Perhaps Dennis Farina was best known for Law & Order where he played the sartorially gifted police detective Joe Fontana for two seasons. But Farina didn't just play policemen on TV. He was the real deal. A former Chicago cop, his streetwise affect led him to be typecast as either cop or thug. And his conviviality frequently made him ideal for filling the role of comic relief. But there was a dark streak that ran through Farina that was often untapped. Rarely was his ability to lapse into cool callousness utilized best than when he worked for the director who discovered him, Michael Mann.
He first served as a consultant in Michael Mann's gritty crime film Thief (1981). Possibly recognizing a way to harness his dead-eyed stare, Mann cast him in a bit part as a silent but memorably stone-faced thug who faced off against lead actor James Caan's safe-cracker Frank a couple of times before getting blown away in the film's finale. This brief role led Farina to pursue acting professionally in Chicago's competitive theater scene. It also began a fruitful collaboration with Mann in quite a few projects.
The first was a recurring role as mobster Al Lombard in Mann's influential Miami Vice. This led to his casting—in a role that would subsequently be played by Scott Glenn, Harvey Keitel and, currently, Laurence Fishburne on NBC's Hannibal—as the original Jack Crawford, FBI supervisor of Quantico's Behavioral Science Unit in Manhunter, Mann's 1986 adaptation of Thomas Harris's serial killer novel, Red Dragon. Authoritative and fatherly, Farina's Crawford was a precursor of roles he'd play in the future like retired cop Marshall Sisco, Karen Sisco's protective dad in Steven Soderbergh's Out of Sight.
Recently, Farina's flintier side again got some long overdue exposure in the ill-fated HBO series Mann ran for creator David Milch, Luck. There he played Gus Demetriou, loyal bodyguard to Dustin Hoffman's "Ace" Bernstein, an ex-mobster trying to keep his nose clean as a new racehorse owner while still alert to opportunities on getting even with Mike (Michael Gambon), an old associate who let him take the fall for a crime they both committed. In Slant Magazine's The House Next Door, I wrote of Gus as "more than just a bodyguard. He willingly sacrifices his soul to serve as the instrument of Ace's vengeance in an attempt to absolve his boss from dirtying his ascending spirit any further, never more evident than in the efficient yet emotionless dispatch of an assassin Mike sent to eliminate Ace." That ruthlessness is something Farina hadn't been asked to play since an earlier series he had done for Mann, maybe the epitome of their collaboration and one of the earliest prototypes of the postmodern serialized television series.
Mann's Crime Story (1986-88) was co-created by Farina's former partner Chuck Adamson and set in Chicago, where both had served as cops. A period drama, it followed Farina's Lieutenant Mike Torello in his obsessive pursuit of rising organized crime figure Ray Luca (Anthony Denison) during the early 1960s, pre-Miranda law. Writing about Crime Story's anniversary for IndieWIRE's Press Play I said,
At one point, Torello acknowledges his obsession privately to Luca,"You know, when you chase someone as long as I've chased you, in the end, it really comes down to two people: you and me." With little regard for his officers... Torello rushes headlong in pursuit of Luca, frequently endangering the lives of innocent bystanders.The line between cop and criminal were often blurred, a recurring theme of Mann's that gave room for Farina to deliver some of his finest work. Torello could be a congenial prankster one moment and caring husband the next before finally unleashing his mounting fury on Luca and his henchman Paulie (played by John Santucci, a former jewel thief that Adamson and Farina had arrested in their previous careers). Unfortunately, outside of Mann's oeuvre, Farina was rarely allowed to show such breadth of range during his long, respectable career as a reliable character actor.
He died today at the age of 69.
Recommended Films - Thief, Manhunter, Midnight Run, Get Shorty, Out of Sight, Saving Private Ryan, Snatch, Bottle Shock
Recommended TV - Miami Vice, Crime Story, Law & Order, Luck