NEW YORK, July 23, 2013 — The entertainment industry lost a great one with the death of actor Dennis Farina on Monday at the age of 69. Farina played tough guys because he was one in real life. While his talents contained a wide range, he was most comfortable playing the role of a Chicago cop. This is because before he turned to acting, he actually was a Chicago police officer. After over a decade on the beat, he took a small role in a film as a consultant and soon found himself transitioning into acting.
In the 1980s, he starred in the program “Crime Story,” playing Lieutenant Michael Torello of the Major Crimes Unit. Set in 1963 Chicago, Torello and his MCU were charged with bringing down mobster Ray Luca, played by Anthony Denison.
Late in his career, Farina played Officer Frank Fontana on “Law and Order.” He was a Chicago cop who relocated to New York.
While Farina was a great actor, it is his characters that will be the cause of political debates long after many of us are gone. While Farina’s cop alter egos got the job done, they often came dangerously close to crossing the line if not outright breaking the law. The battle between enforcing civil liberties at all costs and getting results and arresting the bad guys is a debate where plenty of shades of gray exist. Farina was at his best when engaging in scenes that would give Constitutional lawyers heartburn.
Crime Story was set before Miranda laws were in effect. In one scene Luca was screaming at his henchman Paul “Paulie” Taglia to buy cheaper meat. Torello enters, beats up Paulie because he feels like it, dumps him on the table, and says, “You can’t get any cheaper than this.”
In one scene he gets in Luca’s face and screams, “One step Ray, into one of your own casinos, to count your own money, drink your own booze, or bop one of your own broads, and you’re going to the joint.”
In another scene he yells, “Hey Walter, give them the warrant.” Fellow officer Walter drives his truck through a mobster’s iron gates, breaking them. Torello yells out, “There’s your warrant.” Another scene has a mobster smugly telling Torello that without a warrant, an arrest will never happen. The mobster has a briefcase containing illegally skimmed casino profits. Torello replies, “Stupid, we’re not here to arrest you. We’re here to rob you, beat the hell out of you, and take all your money.”
One great scene sees Torello’s MCU break up an illegal gambling ring to get a low-level criminal. They push all the gangsters to the wall, put the money in the center of the room, and burn it. The mobsters later meet with a top crime boss and say, “These people burn money.” They give up the low-level guy.
While civil libertarians would be against these police tactics, they were being used against mobsters. Justification was that the accused criminals were actually guilty. In the very first episode Torello lies on the witness stand in a trial against Paulie. Torello later tells his prosecutor friend that Paulie “was a bustout since the day he was born.”
On Law and Order, Officer Fontana continued his rough ways. When a criminal kidnaps a young girl, Fontana wants to know the girl’s whereabouts. When the criminal replies, “screw you,” Fontana dunks his head in the toilet three times and holds him submerged until the criminal talks. The girl is rescued safe and sound.
Without completely denying his behavior, he tells skeptical prosecutors that whatever the criminal alleged, “I say the exact opposite.” On the stand, Fontana coolly says, “I detained him.” The criminal is convicted, but the episode ends with the defense attorney asking the prosecutor a question. What if Fontana submerged the criminal’s wife, mother, or dog, to save the girl. Then are we fine with that behavior?
Was Dennis Farina just a great actor, pretending to be the guy many cops wish they could be? Or was he acting out of actual experiences?
Too many people believe policemen are always the good guys or bad guys. Life is far more complex, and in one heartbreaking introspective scene, Torello laments being a “lousy cop but a pretty good dispenser of justice.”
With murder rates in Chicago at astronomical levels, even some liberals are clamoring for less bureaucracy and more law and order.
Farina bought depth to his roles because he was a deep actor and because the questions about such police behaviors are substantial and important ones.
In a world of Hollywood that is often trite and shallow, Farina brought grit, heft, and substance to his roles. He was them. He lived and breathed them. Long before he was Frank Fontana or Michael Torello, he was Officer Dennis Farina and then actor Dennis Farina.
The discussions he began will continue forever. He will be missed.
Brooklyn born, Long Island raised, and now living in Los Angeles, Eric Golub is a politically conservative columnist, author, public speaker, and satirist. Eric is the author of the book trilogy “Ideological Bigotry, “Ideological Violence,” and “Ideological Idiocy.
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