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Dennis Farina brought his Chicago street sense to many roles

Dennis Farina

Dennis Farina

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Updated: August 24, 2013 6:23AM

Dennis Farina, a longtime Chicago police officer who went on to a distinguished career as a TV and movie character actor, died Monday after suffering a blood clot in his lung. Lori De Waal, his representative, confirmed the actor’s death Monday morning in a Scottsdale, Ariz., hospital. He was 69.

Among his many TV portrayals, he probably is best remembered as Det. Joe Fontana on “Law & Order.” He also starred in the 1980s cult favorite, “Crime Story,” and most recently was in the HBO drama series “Luck.”

In addition, he also had roles on the TV series “Miami Vice” and the sitcom “In Laws,” and starred in his own short-lived vehicle “Buddy Faro.” His big-screen credits include “Get Shorty,” “Midnight Run” and “Saving Private Ryan.” He had one of his last major film roles in “The Last Rites of Joe May” (2011), about an aging Chicago street hustler. Calling it “the performance of a career,” Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert wrote of Mr. Farina: “He looks into the type and sees the man inside: proud, weary, fearful.”

After 18 years as a Chicago police officer, starting in 1967, Mr. Farina edged his way into show business by way of consulting about police tactics and moonlighting as an actor at several high-profile Chicago theaters throughout the 1980s.

His first film was the action drama “Thief” (1981), directed by Michael Mann, whom he had met through a mutual friend while still working for the Chicago Police Department. “I remember going to the set that day and being intrigued by the whole thing,” he recalled in a 2004 interview with the Associated Press. “I liked it. And everybody was extremely nice to me. If the people were rude and didn’t treat me right, things could have gone the other way.”

Mann, reached in Hong Kong, where he is shooting a movie, said Monday to the Sun-Times: “Dennis was a really tough guy, particularly back in those days [the ’70s, when he was still a detective]. And he was more a tough guy than he was an actor. But at the same time, you’d make a mistake if you thought that because Dennis played organized crime figures, for example, that he had any kind of elastic value system. Dennis knew there are bad people in the world, and his value system was unwavering.”

For three decades, the Chicago native displayed remarkable dexterity, charm and toughness, making effective use of his craggy face, rich gray hair and steely smile. As a Chicagoan, he brought hometown traits to his many roles.

“Chicago is a state of mind,” he told the Sun-Times’ Bill Zwecker in 1998. “I’m sure New Yorkers feel that way about New York, but I think Chicagoans are even more adamant about it. You know the first thing a Chicagoan tells you is ‘I’m from Chicago!’ And then the questions come if they discover you’re one too. ‘What parish are you from? What ward are you from? Who’s your alderman?’

“See? It is a state of mind. After all, is there anything better than the Art Institute? Or walking through Lincoln Park? Or getting a hot dog or a beef sandwich?”

Throughout his career, Mr. Farina relied on his ex-cop’s perspective to anchor his performances. In the 1998 interview with the Sun-Times, he called “N.Y.P.D. Blue” and “Law & Order” “fine shows, but they take so much dramatic license with how police officers do their work. On those shows, the officers never seem to have a nice day. I was a police officer for nearly 20 years. I had plenty of nice days. Some were not so good, but plenty were.”

At Steppenwolf Theatre, he appeared as a tough cop in Thomas Babe’s play, “A Prayer for My Daughter” (his professional acting debut), and as the brutal sergeant in “Tracers,” John DiFusco’s powerful Vietnam War drama. In a 1985 interview, Farina’s fellow actor, John Mahoney, confessed that he had wanted the roles played by Farina in both those Steppenwolf productions, but he wasn’t considered the right type.

In “Some Men Need Help,” a play by John Ford Noonan produced at Victory Gardens Theatre in 1988, Farina was a man attempting to help his neighbor overcome a serious alcohol problem. In 1989, after the actor had already gained celebrity with “Crime Scene,” he joined the cast of a commercial Chicago remount of the Organic Theatre production of “Bleacher Bums,” the ever-popular comedy, directed by fellow Chicagoan Joe Mantegna.

Tributes from Mr. Farina’s friends began quickly rolling in after the news of his death. Steppenwolf colleague Gary Sinise wrote via Twitter: “Deeply saddened @ news of passing of Chicago pal Dennis Farina. So fine an actor & good man. RIP, friend.”

“He was a very funny guy who was kind of a mix of front page and Berthold Brecht,” Mann said.

“[He had] a real straight, cynical Chicago humor. He had a huge network of friends. It’s a devastating loss, and he’s going to be sorely missed.”

“Law & Order” executive producer and creator Dick Wolf said in a statement, “I was stunned and saddened to hear about Dennis’ unexpected passing this morning. The ‘Law & Order’ family extends sympathy and condolences to his family. He was a great guy.”

Chicago Police Department superintendent Garry F. McCarthy said, “The entire CPD family was saddened to hear of the passing of Dennis Farina, a legendary character actor who was a true-blue Chicago character. After an 18-year career in the Chicago Police Department, Dennis had a wonderful second act in life, bringing his distinctive Chicago voice and values to millions of people. No matter how far he got, Dennis never forgot where he came from, and while he was cherished by audiences around the world, h He will always be first and foremost a guy from the Near North Side who helped make this city safer. We respect him for his service, we regard him for his talent, and we will remember him always.”

In a statement, the Chicago Police Memorial Foundation said, “Millions will remember Dennis as an outstanding actor. The foundation will remember him as someone who found fame doing something he loved while never forgetting where he came from. But most important, we’ll remember him as a true Chicago original — someone who was a great actor, an outstanding detective, and a great friend to so many police officers.”

Mr. Farina is survived by three sons, six grandchildren and his longtime partner, Marianne Cahill.

Contributing: Sun-Times staffers Lori Rackl, Mike Thomas, Hedy Weiss and Bill Zwecker; AP.

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