Portraying suave guys with a swagger has been Dennis Farina's regular beat since surrendering his police badge in Chicago.
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Among the many intriguing characters Farina has portrayed is Buddy Faro, the Martini-sipping detective in the CBS drama of the name that was canceled after just eight episodes aired last year. After Faro rubs a wiseguy the wrong way, he skips out of the country for 20 years and resurfaces in the '90s. For this "Hip Van Winkle" shamus, it's a new world of designer coffee, electronic banking and drastically different attitudes towards the gender he used to refer to as "chicks."
The cocky, gregarious Faro fit Farina to a tee. As with many of Farina's previous characters, Buddy knows how to live, laugh and love with just enough self-effacement and charm to make you wonder what the real story is behind his swagger.
Of all the cinematic icons of the past 100 years, Spencer Tracy is the one Farina admires most. "I bought every part he played. You look at movies like The Last Hurrah, Bad Day at Black Rock or Judgment at Nuremberg, and his honesty and logic are so clear, so solid. He's the greatest American actor of the century."
Farina scoffs at any comparisons between himself and Tracy. When asked about his growth as an actor, Farina says, "I don't know that I've evolved. I enjoy it more and more. I enjoy it more now because I think I understand it more. I'm lucky because I've always been treated nicely and worked with nice people like Barry Sonnenfeld, Michael Mann, Martin Brest and Steven Spielberg."
The director with whom Farina would have most loved to work is the Academy Award-winning American filmmaker John Ford, a man known for his lack of artistic pretentions. Praising the craftsmanship of such Ford masterpieces as Stagecoach, How Green Was My Valley and The Grapes of Wrath, Farina confesses that he'd like most of all to be in a Western "in the old tradition. I'd like to play someone who you can't tell if they're a good guy or a bad guy. Back in the Old West, they made their rules as they went along. They discovered life, and they adjusted."
One place where Farina particularly likes making adjustments is on the golf course. As a kid in Chicago, he'd occasionally whack a few balls, thinking the sport was rather ridiculous. But about 12 years ago, shortly after becoming a full-time actor, he started to hit the links with everyone from ex-colleagues in Chicago to friends in Arizona to Hollywood types.
"To step up to the first tee is great. I learned from [former U.S. Open champion] Ken Venturi that it's best to tee off last," he says. "I play golf two to three times a week. I'm not as good at golf as I want to be. It's a game that challenges me. I'm an 18 [handicap]. It's fun, it's enjoyable. I've played a few of those celebrity events, like the Frank Sinatra Pro-Am, but I don't want to do that too much or else it becomes a job, and what would be the fun of that?"
Farina's immersion into golf coincided with his emerging appreciation for cigars. As with golf, cigars played a bit role in Farina's youth, only in this case the impact was positive. "I had an uncle and a cousin who always had cigars in their mouths," he says. "It looked good. I thought, 'I want to be that kind of guy.' My uncle never smoked them: they were just in his mouth, those little Parodis."
Once Farina started golfing frequently, cigars became a central part of the ritual. "A cigar became like ham-and-eggs at the first tee," he says. "Before I tee off, I light one up and lay it on the tee marker. That's when I usually smoke, when I play golf, or sometimes afterwards if we're sitting around having sandwiches."
Farina isn't partial to a specific brand, but "I do like the robusto-sized cigars. In Canada, I once had some cigars made for me, but they were too strong. My preference is for a light, rather than a dark."
When asked what draws him to cigars, Farina responds, "It's a personal thing. You get an enjoyment. A little bit of solitude helps pass the time of day. It's relaxing. I think I could relax more. I've played some characters who are intense. I wouldn't want to be half the characters I've played."
It's hard to imagine this placid man ever feeling too tense. "My life is like that song by Dean Martin--'Ain't That a Kick in the Head'--it's just a kick in the head, an amazing, special thing that's happened to me that I never could have planned. It's a lot of fun.
"Not too many things make me unhappy," he says. "I have a sense of proportion, that this is all very nice, and I enjoy it, and I enjoy what I do. I don't have any grand scheme about what to do, or what I should be doing next year. I figure if it's going to happen, it's going to happen. These things have a way of taking a life of their own. I don't want to sound flip or blasé, but I kind of move at my own pace. You find your own pace. It's wrong to be rushed into something."
Farina's philosophy may seem at odds with the freneticism of Hollywood life, but dare we expect anything less sensible from a man who started a new career at 40?
Oakland-based Joel Drucker writes frequently about popular culture and sports for Biography, Tennis and HBO.
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