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A Sweet Second Act

Portraying suave guys with a swagger has been Dennis Farina's regular beat since surrendering his police badge in Chicago.
Joel Drucker
From the Print Edition:
Ernest Hemingway, Jul/Aug 99

(continued from page 1)

It's that simple. The moustache has no hidden agenda. But there's more when you consider Farina's profession and his relationship to it. Talk to an actor from New York or Los Angeles and you'll likely encounter an artiste fueled by soaring ambition, visions of glory and stardom. Actors from other locales may recall their dreams of ditching the small town and reaching Broadway and Hollywood. But ask an actor from Chicago about his aspirations, and you may get a much different response.

"I'm a guy who makes a living acting," Farina says matter-of-factly.

Farina's staunch work ethic echoes those of his favorite actors, Spencer Tracy and Gene Hackman: You show up on time. You shut up and listen to the boss. When they want a fourth, fifth, sixth or seventh take, you don't whine, you just grin and bear it. You stay loyal to the same Chicago-based talent agency that's handled you since you started acting. You remain a long-suffering Cubs fan. You buy a round for the fellas and gals when it's your turn. You may be an actor and can now afford to spend the winter in Arizona, but you live the rest of the year in the city that made you. You never forget where you came from. You remember with pride and joy the faces and voices of all the soulful Chicagoans that brought the sounds and smells of that city alive.

Those images are particularly vivid for Farina because he spent 20 years walking and driving the city streets as a member of the Chicago Police Department, first as a cop, then as a detective. When asked about the pressures of police work, Farina chuckles. "You've been watching too much television," he says. "Television has put too much drama into police work. They've gone a little too far. It's not that dramatic all day long. Sure, there are days. But that's not what most of it is. We helped people. We found kids that were lost. We found dogs that were lost.

"Except for 'Barney Miller,' I've never seen a show where policemen have a nice day and can sit and have a cup of coffee. The best movie about police work is The French Connection. You sit around a lot, drinking cold coffee and eating cold pizza.

"Being a policeman and being an actor both take discipline. You take orders, and you sit around waiting for things to happen. You sit in a chair. Hours and hours of nothing happen and then, sometimes and quite suddenly, something does. Of course, the importance of the two are different. One, after all, can be a matter of life and death. The other is strictly about entertainment. I mean, I always loved movies when I was a kid, they were fun. I went to the movies to be entertained, not to be reared. That's what parents are for."

Dennis G. Farina came into the world on February 29, 1944, the fourth son and youngest of seven children of Joseph and Yolanda Farina. Originally from Italy, Joseph and Yolanda raised their large brood in a working-class Italian neighborhood on the near north side of Chicago. Joseph was a doctor; Yolanda was a homemaker. The Farinas were a loving, clannish and disciplined family. Dennis recalls his father as "the most honest man I've ever met. He'd let you know if you were out of line in a minute."

The youngest Farina recalls a typical, solid, all-American upbringing. "We were always spending time with each other, with family, with friends," says Farina. "I have no axes to grind about anything. I had a normal childhood. I went to school. I played basketball and softball."

As he grew up, he also acquired a sense of dignified responsibility and self-possession, which is one of his trademarks. He owes this trait, in part, to his oldest brother, Joe, an attorney. Nineteen years younger than Joe, Dennis was drawn less to his brother's courtroom activities and more to the way he carried himself. "My brother was very smart," says Farina. "He went to work and looked nice in a suit and tie. I thought, 'This is what a man does.' "

The younger Farina continues to exude quiet self-confidence today, even if his cinematic wardrobe can't compare with attorneys' sartorial suits. Though never quite as ornately coiffed as a highly paid movie star or romantic lead, he is always comfortable in his clothes, whether they are that of Lieutenant Colonel Anderson in Saving Private Ryan, Marshall Sisco in Out of Sight, police captain Adam Greer in The Mod Squad or Ray Barboni in Get Shorty.

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