Familiar face joins force of ‘Law & Order’
NEW YORK — You meet him, you have no doubt that Dennis Farina is a tough guy. Steel-gray hair; craggy face with this-means-business mustache; husky build. Besides, you already know he’s a lifelong Chicagoan and ex-cop.
And yet … no one could be pleasanter and more self-effacing as, with an almost childlike sense of wonder, he discusses his second career: that of an unlikely star.
For more than two decades, Farina, 60, has been a character actor with remarkable dexterity and charm. He has films including “Midnight Run,” “Get Shorty,” “Saving Private Ryan” and “Out of Sight,” a string of theater credits, and a 1980s cult-favorite TV series, “Crime Story.”
Now he has joined the “Law & Order” ensemble, spelling Jerry Orbach, whose Detective Lennie Briscoe has retired from the street.
Farina brings a striking contrast to the slouchy hang-doggedness epitomized by Briscoe. Having transferred into Manhattan’s 27th Precinct from Bronx Homicide, Detective Joe Fontana cuts a flashy figure in tailor-made suits and $300 silk shirts, with a swagger to match.
What’s the secret behind the wad of bills he packs and the sports car he drivesâ¢ You’ll get only disjointed clues over time, says Farina, who quotes “Law & Order” creator Dick Wolf.
“He has this saying: ‘We’re gonna do things with eye droppers, not ladles,”‘ Farina reports with a chuckle.
Of course, you never did find out too much about the characters on “Law & Order”: They’re too busy solving and prosecuting crimes to indulge in self-disclosure. It’s a formula that has not only kept this procedural drama on the air for 15 years and counting, but also spun off two progeny, with a third, “Law & Order: Trial By Jury” (to feature Orbach), due midseason.
“I only hope that I can do it some good, bring something fresh,” says Farina, adding: “For me to start there, it was seamless, like I’d been doing it a long time. They said, ‘Just stand here and say these words.”‘
But then, Farina has a habit of understating his acting chops.
“I don’t know that I have a skill,” he declares. “All that I know is, I’m open to a lot of suggestions.”
He recalls the first scene he ever filmed in his 1981 debut film, “Thief.” It was directed by Michael Mann, whom he had met through a mutual friend while still a Chicago detective.
“I knew what happened in street fights in reality, and I was talking it over with Michael. And he said, ‘Well, that’s very good. But for the movies, we have to do it this way.’ And I said, ‘Well, that’s very interesting.’
“I remember going to the set that day and being intrigued by the whole thing,” Farina goes on, in his careful, making-sure-we-understand-each-other cadence. “I thought, ‘Wow, this is really interesting to me.’ 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. I was a much younger guy at the time, so if somebody would have said something that I took the wrong way” — he chuckles — “it wouldn’t have taken me too long to straighten him out.”
It’s become his policy: Hook up with nice people, do your job, and enjoy the fascination from everything that’s going on around you. And keep your bearings through it all.
“I was older when I started doing this,” Farina notes. “I was almost 40. I was a policeman for 18 years. So I wasn’t that impressionable. I didn’t fall for a lot of that stardom stuff.”
Despite his many successes, Farina comes to “Law & Order” with a rap sheet: two TV flops.
In 1998, he starred as the L.A. detective title character of “Buddy Faro,” an ambitious comedy-drama that attempted to blend a Rat Pack-retro style with contemporary action.
“I hope this doesn’t sound egotistical,” says Farina, “but I’m still upset to this day that the network didn’t stick with that show. I loved that character.”
Two years ago in the tepid sitcom “In-Laws,” he played the fearsome father-in-law to Elon Gold as the quivering new husband of Farina’s “little girl.”
“Those writers really tried hard,” he insists, “and more likely (the problem) was me, ’cause I was the one that was out there. But it just didn’t work.”
The outlook is far more promising on “Law & Order.”
“I would love to be around for the next four or five years,” he says, “if that’s the way things happen. But I love Westerns more than anybody alive. I would love one day before this is all over to do a Western. That, and to play a priest.”
Fine, but would Farina, a lifelong Catholic, prefer to play a good priest or a bad priest?
“I would say,” he replies, exhibiting his sweet smile, “an interesting priest.” Additional Information:
‘Law & Order’
10 p.m. Wednesday, NBC