RIP, Dennis Farina: A Man With a South Florida Touch

It's a cold day in Miami Beach when we first meet Ray Barboni. So cold, the radio says it might reach 34 degrees. Barboni walks over to Chili Palmer (played by John Travolta) and cracks himself up saying, "It's chilly outside and Chili inside." That opening scene of Get Shorty exemplified what was so great about the actor who played Barboni, Dennis Farina: A frightening combination of menace with a sense of humor that no one on screen appreciated as much as he did.

Farina died yesterday at age 69 from a blood clot in his lung. Chicago will always rightly claim Farina as its son. He was a Chicago policeman for many years before making it as an actor. He proudly spoke with that city's accent, notably in the most rewatchable movie of all time, Midnight Run, in which he plays the villainous Mob boss who called his henchmen to ask "Is this Moron Number One? Put Moron Number Two on the phone."

But South Florida can lay some claim to Farina as well. He portrayed three fantastic characters in Miami.

The first was before his mustache turned gray. He was Al Lombard, the gambling kingpin in three episodes of Miami Vice. He had one of Sonny's buddies killed only to change before flipping and agreeing to help bring down his boss at the cost of his own life.

Then there was Steven Soderbergh's criminally underrated Out of Sight in which Farina played JLo's supportive father. He obviously raised his daughter Miami-style, as she paraded around in a too-short Dan Marino jersey as he spent his days fixing his boat. He read the Miami Herald as her federal-agent boyfriend entered the house (played by Michael Keaton) wearing a T-shirt that read "FBI." "Tell me, Ray," he asked his daughter's beau, "do you ever wear one that says undercover?" Again, no one on screen laughs.

But it's another Elmore Leonard adaptation that will most connect Dennis Farina with Miami. "I'm Ray Barboni from Miami," he identifies himself in Get Shorty after flying to L.A. to beat up a film producer and before fatally shooting another gangster. In this role, no one can laugh at his jokes because he's too busy pummeling and abusing them.

In a film filled with great character performances from Gene Hackman to Delroy Lindo to Danny DeVito to James Gandolfini, Farina owns Get Shorty. Strutting around with a comically busted nose as a consequence of stealing Chili Palmer's jacket, Farina borrows heavily from his performance in Midnight Run but gives it a South Florida touch. You see a Ray Barboni, with a wisecracking attitude, heavy tan, and pastel sports coat, every time you step into Gulfstream Park.

Next time you come across one of these types, make certain to stay silent at his mean-spirited jokes. It's a fitting tribute, as no one on screen ever appreciated Farina's humor they way we all did in the theater.

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David Rolland is a freelance writer for New Times Broward-Palm Beach and Miami New Times. His novel, The End of the Century, published by Jitney Books, is available at many fine booksellers.
Contact: David Rolland