NEW YORK -- You meet him, you have no doubt that Dennis Farina is a tough guy. Steel-gray hair; craggy face with this-means-business mustache; husky build. Besides, you already know he's a lifelong Chicagoan and ex-cop.
For more than two decades, Farina, 60, has been a character actor with remarkable dexterity and charm. He has films including "Midnight Run," "Get Shorty," "Saving Private Ryan" and "Out of Sight," a string of theater credits, and a 1980s cult-favorite TV series, "Crime Story."
Now he has joined the "Law & Order" ensemble, spelling Jerry Orbach, whose Detective Lennie Briscoe has retired from the street. (It airs 9 p.m. Wednesday on NBC.)
Farina brings a striking contrast to the slouchy hang-doggedness epitomized by Briscoe. Having transferred into Manhattan's 27th Precinct from Bronx Homicide, Detective Joe Fontana cuts a flashy figure in tailor-made suits and $300 silk shirts, with a swagger to match.
What's the secret behind the wad of bills he packs and the sports car he drives? You'll get only disjointed clues over time, says Farina, who quotes "Law & Order" creator Dick Wolf.
"He has this saying: 'We're gonna do things with eye droppers, not ladles,"' Farina reports with a chuckle.
Of course, you never did find out too much about the characters on "Law & Order": They're too busy solving and prosecuting crimes to indulge in self-disclosure. It's a formula that has not only kept this procedural drama on the air for 15 years and counting, but also spun off two progeny, with a third, "Law & Order: Trial By Jury" (to feature Orbach), due midseason.
"I only hope that I can do it some good, bring something fresh," says Farina, adding: "For me to start there, it was seamless, like I'd been doing it a long time. They said, 'Just stand here and say these words."'
But then, Farina has a habit of understating his acting chops.
"I don't know that I have a skill," he declares. "All that I know is, I'm open to a lot of suggestions."
He recalls the first scene he ever filmed in his 1981 debut film, "Thief." It was directed by Michael Mann, whom he had met through a mutual friend while still a Chicago detective.
"I knew what happened in street fights in reality, and I was talking it over with Michael. And he said, 'Well, that's very good. But for the movies, we have to do it this way.' And I said, 'Well, that's very interesting.'
"I remember going to the set that day and being intrigued by the whole thing," Farina goes on, in his careful, making-sure-we-understand-each-other cadence. "I thought, 'Wow, this is really interesting to me.' 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. I was a much younger guy at the time, so if somebody would have said something that I took the wrong way" -- he chuckles -- "it wouldn't have taken me too long to straighten him out."
It's become his policy: Hook up with nice people, do your job, and enjoy the fascination from everything that's going on around you. And keep your bearings through it all.
"I was older when I started doing this," Farina notes. "I was almost 40. I was a policeman for 18 years. So I wasn't that impressionable. I didn't fall for a lot of that stardom stuff."
Despite his many successes, Farina comes to "Law & Order" with a rap sheet: two TV flops.
In 1998, he starred as the L.A. detective title character of "Buddy Faro," an ambitious comedy-drama that attempted to blend a Rat Pack-retro style with contemporary action.
"I hope this doesn't sound egotistical," says Farina, "but I'm still upset to this day that the network didn't stick with that show. I loved that character."
Two years ago in the tepid sitcom "In-Laws," he played the fearsome father-in-law to Elon Gold as the quivering new husband of Farina's "little girl."
"Those writers really tried hard," he insists, "and more likely [the problem] was me, 'cause I was the one that was out there. But it just didn't work."
The outlook is far more promising on "Law & Order."
"I would love to be around for the next four or five years," he says, "if that's the way things happen. But I love Westerns more than anybody alive. I would love one day before this is all over to do a Western. That, and to play a priest."
Fine, but would Farina, a lifelong Catholic, prefer to play a good priest or a bad priest?
"I would say," he replies, exhibiting his sweet smile, "an interesting priest."
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EDITOR'S NOTE -- Frazier Moore can be reached at fmoore(at)ap.org