News Column

Dennis Farina, a Chicago cop who became an actor, dies at 69

July 22, 2013

YellowBrix

July 22--Dennis Farina had the sort of Chicago neighborhood face you'd find behind the tap at a corner tavern, standing at first base on a softball diamond or lugging your new icebox up the stairs. As he said to a Tribune reporter nearly 20 years ago while sitting high above the city of his birth, riding the Navy Pier Ferris Wheel: "I spend all day walking around this city. I always come back here. This is where I'm comfortable."

The actor -- famous for his work in such films as "Get Shorty," "Saving Private Ryan" and "Midnight Run," and in television shows such as "Crime Story" and "Law & Order" -- died suddenly Monday morning in Scottsdale, Ariz., after suffering a blood clot in his lung. He was 69.

Though he spent much of his time in warm climes, Farina still had a home here, the better to keep in close touch with family members and lifelong friends. They kept him grounded because they all knew what the TV-watching, movie-going public never could: Farina was self-effacing and shy at his core.

"I know guys who look at themselves on TV, in movies. Not me," he told the Tribuine in 2010. "I'm afraid if I ever did I'd just sit there saying, 'Why the hell did they ever hire me?'"

Dennis Farina was born on Feb. 29, 1944, the youngest of the seven children (three brothers, three sisters) of Iolanda, a homemaker, and Joseph Farina, a Sicilian immigrant doctor. He grew up in the Old Town neighborhood, where he attended St. Michael Grammar School and St. Michael Central High.

After a hitch in the Army he went to work in the South Water produce market for a time. At the suggestion of one of his brothers, he took and passed the entrance exam for the Chicago Police Department and started as a patrolman on the North Side; he became a detective four years later.

His acting career began in 1981 when director Michael Mann -- in Chicago scouting locations for his film "Thief" -- met Farina and gave him a bit part in the movie. A friend suggested that Farina circulate his picture to various Chicago agents, which, in turn, led to his being cast in an episode on "Chicago Story," where he met John Mahoney, who convinced Farina to audition for a role in "A Prayer For My Daughter," at Steppenwolf. Farina subsequently appeared in "Streamers" at Columbia College; "The Time of Your Life" at the Goodman; "Class C Trial in Yokohama" at the Theater Building; in TV shows such as "Hunter," "Miami Vice" and "Remington Steele," and in such locally-filmed movies as "Code of Silence" and "The Naked Face."

"When I first got into acting, I never had any long-term goals, never had any plan," he said to the Tribune in 1988. "I just thought it would be a good way to make some extra money."

His work on Chicago stages remains the stuff of legend, and stories such as this:

His first stage appearance was in "A Prayer For My Daughter." Fellow cast member Mahoney sent a nervous Farina out on stage before the house lights had gone down. "I was scared to death," Farina said. "John took advantage of that."

Farina retaliated: One night, Mahoney was awakened at his house by the wail of police sirens. He looked out the windows and saw three police cars parked in the street in front of his building -- a mess of sirens and lights. Mahoney watched in dread as a policeman approached his building and rang his bell.

"John Mahoney?" said the officer.

"Yes," said Mahoney. "What's the problem?"

"You're under arrest," said the officer.

"What ... what for?" said the stunned Mahoney.

"Impersonating an actor," said the officer.

In 1985, Farina was cast opposite William L. Petersen in "Manhunter" and set to start filming episodes of a new TV series titled "Crime Story."

He turned in his badge after nearly 20 years, and from that year forward his career was one of enviably steady employment, with parts large and small in such films as "Get Shorty," "Snatch" and "Midnight Run"; and dozens of TV appearances, including his role as host of "Unsolved Mysteries" and the high-profile part of natty Det. Joe Fontana on "Law & Order," from which he departed in 2006.

"I had made a two-year deal, and I was just tired of the part," he told the Tribune in 2010. "There is a lot of exposition on the show. There wasn't a lot of opportunity for the character to expand. It's a plot-driven show."

Farina was a friendly and warm person but he never did like sitting still for interviews, and one of the reasons was that "former cop" hung from him like love beads on an investment banker. It was yesterday's fashion -- increasingly old news -- and he wanted to be done with it. But it lingered as a novelty, a quick hook for idea-starved writers.

"One interviewer asked me how many people I had to kill when I was a cop," said Farina in a 1988 Tribune interview. "Can't anybody understand that that life is over?"

Farina continued to make his home in Chicago, near Taylor Street, in what remains of one of the South Side's great Italian neighborhoods. He had a home in southwestern Michigan. In Arizona, he played a lot of golf, a late-life passion.

"Sometimes I do pinch myself about the life I've had," he said in a 1995 Tribune interview.

In December 2010 he spent 18 cold winter days in Chicago filming "The Last Rites of Joe May." He played the title character, described in the script as "late-sixties, handsome but frail looking (with) fine white hair (and) meticulously trimmed mustache."

Tim Evans, a longtime presence on the local theater scene and an admirer of Farina's, was one of the producers of the film. "Dennis was one of those larger-than-life guys you just wanted to be around," Evans said. "He was generous and kind to everyone, especially the working folks.

"He was an old-fashioned guy ... sentimental, romantic, told great stories."

On the film's outdoor set on the West Side, shivering between takes, Farina told a Tribune reporter, "I always thought of myself as being fortunate to have the life I have. But I'll tell you, now I'm really lucky because I get to sleep in my own bed at night."

Farina is survived by three sons, Dennis Jr., Michael and Joseph, from his first marriage, which ended in divorce in 1980; six grandchildren; and longtime companion Marianne Cahill. Funeral services are pending, and in lieu of flowers his family has asked for donations to The 100 Club of Chicago, the civilian organization that provides for the families of police officers, firefighters and paramedics who have lost their lives in the line of duty.

rkogan@tribune.com

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