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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 2)

"His characters are a bit of a throwback to the films of the '40s and '50s, of a very urban, tough guy, very grounded, kind of out of Dashiell Hammett," says David Ladd, producer of The Mod Squad and the studio executive in charge of Get Shorty. One can easily imagine Farina tossing back a few or sharing a cigar with the likes of Richard Widmark, Lee Marvin or James Coburn.

As a child, Farina had always thought movies were ultimately frivolous. He never took an acting class, had nothing to do with dramatic art in school, and going to the movies was just one of many activities he and his chums enjoyed. "For a quarter you'd get a double feature, trailers, shorts, a newsreel," he says, sounding more like a child of the '30s than his beloved '50s. "Movies were something you'd do. You went for the star who was in them." While he admired certain actors and other celebrities, Farina never took them too seriously. "I liked Spencer Tracy, Humphrey Bogart and Dean Martin, and Ernie Banks of the Cubs, but I never looked at an athlete or singer or dancer for great meaning."

Upon graduating from St. Michael Central High School in 1962, Farina served three years in the Army. Shortly after he returned to Chicago, brother Joe suggested the police force as a career for his youngest sibling. Dennis's calm, patient demeanor and jocular empathy quickly made him an effective cop. However, when the action got a little hotter than usual, he showed he could be as tough as nails. Recalling the 1968 riots that enveloped Chicago during the Democratic National Convention, Farina told Parade magazine in 1995, "You never think if it's scary or not. You're so involved. We generally caught a bum rap. We handled [the demonstrators] the only way we could. Police don't pay attention to critiques. We were ordered out to do a job."

Whether rehearsing or conversing, trying on clothes or issuing orders, Farina is unquestionably an orderly man who sets limits on himself and a conversation. The father of three sons between the ages of 26 and 32, Farina is tight-lipped about his personal life. He divorced his wife, and when asked about his current love life, he merely declares, "All I'll say is that I've been happily involved with someone for a long time." He's equally mysterious about his politics, calling himself a "political agnostic," but also declaring that "it's really no one's business what I think about that stuff." Some people might take offense to such statements, but Farina issues these comments without the slightest hint of rancor.

Farina's abiding grace makes him a valued asset on the set. "There's a certain professionalism, a confidence he brings that spreads to his coworkers," says Ladd. "My wife expected him to say that he hated being a cop. He said he loved it. He's a guy who gets out of bed every day and says, 'I'm having a good ride and life is good.'"

Though Farina was planning to make detective work his career, events took another turn in the late '70s. Charlie Adamson, a retired Chicago policeman living in Las Vegas, was working as a technical adviser on producer Michael Mann's film Thief. The script featured a character based on a person whom Adamson had once arrested in Chicago. When the crew came to the Windy City to shoot the film, Adamson suggested Farina as a guide to the contemporary urban scene. Mann took such a liking to Farina that he offered him a small part as the bad guy's henchman, Carl.

"It was a fun sideline, a good chance to pick up a few bucks, and I was treated very nicely," says Farina. "The process was interesting to me, very interesting, but no way did I think this was a full-time career. I was 35 years old and had put in more than a decade as a policeman."

Farina had been supplementing his officer's salary by working as a security guard--a common practice for many cops--at the Bonwit Teller department store in the Hancock Building. Noting that the Geddes Agency, a talent firm, was located in the same building, Farina dropped by its offices and let the agents know that he was working on Thief and kindly requested that if they knew of any local parts, to consider him for auditions.

After juggling full-time work as a detective with occasional acting for several years, Farina was offered the part of Lt. Michael Torello on Mann's NBC drama "Crime Story," which aired from 1986 to 1988. Opting to take a year's leave of absence, with every intention of returning to the force, the 41-year-old Farina headed to Hollywood in 1985. "I knew I enjoyed acting," he says. "This was an opportunity to take advantage of something new. It was a practical decision, and I really had nothing to lose." Farina resigned from the police force in 1986, after he decided he'd make it in the movies.

Once in Hollywood, Farina took advantage of every opportunity. He quickly landed parts in Mann's Thief follow-up, Manhunter (1986), the Robert De Niro film Midnight Run (1988), the TV movie The Case of the Hillside Strangler (1989) and others. Though his credibility as a bonafide cop made him a natural for parts involving law enforcement, it wasn't just his knowledge of police procedures that made him effective.


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