Dennis Farina, a former Chicago policeman turned tough-guy actor, died in Scottsdale, Arizona, on Monday, the actor’s publicist said. He was 69.
Farina, best known as detective Joe Fontana on the long-running TV series ‘Law & Order’, suffered a blood clot in his lung, publicist Lori De Waal said.
“I was stunned and saddened to hear about Dennis’ unexpected passing,” Dick Wolf, creator and executive producer of ‘Law & Order’, said in a written statement. “The ‘Law & Order’ family extends sympathy and condolences to his family. He was a great guy.”
Farina was born in Chicago, Illinois, to Sicilian-American parents Iolanda, a homemaker, and Joseph Farina, a Sicilian immigrant doctor. He was raised in a large family and had three brothers and three sisters.
He is survived by three sons, six grandchildren and his partner of 35 years, Marianne Cahill.
Cop to actor
Before becoming an actor, Farina served for 18 years in the Chicago Police Department’s burglary division, from 1967 to 1985.
Farina began his work in show business working for director Michael Mann as a police consultant, which subsequently led to an interest in acting when Mann cast him in a small role in the 1981 film ‘Thief’. Farina went on to moonlight as an actor in the Chicago theatre scene before Mann chose him to play in his ‘Crime Story’ series. Farina played the mobster Albert Lombard in Michael Mann’s other television show ‘Miami Vice’.
Two of his most well-known movie characters were Jimmy Serrano, the mob boss from ‘Midnight Run’, and Ray “Bones” Barboni, a rival criminal of Chili Palmer’s in ‘Get Shorty’. He also played FBI Agent Jack Crawford in the first Hannibal Lecter crime film, Michael Mann’s ‘Manhunter’.
Other movies in Farina’s filmography include Steven Spielberg’s ‘Saving Private Ryan’ (as Army Lieutenant Colonel Walter Anderson), ‘Striking Distance’, ‘Another Stakeout’, ‘Little Big League’, ‘Snatch’, ‘The Mod Squad’ and ‘Out of Sight’. He co-starred with Bette Midler in the romantic comedy ‘That Old Feeling’.
Farina demonstrated a flair for comedy. He won an American Comedy Award for his performance in ‘Get Shorty’ and starred in a television sitcom ‘In-Laws’, from 2002-03. He had a comic role opposite Ed Harris and Helen Hunt in the HBO production of ‘Empire Fall’s in 2005 and with Alan Rickman in 2008’s ‘Bottle Shock’.
In early 2005, Farina provided the voice of aging boxer-turned-superhero Wildcat on ‘Justice League Unlimited’.
Watching the detectives
The producers of the long-running television series ‘Law & Order’ hired Farina as Detective Joe Fontana after the retirement of Jerry Orbach, who played Lennie Briscoe. Farina stayed with the show for two years, but was not as popular with viewers as Orbach’s character had been. As a result, in May 2006, it was announced that Farina was leaving ‘Law & Order’ to pursue other projects, including 2007’s ‘You Kill Me’ opposite Ben Kingsley and 2008’s ‘What Happens in Vegas’ with Cameron Diaz and Ashton Kutcher.
His role of Detective Lt. Mike Torello on Crime Story was as a Chicago police officer, who was later seconded to the US Justice Department. In ‘Law & Order’ the back story for his character, Joe Fontana, was that he had worked for the Chicago police department’s homicide division before his transfer to the NYPD.
As is common on ‘Law & Order’, Fontana shared a number of other characteristics with the actor who plays him: they hail from the same Chicago neighborhood, attended the same parochial school, and have the same tastes in both clothes and music.
In October 2008, Farina became the new host of ‘Unsolved Mysteries’ when it returned to television with a new five-season, 175-episode run on Spike TV. Farina replaced Robert Stack, who had hosted the series for its entire original 15-year run before his death in 2003. The series would include re-edited segments from previous incarnations on NBC, CBS, and Lifetime (all originally hosted by Stack) as well as several new original stories.
Farina played the title role in a 2011 independent film, ‘The Last Rites of Joe May’, written and directed by Joe Maggio, shot on location in Chicago.
He co-starred in the 2012 HBO horse-race gambling series ‘Luck’, with Dustin Hoffman, directed by Michael Mann. He also had a recurring guest role in 2013 in the television comedy series ‘New Girl’.