And then, there’s the villain. Dennis Farina played Jimmy Serrano, the mob boss Grodin has embezzled from and who also has a previous history with De Niro. For roughly 85% of the film’s running time, Serrano is a wildly funny comedic villain. He continually threatens his flunkies with exaggerated bodily harm, saying things like, “I'm gonna tell you something. I want this guy taken out, and I want him taken out fast. You and that other dummy better start getting more personally involved in your work, or I'm gonna stab you in the heart with a f---in’ pencil. You got the message?” Serrano is hilarious and awesome and nobody (nobody!) could drop the F bomb like Dennis Farina did. But, in the third act, when he needs to be genuinely threatening, Farinia was able take Jimmy Serrano to a level that made him a truly scary and dangerous presence; the fun and games were over. When Serrano got serious, he was pretty terrifying.
One of the things I loved about last year’s Silver Linings Playbook was that it gave De Niro the best material he’s had to play in years. I’ve been a huge fan of Robert De Niro for years, and it all started for me in 1988 with my inaugural screening of Midnight Run. There’s no question, however, that Dennis Farina’s villain had a huge hand in that.
I’ve loved Dennis Farina in so many roles over the years, but like most character actors he had a niche he really excelled in. A real-life Chicago cop for 20 years before turning to acting later in life, Farina made his living playing both sides of the law, but usually gangsters. He was memorable as another comedic mobster in Get Shorty. His beatdown of Gene Hackman in that film is the stuff of legend. He worked regularly with Michael Mann and Guy Richie, doing some of the best work of his career is Mann’s aborted HBO series Luck. He has a priceless scene in Out of Sight (another personal favorite) as Jennifer Lopez’s father grilling Michael Keaton. He’s one of four actors to play the Jack Crawford role from the Hannibal Lecter series (Farina played him in Manhunter). Maybe it was the early career in law enforcement, but there was a reality the man brought to his work that was palpable. And, as Midnight Run so ably presents, he was adept at both comedy and drama, sometimes even in the same scene. Farina had a finger-popping, Rat Pack kind of sensibility he brought to his work. He was always the coolest guy in the room, except for when he wasn’t supposed to be.
As geeks, I think we tend to respond more to character actors than we do the big leading stars. I’m sure there’s a psychological explanation for that, having to do with our pop culture making us feel like outcasts and therefore unable to really relate to a Tom Cruise or a Julia Roberts. It might also be because the character actors are often way better than their leading counterparts. Have you ever sat back and asked yourself, “Why isn’t Alan Tudyck a bigger star?” I used to ask the same thing about Dennis Farina. Why wasn’t this guy a household name? God, he was good, and dead at only age 69. My heart goes out to his friends and family.
As I’ve reflected today on an artist whose work I’ve loved and respected, it seems to me that all of us in fandom owe a great debt to character actors who’ve done so much to bring our beloved characters to life. I wasn’t able to attend Comic-Con over the weekend (stupid job!), but I’ve seen the footage of Tom Hiddleston as Loki during the Marvel panel on Saturday. That, my friends, is the power of the character actor. Hiddleston brought the house down. And, so did the great Dennis Farina.