Dennis Farina, the actor and former Chicago police officer who played coiled, hot-tempered characters in movies and on television, died Monday in Scottsdale, Ariz., from a blood clot in his lung, his publicist said. He was 69.
Farina, who starred as characters on both sides of the law, was perhaps most memorable as short-fused Miami gangster Ray “Bones” Barboni in Barry Sonnenfeld’s sharp comedy crime thriller Get Shorty (1995).
He won an American Comedy Award for the role and shared a SAG nomination for outstanding performance by a cast with John Travolta, Gene Hackman, Rene Russo, Danny DeVito, et al.
Farina also appeared as Det. Joe Fontana in 46 episodes of NBC’s Law & Order, added to the cast following the death of Jerry Orbach. That made him the only performer on the Dick Wolf series with an actual background in law enforcement. He left in 2006 to pursue film projects.
“I was stunned and saddened to hear about Dennis’ unexpected passing this morning,” Wolf said in a statement. “The Law & Order family extends sympathy and condolences to his family. He was a great guy.”
Farina's other small-screen credits include Michael Mann’s late 1980s NBC crime drama Crime Story; the private detective title character on his own 1998 CBS series, Buddy Faro, which only lasted eight episodes; hosting Unsolved Mysteries starting in 2008 after the death of original host Robert Stack; and, more recently, a stint as Dustin Hoffman’s right-hand man, Gus, in David Milch’s short-lived HBO horse-racing series Luck.
Farina also famously starred as a Chicago mob boss swindled by accountant Charles Grodin in Martin Brest’s Midnight Run (1988); an army colonel in Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (1998); the retired lawman father of Jennifer Lopez’s character in Steven Soderbergh’s Out of Sight (1998); and a Jewish diamond merchant in Guy Ritchie’s Snatch. (2000).
His other credits include Another Stakeout (1993), Striking Distance (1993), Little Big League (1994), That Old Feeling (1997), The Mod Squad (1999), Reindeer Games (2000), Sidewalks of New York (2001) and Big Trouble (2002).
“We are deeply saddened by the loss of a great actor and a wonderful man,” his publicist, Lori De Waal, said in a statement to The Hollywood Reporter. “Dennis Farina was always warm-hearted and professional, with a great sense of humor and passion for his profession. He will be greatly missed by his family, friends and colleagues. We hope that he finds a new life where great roles are plentiful and the Cubs are always winning the pennant.”
A 10-year veteran of the Chicago police force, Farina was discovered by director Mann during the filming of Thief (1981). Farina had served as Mann’s tour guide. Impressed by his street savvy, the director cast him in the film. Farina parlayed that performance into a number of TV guest-star appearances on such NBC crime series as Hunter and Miami Vice, executive produced by Mann.
He also appeared in Mann’s Manhunter (1986), one of Thomas Harris’ novels featuring Hannibal Lecter. Farina played dogged FBI pursuer Jack Crawford, a role later limned by Scott Glenn in 1991's The Silence of the Lambs.
His intense swagger also cut smartly in comedy: Farina played in HBO's Golden Globe-winning telefilm Empire Falls (2005) and starred in the NBC sitcom In-Laws in the early 2000s.
More recently, he acted in such movie fare as You Kill Me (2007), What Happens in Vegas (2008), Bottle Shock (2008) and The Last Rights of Joe May (2011), which he also produced. He has roles in two films yet to be released: Authors Anonymous and Lucky Stiff, now filming, according to IMDb.com.
Farina was born a leap-year baby to Sicilian-American parents on Feb. 29, 1944, in Chicago. He was the fourth son and youngest of seven children. After graduating from high school, he served three years in the Army and then entered law enforcement. He was a Chicago cop during the 1968 riots sparked by the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and contended the force got a “bum rap” from the media. Reportedly, he was such a bad shot that his fellow officers nicknamed him “The Great Wounder.” He was a cop for 18 years.
After being discovered by Mann, he took a year’s leave of absence from the force. After a year in Los Angeles, he decided to concentrate on acting full-time and made his foray into television with the 1984 American Playhouse production of The Killing Floor and the 1986 telefilm Triplecross.
“I left that life a long time ago,” he told his hometown Chicago Tribune in 2005. “I was a good cop, a good detective, and I’ve still got some good friends on the force. No, I don't offer any inside information to the Law & Order writers. I’m an actor now."
Farina also guest-starred on such TV series as China Beach and Tales From the Crypt and this season appeared in two episodes as the dilettante father of Nick (Jake Johnson) on Fox’s New Girl.
A veteran of the Chicago theater, Farina starred in such plays as Joe Mantegna’s Bleacher Bums; A Prayer for My Daughter, directed by John Malkovich; and Tracers, a Joseph Jefferson Award winner for best ensemble directed by Gary Sinise.
Survivors include sons Dennis, Michael and Joseph and six grandchildren. In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to The 100 Club of Chicago, which provides for the families of police officers, firefighters and paramedics who have lost their lives in the line of duty. Funeral services are pending.