami Vice” and then cast him as FBI agent Jack Crawford in his 1986 thriller, “Manhunter.”

It wasn’t until he landed the starring role in Mann’s atmospheric NBC detective series “Crime Story” in 1986, as Chicago Det. Mike Torrello, that Farina finally turned in his badge and retired from the police force.

Though his acting career saw him mostly in tough-guy roles — notably as mobster Jimmy Serrano in the Robert De Niro-Charles Grodin film “Midnight Run” — Farina proved to be a versatile character actor, playing Jennifer Lopez’s concerned dad in Steven Soderbergh’s “Out of Sight,” Bette Midler’s ex-husband in the 1997 comedy “That Old Feeling” and an Army officer in Steven Spielberg’s World War II epic, “Saving Private Ryan.”

Farina said that he went out of his way to avoid typecasting. “I think it would be kind of boring to do the same things,” he said. “I think the idea of acting is to spread your wings a little bit. I was so grateful for ‘Saving Private Ryan’ and ‘Snatch’ and things like that.”

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And he loved being a character actor. “I think it’s a nice compliment. I accept it with all humility.”

Farina admitted that he never had acting aspirations until he got that call from Mann.

“I was always a movie fan. As a kid, we would go to the neighborhood theater and watch Bogart movies and Cagney movies and stuff like that. I never thought I would be doing what I’m doing.”

Here are five quintessential Farina performances to check out:


“Crime Story": Life imitated art for Farina in this stylish 1986-88 NBC series set in early 1960s Chicago with Farina at his combustible best as Lt. Mike Torello who is bent on destroying mobster Ray Luca (Anthony Denison).

“Midnight Run": Farina played gangsters to perfection, and he’s a scene-stealer in this 1988 buddy comedy hit as Chicago mob boss Serrano, who’s after Grodin’s accountant character for embezzling some $15 million from him. (Dealing with his underlings: “Is this moron No. 1? Put moron No. 2 on the phone.”)

“Get Shorty": In this 1995 crime-comedy hit, John Travolta plays Miami loan shark Chili Palmer, who finds himself working for Farina’s overheated mobster Ray “Bones” Barboni.

“Empire Falls": Farina gives one of his best performances in this 2005 HBO miniseries as the arrogant and loud-mouthed Walt, Helen Hunt’s fiance who owns a fitness club in town but is not quite as virile as he believes.

“Law & Order": Farina was back on the beat from 2004 to 2006 on the long-running NBC drama series as Joe Fontana, a nattily dressed, high-living homicide detective at the 27th Detective Squad of the NYPD.


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