It’s fitting if, when you think of Dennis Farina, you think of one of his many crime-fighting characters. The formidable actor, who died Monday at age 69, spent almost 20 years as a police officer in Chicago before breaking out on the big screen in Michael Mann’s Thief in 1981. Over the years he’s played memorable characters from both sides of the law in films like Midnight Run and Get Shorty, while many probably remember him best for succeeding Jerry Orbach on Law & Order. He was the rarest of actors, one as at home doling one-liners on sitcoms (like New Girl, his most recent screen performance) as he was in dramatic epics like Saving Private Ryan.
In honor of the wildly funny, almost disarmingly talented actor, here’s a look back at his most memorable screen performances.
It was after a chance meeting with Michael Mann that Farina’s career would take an unexpected turn. The two shared a mutual friend, a retired cop, who was a writer on Thief. He ended up landing a small role as an enforcer for a high-level gangster. “I remember going to set that day and being intrigued by the whole thing,” he said in 2004. “I liked it. And everybody was extremely nice to me. If the people were rude and didn’t treat me right, things could have gone the other way.” For the next five years, Farina actually stayed active in the police force while acting on the side, finally retiring in 1986.
The short-lived NBC series, which ran for two seasons, represented a bit of art imitating life for Farina, who played a police detective in Chicago in the early 1960s. The gritty, slick period series continued the partnership between Farina and Mann, who also worked together on Miami Vice, Manhunter, and Luck.
The buddy comedy starring Robert De Niro and Charles Grodin is one of the best showcases of Farina’s comic chops, with the actor popping up sporadically to deliver blistering, foul-mouthed insults and cold threats as a Chicago mob boss.
Farina proves how unsettling and chilling an actor can be while simultaneously being, well, hilarious. In Get Shorty, he played mobster Ray “Bones” Barboni, delivering a master class in how to fire off the f-word with proper swagger opposite John Travolta and Gene Hackman.
Law & Order
Stepping in for the late Jerry Orbach for two seasons of Law & Order, Farina played Det. Joe Fontana in the same grand tradition of jaded weariness that Orbach trademarked for decades on the show, but with his own Farina flash.
Farina played Dustin Hoffman’s driver and all-around gofer in the blink-and-miss it HBO horseracing drama Luck in 2011. The series lasted only one season, due to controversy over the treatment of the show’s horses, but Farina was an expected standout on a show that never got the attention that it deserved.
Farina’s last screen performance before his death was a short arc as Nick’s (Jake Johnson) father on the Fox sitcom New Girl. He played the quintessential Farina role—a lovable schmuck—before the character passed away at the end of Season 2. Here’s the fitting advice he left for his fictional son on the show: “I want to make sure that you don’t miss out on the things in life that are happening when you’re not thinking. Because, believe you me, those are the best things in life.”