Dennis & Me: Remembering Dennis Farina
July 24, 2013
Actor Dennis Farina died Monday morning at his home in Scottsdale, Arizona at the age of 69. Medical reports indicate a blood clot. Genuine, well-deserved praise has splashed across the Internet in honor of this former Chicago-cop-turned-television-and-film-actor. Media coverage has repeatedly mentioned his last two movies, both yet to be released, “Lucky Stiff” and “Authors Anonymous.”
That’s where I come in. I wrote that last movie, a comedy about unpublished writers, which used to be called “Scribble.” The part of gruff military veteran John K. Butzin, who finds himself lost in the quagmire of self-publishing, was first offered to Dennis back in 2009 when we had a different producing team and the illusion of filming in Iowa.
The Iowa production never got off the ground, but Dennis remained interested in the role and three years later, we tried again, this time in Los Angeles, where the story is actually set. As a first-time screenwriter, I was thrilled to see the cast that was assembled, being a big fan of actors like Kaley Cuoco, Teri Polo, and Chris Klein. But Dennis Farina? Man, I kept giving myself the proverbial pinch.
Why not? After all, this was the Dennis Farina from some of my favorite movies: “Midnight Run,” “Out of Sight,” “Get Shorty,” and “Snatch.” This was the actor I associate with such great movie lines as “I don’t want this guy to get an hour older,” or ”Is this Moron Number 1? Put Moron Number 2 on the phone,” or “Anything to declare? Yeah, don’t go to London.”
When we finally went into production, Dennis did not disappoint. I remember the first time I saw him in action. It was last August, on a blistering hot afternoon in downtown Burbank, the fifth day of shooting for “Authors Anonymous.”
Our location that day was your basic hamburger joint, right next to the liquor store. All the windows were covered with a thick tarp, creating the illusion of night because that’s what the script called for. A writer’s main job on a movie set is to stay out of the way unless needed, so I was hiding out behind the counter in the cramped kitchen, next to the make-up woman and the production assistant in charge of the fan machine.
The temperature inside felt stifling. The other actors had already done multiple scenes together in those early days. Dennis was the last to arrive, the missing piece of the casting jigsaw puzzle. He strolled inside the restaurant without fanfare, dressed in a bush vest as per Butzin’s character, ready to go, thinner and more gray than I remembered.
I had to crane my neck to see him over all the camera equipment, watching as Dennis took his place at the table with our other “writers.” He knew his lines. He knew his timing. These six actors had never worked together before, but something clicked right away. I could immediately sense the difference Dennis was bringing to the room.
Those of us back in the kitchen had to cover our mouths to keep from laughing out loud as John K. Butzin, published author, sprang to life. Damn, this guy is funny. Dennis stuck to the page mostly, but he also liked to ad lib a few zingers to spice up the dialogue, never doing it the same way twice. Between takes, he was friendly, polite, making easy banter with the cast and crew, ignoring the heat. Never complaining.
Our paths finally crossed that night during the dinner break. He was the one cast member I was reticent about meeting–I mean this was the guy who had held his own with Robert DeNiro and Gene Hackman and Tom Hanks. “Hi, I’m Dave. I’m the writer” was all I could spit out as we shook hands. He threw me off guard with his warm response, wanting to know more about me, praising my writing, delighted that we had finally secured funding. Dennis Farina was talking to me–and not threatening to bash my nose in with a phone. That was the moment. That was the moment I became a Hollywood writer.
And so it began. I wish I could tell you that Dennis and I became tight and hung out together over the new few weeks, hitting the town and closing down late-night bars. I suppose I could make up a couple stories about playing golf with Dennis on days off and how he insisted we stay in touch once filming wrapped. It wasn’t that way.
No, it was more subtle, but just as meaningful. Little things, like making the point of calling me by name. Like plopping down on the couch next to me and chatting about Chicago between takes instead of retreating off into his trailer. Like thanking me personally for the Butzin character–he wanted the writer to know how much fun he was having, despite the heat, in this role.
When I think of Dennis, I think of Canoga Park and a sun-baked, barren mobile home park where the temperature hovered around 115 the day we came to shoot. The Butzin character lived in a mobile home. We had it for one day. The schedule called for a group scene in the morning and then Dennis had to knock off 1-2-3-4-5-6 other scenes, some with co-star Tricia Helfer, some pure monologue. On any day, this would be a grueling schedule. In this heat, with the air-conditioning off for filming, it seemed hellishly impossible.
Dennis knocked off scene after scene without complaint, wearing that damn bush vest the entire time. He stumbled a bit as the afternoon wore on, trying to remember key lines, not wanting to veer too far off script, apologizing profusely to the crew for the additional takes. Butzin has a bittersweet monologue near the end of the film and Dennis nailed it word for word effortlessly, making this character his own. This is how it’s done. The guy showed up on time. Knew his lines. Remained professional and courteous. Never complained. Never demanded. The crew broke out into well-deserved applause for Dennis as we wrapped for the day.
I also think of Dennis on our final day of shooting, this time at a house in Sherman Oaks. The last scene we shot actually comes halfway throughout the movie, but that’s just the way the production logistics worked out. As per our routine, it took multiple takes before director Ellie Kanner finally yelled “Cut!” and cast and crew spilled out into the back yard to pop the celebratory champagne. True to form, Dennis was the last actor to leave the party, making sure he said his goodbyes. He was heading back to Scottsdale, play a little golf, maybe next do a movie in Italy. Charlotte snapped a photo of us together and it was time for him to go.
“You should write your memoir,” I told him. He scoffed as he walked away. “Nah,” Dennis said, sounding a bit like Ray “Bones” Barboni, “I’m just a character actor.” That’s the last time I saw him.
Yesterday, our producer Hal Schwartz posted this on Facebook: “The only thing that exceeded Dennis Farina’s talent was how incredibly nice a man he was. He delivered such a funny and soulful performance in ‘Authors Anonymous’ and it saddens me deeply that he died today without ever seeing the film. RIP Dennis. You will be missed by everyone who had the pleasure of knowing you.”
I agree, Hal. I can only repeat what I posted yesterday as I mourn the loss of a great actor and a truly nice guy, the man who gave me my first real Hollywood moment. I will never forget him. I will never forget his kindness. I will never forget how he treated me as a colleague. Every Hollywood writer should be blessed to have the chance to work with an actor like Dennis Farina. Thank you, Dennis.
David Congalton is the writer of the screenplay “Authors Anonymous.”