Dennis Farina, a Chicago police officer turned character actor who cemented his second career playing gangsters, cops and other tough guys in film and TV, died Monday. He was 69.
The actor, perhaps best known in recent years for his stint on the TV crime drama “Law & Order,” died at a Scottsdale, Ariz., hospital after suffering a blood clot in his lung, said his publicist, Lori De Waal.
Farina’s ability to straddle both sides of the law on screen came with a certain ease. He had worked for the Chicago Police Department for 18 years — from 1967 to 1985 — before a chance meeting with director Michael Mann spurred a change in careers in his late 30s.
The two shared a mutual friend, a retired cop, and while Farina was still on the force, Mann cast him in his 1981 neo-noir film “Thief.” The role established a vital working relationship between the actor and director. Farina would go on to appear in TV’s “Crime Story” (1986-88), executive-produced by Mann, which Farina described as his “baptism” into acting. Other Mann-related projects would soon follow, including parts in “Miami Vice” and the 1986 film “Manhunter.”
The transformation into a character actor surprised Farina.
“As a kid, we would go to the neighborhood theater and watch Bogart movies and Cagney movies and stuff like that,” he said in a 2001 Times interview. “I never thought I would be doing what I am doing.”
Farina would go on to notch more than 70 film and television credits. A standout performance in Barry Sonnenfeld’s 1995 comedy crime thriller “Get Shorty” playing Miami gangster Ray “Bones” Barboni propelled him to a string of movie roles that had people talking about that actor with the distinctive eyebrows and mustache.
Though he often took on tough-guy roles, Farina found ways to stretch. He starred as Bette Midler’s ex-husband in the 1997 comedy “That Old Feeling,” as a Chicago mob boss swindled by accountant Charles Grodin in Martin Brest’s “Midnight Run” (1998), as an Army colonel in Steven Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan” (1998), as the concerned father of Jennifer Lopez’s character in Steven Soderbergh’s “Out of Sight” (1998) and, in recent years, as Gus Demitriou, the driver and “muscle” for horse owner Chester “Ace” Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) in HBO’s horse-racing drama “Luck.”
His two seasons on NBC’s long-running “Law & Order” as Det. Joe Fontana, replacing Jerry Orbach in 2004, brought him more recognition.
Farina, born Feb. 29, 1944, in Chicago, was the youngest of seven children of Italian immigrants. He often accompanied his father, a neighborhood doctor, on his rounds.
“He’d give them a shot or stitch them up for $2 or $3,” Farina said in a 2007 Times interview. “A lot of times these people didn’t have money; they’d pay him in kind, groceries. Through it all, we had a lot of laughs. Tried to find the humor in things.”
After high school, Farina served three years in the Army before pursuing a career in law enforcement. His time on the Chicago police force found him front-and-center during the 1968 riots sparked by the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. He once said in an interview that his poor shooting skills earned him the nickname “The Great Wounder” from his fellow police officers.
Upon being discovered by Mann, the actor took a year’s break from the field and headed west to Los Angeles. He found steady work in television, with roles in 1984’s “The Killing Floor” and the 1986 TV movie “Triplecross.” He would also extend his newfound passion to theater in Chicago, starring in such plays as Joseph Mantegna’s “Bleacher Bums,” the John Malkovich-directed “A Prayer for My Daughter” and “Tracers,” directed by Gary Sinise.
Most recently, Farina had a guest-starring role on Fox’s sitcom “New Girl.” He was set to appear in two upcoming films — “Authors Anonymous” and “Lucky Stiff.”
During a 2007 interview for a Times story, the then-63-year-old actor said he enjoyed the unpredictability his acting career had afforded him.
“Maybe at 73 I do want a steady job someplace,” he said. “But I think for me the next 10 years will be important because you’re getting into the twilight of your life.”
Farina, who split his time between Chicago and Scottsdale, is survived by three sons, six grandchildren and his companion, Marianne Cahill.