Crime Story: Dennis Farina (1944-2013)

No movie was ever made worse by the late Dennis Farina, and many were drastically improved. One of the more memorable character-actor foot soldiers who stolidly slog through the trenches of TV and Hollywood, he brought chiseled grit, a dandyish gleam (that high grey hair, the wiseguy suits), and a puckish sense of trickery to each of his performances. Dialogue that would sound like second-hand mobster mush out of somebody else’s mouth was given a vinegary snap in his. For a certain kind of appreciator, his appearance was always a cheer-worthy event, much like what happens when a particular breed of fanboy spots Ron Perlman on screen. When Farina showed up, it was pretty much always as a cop, ex-cop, hustler, or heavy; there were not many romantic interludes in his resume.

Farina, who died on July 22 at the age of 69, was a detective in a Chicago Police Department burglary unit when he was introduced to Chicagoan Michael Mann, who was making his first feature, 1981’s Thief. Farina was hired as an advisor for the film and even got himself on screen for a few seconds; he gets shot rather unceremoniously at the film’s end along with some other anonymous henchmen. He worked some small roles for the next few years, mostly TV, but also polishing his craft on the Chicago stage with the likes of Steppenwolf vets like Terry Kinney. Supposedly, he even left the CPD a couple years before making his pension in order to pursue acting. It was a gutsy move, but one that paid off long before he ended up donning a trenchcoat and storming the streets of Manhattan on Law and Order.

What made Farina was his starring role as Lt. Mike Torello in Mann’s 1960s’ mob saga Crime Story. Looked at today, this show (which ran from 1986 to 1988) is an overambitious mess, both groundbreaking in its dramatic complexity and depressingly conventional in its plotting. But like Wiseguy, which took Crime Story’s now-standard conceit of the determined cop who finds a disturbing kinship with the mob boss he hunts and ran with it, Mann’s show established something of a new template for how to present plot-heavy crime dramas on TV.

While Crime Story gave Farina a true career, the role as Torello was a little too limiting for him in its predator seriousness. The snap-brim hat and dark eyes that could bore right through an underworld squealer, while thrown out there with a singular bravado, were pulled right from the good-cop-with-problems playbook. It was 1988’s Midnight Run that would show off Farina’s full range of vicious, dandified charm as a mob boss hunting down fleeing accountant Charles Grodin. While the movie got a lot of mileage out of Grodin and Robert De Niro’s odd-couple bickering, the real spice came from those interludes where Farina’s Jimmy Serrano berated his lieutenants (“Don’t say a word to me, Sidney … I’ll get up and I’ll bury this telephone in your head”) in a punchy, rat-a-tat stream of obscenities that flowed so naturally it barely seemed scripted.

After playing Serrano, Farina became more of a go-to actor for A-list directors, who seemed to love slapping him around. In otherwise middling comic-crime efforts like Get Shorty, Big Trouble, and Snatch, Farina’s seething incomprehension at how much punishment he’s suffering (something about that nose and the Sicilian tan and his just-so outfits, pocket squares and all, made him ripe for comic abuse) were just about the best things on screen. His was a character always getting in over his head but nevertheless convinced that everybody around him was a pinhead; the discrepancy was always hilariously infuriating to Farina’s go-to hustler character.

Farina had range beyond those cops and crooks, of course, as most of the better typecast character actors do, but rarely had a chance to deploy it. When he did, though, there was a surprising amount of warmth under that veneer. Breaking out into a bigger film like his small role in Saving Private Ryan, Farina played the officer with the thankless task of sending Tom Hanks’ men out on their FUBAR public-relations mission. The man’s eyes say it all: He knows he’s signing death warrants for no particular reason except that the order came down from on high.

Another exception was his short stint in Out of Sight, playing dad to Jennifer Lopez. Okay, so his character was a retired cop who gives his federal marshal daughter a Sig-Sauer 380 pistol for her birthday; not exactly something out of his wheelhouse. But Farina’s short, bright scene with Lopez not only efficiently delivers her entire backstory (like father, like daughter), it also let him show a warm, protective side that was still edged with sarcasm and grit. When Lopez’s gung-ho FBI agent boyfriend Michael Keaton shows up (in an FBI t-shirt), Farina just grins at the lunk, verbally toying with him like a cat with a particularly dense mouse: “Do you ever wear one that says, ‘undercover’?” It’s every streetwise guy’s sneering disdain for the squares and the morons who will just never get it.

The old cop in Farina must have liked having that opportunity to stick it to a fed.