Dennis Farina spent a good chunk of his life as a cop chasing crooks in Chicago where he grew up. Right there you have three important C’s of American pop and pulp entertainment: cops, crooks, Chicago.
Then something happened: he met Michael Mann, the stylish movie and television director who was filming a movie in Chicago called “Thief.” Farina, a detective working in burglary, knew something about thieves and worked as a consultant to film crews. Mann, who created the iconic white-suit-drug-dealers cop series “Miami Vice,” liked the cut of Farina’s gib—who wouldn’t—and hired him for a part in the movie. The rest is Farina history.
That look—dramatic eyebrows, a voice that could threaten and soothe, sometimes all at once, and, yes, the mustache—allowed Farina the actor to move smoothly between cops and crooks. As far as that mustache, well, only Tom Selleck could and still does use his mustache as an acting tool better than Farina.
Farina—who died of complications from a blood clot on July 22 at the age of 69—became a familiar face on television. Mann cast him as—hold onto your hats— a cop and star of “Crime Story,” Mann’s next project in television. Farina played Lt. Mike Torello who fought mobsters in Chicago and Las Vegas in the 1950s and 1960s. It was a period piece: stylish, tough, with both cops and mobsters wearing cool hats and often smoking stogies.
In films, including “Thief,” “Midnight Run” and the hugely entertaining “Get Shorty,” based on master crime writer Elmore Leonard’s novel, he played crooks. There was the guy with the big afro in “Thief;” a hood named Jimmy Serrano in “Midnight Run,” which also starred Charles Grodin and Robert DeNiro; and most memorably, a mobster named Ray “Bones” Barboni in “Get Shorty,” which featured John Travolta and Gene Hackman.
But he hit the endurance jackpot when he took on the role of Detective Joe Fontana on “Law and Order.” Nobody could take the place of Jerry Ohrbach as Lenny Brisco on LAO, but Farina gave it a shot in terms of sheer originality. He was a slick one that Fontana, a natty, showy dresser and a bit of a hustler, charming information out of nurses in any way he could. In one word, he was memorable.
In real life Dennis Farina was a Chicago guy, born and raised by Sicilian parents. He was a cop who chased crooks in the city.
In our memory, he played both a cop and a crook, and so he became, in the end, Joe Fontana in the pantheon of “Law and Order.” May Farina rest in peace and may our memories of his talent last forever.