Dennis Farina: An Appreciation

*Please note that this article is an opinion-editorial.


This is going to date me, but I first became aware of Dennis Farina in 1988.  I was 20 years old, and I had just seen Midnight Run for the first of many times.  There’s a really strong chance you’ve never seen it, and that makes me a little sad.  Midnight Run is a buddy action comedy with Robert De Niro as a bounty hunter and Charles Grodin as an accountant who has skipped bail after being arrested for embezzling several million dollars from a Chicago mob boss.  De Niro’s character is charged with bringing Grodin in to stand trial, a trial that may never take place as Grodin’s character will surely be killed in prison.  Midnight Run is a triumph of execution.  Is it formulaic?  Absolutely.  Only people who’ve never seen a movie before won’t know how things are resolved.  It’s a buddy movie, after all.  Will the two mismatched characters wind up with a grudging respect for each other?  Of course they will.  The difference here is Midnight Run features a terrific script from George Gallo and sure-handed direction from veteran Martin Brest, who was just coming off a massive hit with Beverly Hills Cop.  And, Midnight Run had an amazing cast.  Both De Niro and Grodin (who was allowed to improvise a lot of his dialogue) give multiple layers to these characters.  Yes, you know where their relationship is headed, but it feels completely true and earned when you arrive there.  A scene late in the film where De Niro is reunited with his estranged teenage daughter gives more raw emotion than films like this usually offer.  It’s one of my five or six favorite movies of all time.   In a wild coincidence, the film celebrated its 25th anniversary over the weekend.

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.

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