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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

There once was an actor who, knowing a script called for his character to be tortured, subjected himself to various forms of pain to prepare for the role. Upon hearing this, the colleague who would be inflicting the misery on the screen admonished him: "Dear boy, don't you understand? That's why we call it acting."

Actor Dennis Farina would heartily applaud this notion. Let others get themselves all worked up about "film." To Farina, they're strictly movies. In such varied works as Midnight Run, Get Shorty, Saving Private Ryan, Out of Sight, The Mod Squad and the upcoming Reindeer Games, the 55-year-old actor favors humble craft over affected art, straightforward communication over cryptic angst.

"Some people approach acting with all these things in their head, making it more complicated than it needs to be, way too cerebral," Farina says. "I don't want to know that an actor lived in a cave for 12 days so he could prepare for a part."

Like many of the characters he has portrayed, including the swinging detective on "Buddy Faro," a short-lived 1998 television series, Farina mixes charm, self-effacement and subtle bravado. It is a combination that makes this former Chicago cop and longtime robusto smoker the kind of friendly guy you'd swear you once met at a bar, on a plane, in a hotel lounge or in a golf clubhouse. And if you hadn't, you'd wish you had. "He says 'please' and 'thank you,'" says Peter Flaherty, who was the costume designer for "Faro." "They don't always do that."

Talking with Farina conjures up a world of intimate winks, soulful handshakes, well-earned street smarts and a patina of urban mystery. "The trick to acting," he says, "is to make it seem like you're not acting."

Viewed through Los Angeles' smoggy, paranoid lenses, Farina's take on acting appears a distant cousin to that age-old adage about the importance of sincerity: once you can fake it, you can do anything. Is his chumminess just another Hollywood implant? What's he really up to? What's the agenda behind the moustache?

And then, with one question, he unwraps the package.

"Care for a pop?" If you've grown up near the Atlantic or Pacific, you need one of those translation devices out of "Star Trek" to fathom the question. Pop what? Pop in the face? You mean like the one that wrecked the nose of the thwarted thug Ray "Bones" Barboni, Farina's hilarious character in Get Shorty?

But if you're from Farina's part of America, you know instantly what he means: "pop" is what Midwesterners call soda. It's a term that conjures up the region's simpler, unpretentious way of life.

Dennis Farina is a proud Midwesterner, born and raised in Chicago. His voice grows animated and grainy when he speaks of his native town. "My personality was formed by Chicago," Farina says. "It's very American, very straightforward. If you can't find it, or make it there, you won't make it anywhere. It's a very honest place."

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.

"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.

"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."

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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