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Good cop or bad guy, they're truly his type

Whichever side of the law his characters may inhabit, look for the veteran tough-guy essence of Dennis Farina at their core.

June 24, 2007|John Clark | Special to The Times

New York — IT'S hard to imagine a better place to meet Dennis Farina than in New York's Friars Club. Its borscht belt clientele and social-club ambience is old school, like Farina himself.

"A lot of them are in show business in one way or another," says Farina, surveying the wood-paneled room and its lunchtime customers, some of whom stop to say hello. "A lot of them are retired. Some guys run casinos in Vegas." Farina fits right in, though he's wearing an orange shirt, which is at odds with the conservative suits and ties all around him. But he's nothing if not slick: He's got a pinkie ring, polished nails, a trim gray mustache, a full head of gray hair and a rough, ruddy complexion. He's the most colorful guy in a room full of colorful guys.

For years Hollywood has used Farina's off-screen qualities for on-screen duty as gangsters, cops and other assorted tough guys in such films as "Get Shorty" (1995) and "Out of Sight" (1998) and on television shows such as "Law & Order" (2004-06).

"You meet a lot of people who play tough guys and you realize they're just actors and they're not tough at all," says director Zak Penn. "The thing about Dennis is he's a pretty tough guy." Adds director John Dahl, "He's really become a cultural icon for that genre of a guy. He's almost gotten to the point where he's not an actor anymore. He's Dennis Farina."

This image gets a workout in three new or upcoming films. In Dahl's "You Kill Me" (which opened Friday), Farina plays a cold-blooded Buffalo, N.Y., mobster who's rubbing out the competition. In Penn's improvisational "The Grand" (which will land in theaters next year), he's an old poker pro disgusted by the Disney-fication of the game and Las Vegas. And in Ed Burns' "Purple Violets" (looking for distribution), he is featured in a cameo role as a cutthroat New York real estate agent. He'll also be appearing in a movie produced by the Farrelly brothers -- "National Lampoon's Bag Boy" (release pending), playing a grocery store owner who sees world-class bag-boy potential in one of his employees.

Farina says he doesn't mind being pigeonholed as "Dennis Farina" -- what he cares about are the characters. "I really never cared about what the guy did, whether he was a good guy or a bad guy," he says. "But I was always interested in the way he did it. There are good bad guys and bad good guys. I don't mind playing them if they're funny. I think it happens that those guys are funny. Whether the rest of the world thinks they're funny is another subject."

Farina knows whereof he speaks, but he won't speak about it. From 1967 to 1985, he was an officer in the Chicago Police Department. "I won't answer any questions," he says evenly about his police past. Did he know "those guys" when he was on the force? No comment. Is he bored with the subject? No comment.

Farina will discuss his life before and after his police work. The youngest of seven children, he was raised in Chicago, where he still lives. Both of his parents emigrated from Italy. His father worked his way through medical school during the 1920s and became the neighborhood doctor. Farina says he often accompanied him on his rounds. He saw a lot before he became a cop.

"He'd give them a shot or stitch them up for $2 or $3," Farina says. "A lot of times these people didn't have money, they'd pay him in kind, groceries. Through it all we had a lot of laughs. Tried to find the humor in things." When Farina was still on the force, he was cast by director Michael Mann in the film "Thief" (1981). Mann subsequently used him in TV's "Crime Story" (1986-88), which Farina describes as "my baptism." "I just enjoyed it," he says. "I thought it was fun. Maybe I'm stupid, but the camera just never bothered me."

This was the beginning of a career that has included more than two dozen films and innumerable TV shows. He seemed like a natural fit when he was cast as a regular on "Law & Order," but he was out after two years. The party line was that he was "pursuing other offers and projects." According to Farina, it was a little more complicated than that.

"I got the feeling that they wanted to go another way with the show," he says. "I think they were trying to attract a younger audience. I don't know. I'm not real clear on how producers make these decisions. We mutually agreed that two years was enough and we parted company." Farina says this without rancor, in part because he was eager to make movies again. But it's also true that despite his intimidating image he's an easygoing guy. He knows the business is inherently unstable. And unlike many actors, he realizes it's neither all about the work nor all about him. He's just happy to be here. This is not to say that he doesn't take acting seriously; it's that he doesn't take all the hype surrounding it seriously.

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