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A Roundabout Trip to `New York'

Once a Windy City cop, actor Dennis Farina never imagined he'd wind up in the movies.

November 22, 2001|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Dennis Farina holds the dubious distinction of appearing in two films that were delayed because of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks: "Big Trouble," a Barry Sonnenfeld comedy that revolves around a stolen nuclear weapon, a hijacked plane and lax airport security, and the more sanguine "Sidewalks of New York," a romantic roundelay from actor-writer-director Edward Burns.

Although Disney Studios hasn't rescheduled "Big Trouble," in which Farina plays an exasperated hit man, the Burns comedy finally made it to theaters this week.

In the film, which opened in Los Angeles on Wednesday, Farina does a funny turn as Carpo, a slick seducer--a wolf in designer clothing--who keeps giving advice about women to Tommy (Burns), a TV producer looking for Ms. Right. Farina has the biggest laugh in the comedy, when, relaxing in a bubble bath, he suggests to Tommy that the way to a woman's heart is to put cologne on a part of his anatomy you might not ordinarily think of.

Farina, 57, and Burns met four years ago in Ireland during the filming of Steven Spielberg's "Saving Private Ryan." "We got along great," Burns recalls. "I think we connected immediately because he was a Chicago cop and my dad was a cop in New York for 30 years."

"We had a lot in common," says Farina, who sports a shock of gray, wavy hair and prominent dimples. "He told me about a few films he was working on. He told me he would give me a call one day [to do a movie]. I was lucky enough to get a call for 'Sidewalks.'"

"He's great, isn't he?" Burns says. "He is as down to earth as anyone you would ever meet. He is one of the good guys."

Farina did all of his scenes for the low-budget production in just one day.

"I knew right away that I wanted to do it," says the actor in his distinct Chicago accent. "We played around a little bit with it, played around with the sentence structure and came up with the character. It was an easy sell."

Everything went so smoothly on the set, that Burns decided to add another scene for Farina, one in which Tommy's girlfriend, Maria (Rosario Dawson) arrives at Carpo's apartment looking for Tommy. Carpo, dressed in a Japanese kimono, tries to turn on the charm with Maria.

"He wrote it in about 10 minutes," Farina says in a recent Los Angeles interview. "The only thing I contributed was the kimono. He said, 'What do you think Carpo would be wearing?' I said they have those Japanese kimonos. They are kind of funny when you look at them. There was a store down the street, and they bought a Japanese kimono and put it on. I think it fits right in. It was a good marriage between the dialogue and the wardrobe and the situation."

"Dennis is agreeable to do anything," says Burns, who shot the film in just 17 days. "Not many guys would be willing to dive into that bubble bath with a martini glass."

Farina, who is divorced with three grown sons, still lives in Chicago and hangs out with his old buddies on the force.

He jokingly "blames" Michael Mann for his second career. The director, he relates, was in Chicago to make his first feature, the 1981 film "Thief." The two had a mutual friend, a retired cop, who was a writer on the movie.

"Michael is a Chicago guy anyway," he says. "He says he wants to talk to some real-life characters. I talked to him and he asked me to do a part in the movie. I said yes, sure."

Other roles soon followed in TV movies such as "Through Naked Eyes" and the Chuck Norris feature "Code of Silence," both of which were shot in Chicago.

Mann didn't forget Farina, casting him in guest roles on "Miami Vice" and a featured role in his 1986 movie, "Manhunter." Farina landed his first starring role in 1986 as Chicago detective Mike Torrello in Mann's ultra-stylish series, "Crime Story." Around the time he got "Crime Story," Farina turned in his badge and retired from the police force.

Over the last two decades, Farina has blossomed into one of the most reliable character actors around, stealing scenes in Sonnenfeld's "Get Shorty" as mobster Ray "Bones" Barbonie, in the romantic comedy "That Old Feeling" as Bette Midler's amorous ex-husband and in Steven Soderbergh's "Out of Sight" as Jennifer Lopez's concerned father.

Farina says he goes out of his way to do different things. "I think it would be kind of boring to do the same thing every time. I think the idea of acting is to spread your wings a little bit. I was so grateful for 'Saving Private Ryan' and 'Snatch' [the British gangster caper directed by Guy Ritchie] and things like that."

He wears the badge of character actor with pride. "I think that's a nice compliment," Farina says. "I accept it with all humility."

Although he took to acting like a duck to water, Farina never had any thespian aspirations until he got the fateful call from Mann.

"I was always a movie fan," he says. "As a kid, we would go to the neighborhood theater and watch Bogart movies and Cagney movies and stuff like that. I never thought I would be doing what I am doing."

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