Wednesday, July 24, 2013

On Dennis Farina (RIP), Whom I Never Met but Wish I Had

Class. And a classy 'stache.
I've never been particularly starstruck. One time I met Spike Lee at a cocktail party following a speech he gave at my university, but instead of asking for his autograph or trying to push a script — one guy confronted him with a screenplay pitch that consisted of two minutes of rap — or land some sort of job with 40 Acres and a Mule, I peppered him with questions about Jungle Fever until he slowly made his escape in the direction of a pile of canap├ęs.

I will admit there are a couple of famous people that I would love to meet, around whom I would try to be all cool but would likely be tongue-tied and unable to utter/stutter more than, "I'm like a big fan."

One of them is Darryl McDaniels, aka DMC of Run-DMC. Another is Dennis Farina, who died Monday.

Thankfully, there have been plenty of tributes about the guy, so it's not as if he's not getting his due as a popular character actor (which is a benefit because I won't have to repeat the entire career retrospective you can easily find elsewhere), but I do have a few things to say about him.

I first saw Farina in Crime Story, an underrated and short-lived NBC series created by Michael Mann (developed after the success of his Miami Vice, in which Farina had a small role) that my father watched and I watched with him because in the mid-80s I had no personal life and nothing better to do on Friday nights.

He portrayed an Italian-American no-shit cop and in real life was a retired no-shit cop, and in physical appearance resembled my father, also an Italian-American no-shit guy (not a cop, but a blue collar worker) with the ability to grow a no-shit mustache that in 1985 I would have grown if I were able. Even as an adult (Dad still has the 'stache), I don't think I'm manly enough to grow one like that.

Next I saw him in Midnight Run, but it was hard to watch because I was used to him being a "good guy," and in this film he was a "bad guy" — I was still filing characters into "good" and "bad" categories, and wasn't yet able to fully appreciate a good villain ("good" having a different meaning here).

Granted, the Jimmy Serrano character was a bit more menacing than the goofier underworld criminals Farina would portray in Get Shorty and Snatch.

With very few exceptions, Farina never grabbed top billing, but his was the kind name that you'd see in the credits and go, "I can't wait until his character shows up." I caught brief glimpses of him in:

  • Men of Respect, a weird MacBeth-as-mafia-movie starring John Turturro (Farina played the Banquo character)
  • Mac, an award-winning (in Cannes) film co-written by and directed by and starring Turturro.
  • Thief, the Michael Mann debut starring James Caan and a soundtrack by Tangerine Dream; Farina has a sneeze-and-you'll-miss-him role as a thug.
  • Romeo Is Bleeding, another crazy movie in which he plays a mafia guy who's in a police-protected safehouse because he's about to give evidence against the mob. (Spoiler alert: the safehouse isn't very safe.)
He had a rare lead role opposite Bette Midler in Carl Reiner's That Old Feeling, the kind of movie that isn't very good but would result in a two-star review with a line like, "Subtract a star if you can't stand Bette Midler; add two stars if you like Dennis Farina."

The last thing I saw him in was Luck, the ill-fated (especially if you were a horse) HBO series about life at the racetrack. He portrayed a mysterious guy-Friday (Greek, I believe) and bodyguard to Dustin Hoffman, and did very little besides acting as Hoffman's sounding board until he had to thwart the murder of his boss in the final episode.

He thwarted it by choking out and then breaking the neck of the assassin during a close-combat struggle in the restroom, a very un-stylized and realistic fight scene. Then Farina, after positioning the assassin in a stall, cleans up and looks in the mirror, wordlessly — all we hear is the running water — his weary, craggy face and that mustache (gray now) saying more than any dialogue could.

Among my many unfulfilled fantasies (of a non-sexual nature) is the completion and sale of a script I worked on while in college. It was about a young man who bore an uncanny resemblance to myself, who has an uncle who is consigliere of a major mafia organization. The film opens with the boss, an unpleasant and hated fellow, being assassinated. Every one of the captains wishes to take over but is wary because (a) there was going to be extra heat from the FBI and (b) whoever took over would likely be the next victim of a coup.

So, Jack, the uncle, who claims to have no dog in the fight because he's only interested in being the consigliere, suggests letting his straight-arrow nephew take over "the business" (the legal aspects of the business, though the criminal elements would slowly seep into the day-to-day activities) for the summer, and then, after watching the other captains perform their duties, declare who would take over once he returned to school in the fall.

This would eventually lead (I never made it past page 40, so I'm not quite sure how) to the nephew trying to avoid the easy, illegal solutions to problems and coming up with novel ways to deal with crisis management. Then, maybe, he'd have to make a bold decision where he approves of a illegal action in an ends-justify-the-means sort of way, or something (I never figured out that part).

But then, somehow, some of the captains are getting rounded up by the feds or "accidentally" killed or something, and then Uncle Jack reveals to his nephew that the whole thing was a setup/double-cross to install his nephew as boss permanently, and the nephew has to make a decision along the lines of Luke Skywalker being offered the opportunity to rule the galaxy side-by-side with his pop.

And no, I wasn't exactly sure how I was going to pull any of it off, but the point is, I had Dennis Farina in mind for the uncle, even if the studio insisted on having a bigger name like De Niro or Pacino in the role.

As if that scenario would ever happen.

I eventually abandoned that screenplay and began work on other projects that would also be abandoned or suspended in the gelatinous limbo of "someday I'll get back to that," but because it was my first "real" writing project I ever attempted, it held a special place somewhere in my heart or some organ where sentimentality for unrealized creative works are maintained.

Now that Dennis Farina is as dead as my screenplay, I think I finally have some closure, even if that means I'll need to find a new character actor to obsess over.

And it also means it's time to start a new screenplay that I hope will star...John Turturro? David Paymer? William Russ? Delroy LindoFred Stoller?

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