CHICAGO – Dennis Farina had the sort of Chicago neighborhood face you’d find behind the tap at a corner tavern, standing at first base on a softball diamond or lugging your new icebox up the stairs. As he said to a Chicago Tribune reporter nearly 20 years ago: “I spend all day walking around this city. I always come back here. This is where I’m comfortable.”
The actor – famous for his work in such films as “Get Shorty,” “Saving Private Ryan” and “Midnight Run,” and in television shows such as “Crime Story” and “Law & Order” – died suddenly Monday morning in Scottsdale, Ariz., after suffering a blood clot in his lung. He was 69.
Though he spent much of his time in warm climes, Farina still had a home here, to keep in close touch with family members and lifelong friends.
Farina was born Feb. 29, 1944, the youngest of the seven children of Iolanda, a homemaker, and Joseph Farina, a Sicilian immigrant doctor.
After a hitch in the Army he went to work in the South Water produce market for a time. At the suggestion of one of his brothers, he took and passed the entrance exam for the Chicago Police Department and started as a patrolman on the North Side; he became a detective four years later.
His acting career began in 1981 when director Michael Mann – in Chicago scouting locations for his film “Thief” – met Farina and gave him a bit part in the movie.
A friend suggested that Farina circulate his picture to various Chicago agents, which, in turn, led to his being cast in an episode on “Chicago Story,” where he met John Mahoney, who persuaded Farina to audition for a role in “A Prayer For My Daughter,” at Steppenwolf. Farina subsequently appeared in local theater, in TV shows such as “Hunter,” “Miami Vice” and “Remington Steele,” and in such locally filmed movies as “Code of Silence” and “The Naked Face.”
“When I first got into acting, I never had any long-term goals, never had any plan,” he said to the Tribune in 1988. “I just thought it would be a good way to make some extra money.”
In 1985, Farina was cast opposite William L. Petersen in “Manhunter” and set to start filming episodes of a new TV series titled “Crime Story.”
He turned in his badge after nearly 20 years, and from that year forward his career was one of enviably steady employment, with parts large and small in such films as “Get Shorty,” “Snatch” and “Midnight Run”; and dozens of TV appearances, including his role as host of “Unsolved Mysteries” and the high-profile part of natty Detective Joe Fontana on “Law & Order,” from which he departed in 2006.
“I had made a two-year deal, and I was just tired of the part,” he told the Tribune in 2010.
“There is a lot of exposition on the show. There wasn’t a lot of opportunity for the character to expand. It’s a plot-driven show.”
Farina is survived by three sons, Dennis Jr., Michael and Joseph, from his first marriage, which ended in divorce in 1980; six grandchildren; and longtime companion Marianne Cahill.