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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 3)

"He has seen so many characters in his life that he instantly understands these characters and takes them in," says Ladd. "He'd been out there on the street, a real cop, never giving acting a thought, but dealing with a lot of different kinds of people and situations. That kind of exposure and experience and observation of human nature is what gives Dennis that unique take on human life."

As a former child actor, who admits to having become a less effective performer as he got older, Ladd finds Farina's career path refreshing and even instructive. He believes that many actors could benefit from diverse vocational experiences. "The best actors I know are students of humanity," Ladd says. "They observe life, and they bring characters to the screen and to the stage. That's what the art is about."

While Farina's law enforcement credentials have helped him land movie roles, he hopes that he won't be pigeonholed in such parts. "I've really come to see this as a process, as something to study and learn from," he says.

One epiphany occured when Farina was working on an episode of "Miami Vice" during a writer's strike. "We got into a brainstorming dialogue," he says. "We said things that evolved into the script. I saw there was something more to it than saying the lines. There was a reason for it and I saw it firsthand." An ardent reader and voracious music lover, Farina is drawn to erudite, sharp language, whether in the novels of Get Shorty author Elmore Leonard or Presumed Innocent scribe Scott Turow or in the lyrics of Cole Porter and Johnny Mercer. "What draws me to acting is the written word," Farina says. "If you can see it's pretty good, that's a wonderful start. You have to like the character. It doesn't mean he has to be a likable person. It means you have to like that uniqueness in his character. Ray Barboni was a gangster who took himself very seriously. I liked that about him."

Farina felt drawn to his character in the recently shot Reindeer Games, a casino-heist thriller directed by John Frankenheimer and starring Ben Affleck and Charlize Theron. Farina plays Jack Bangs, a character described as a "washed-up talk show host." The movie is set to be released this Christmas.

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."

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