Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Meeting Dennis Farina when he was officer friendly; future TV and film star

Before Dennis Farina became a popular, noteworthy actor, and while he worked as a Chicago Police officer, he also moonlighted evenings here and there at area teen clubs as a security bouncer.

My best friend Sue and I were regulars at these clubs and venues when we weren't working our various odd jobs. In 1969, in addition to being a high school student, I personally worked a total of 14 different part-time jobs over the course of the year, at places with names such as Bum Steer Restaurant, Rose Grill and Morrie's Clothing.

During our free time, dancing was what it was all about as far as Sue and I were concerned. I toned down the hippie garb a couple of levels when we danced at the rather collegiate Deep End Teen Club in Park Ridge versus romps through the psychedelic Kinetic Playground in Chicago.

One warm spring Wednesday night, Sue and I walked the three miles from our Chicago neighborhood to the Deep End. By the time we arrived, a long line of people fanned outside, waiting along the tall wooden fence surrounding the patio. The regular entry door where you paid your $1 to $5, depending on who was playing that night, was yards ahead of us.

“Hey, Sue, give me a boost,” I said. I wanted to see if we knew anyone already inside hanging out in the patio. As Sue held my feet, I grabbed onto the top of the fence. I pulled myself up, only to come face-to-face with a handsome, full-grown man in a dark uniform.

“Going somewhere?” he asked, slyly. I made a high, little gasp and reeled back, not from being caught snooping, but because he was so gorgeous. With feet now firmly back on the sidewalk, I looked up. He looked down on us over the fence, which was six feet tall itself. He was taller. Eight feet?

“You’re mighty tall,” Sue called up to him. “I’m not short,” he said. Then he paused and looked as us askew. “What do you think? I’m standing on a box.”

“Sure you are,” said Sue. “You’re probably a midget.” A look passed over his face as if he caught himself, annoyed to have let the banter go too far with teenage girls.

“Are you girls trying to sneak in?” he said, in a mock authoritarian tone. “My friend Cindy here only wanted to see who was in there,” Sue said. “What’s the hold-up getting in, anyway?”

“They just opened,” he said. “I guess everyone showed up at once, including you two.”

I examined him with fascinated curiosity. Deep End hired a number of moonlighting police officers like himself from Park Ridge and Chicago to work as bouncers for a few hours each evening. Parents in the area had complained that their children were coming home from Deep End inebriated. It wasn’t because the Deep End served liquor. They did not.

The Deep End had opened to give teenagers something to do and somewhere to go where liquor or drugs weren’t part of the scene. Nevertheless, certain kids entered with hidden flasks of whiskey or marijuana joints in their pockets. Bouncers weren’t as concerned with kids sneaking in as they were with kids handing six-packs of beer or other contraband over the fence to friends already inside.

Sue and I liked to chat up the cop bouncers. Most had both textured, carefree senses of humor and more mature, polished bearings than most of the silly teenage boys our own age. There was Farrell, a wise-cracking Irish-American Park Ridge cop who often played the grump, but had a warm heart. There was Showalter, a former Taftite who had Miss Marquardt as homeroom teacher. When I told him she was still at Taft High and my current homeroom teacher, he said, “She’s still alive? Miss Marquardt must be 100 years old.” I once told Showalter that he looked like Hugh Hefner, the kingpin of the Playboy empire. He said in response, “Oh no! That fag?”

I looked up again at the tall, beautiful man on the other side of the fence. A newbie. “Do you know Farrell or Showalter?” I said. “Am I supposed to?” he said. “What’s your name?” I asked. “Dennis,” he said. “No, your last name. We call all the cops here by their last name,” I said. “Farina,” he said. “Dennis Farina.”

“Isn’t farina just another name for cream of wheat?” said Sue. “What if we call you Cream of Wheat?” The head disappeared from the top of the fence as he got off his box on the other side. “Oh, he’s mad now, Sue,” I said, turning to her. A huge portion of the fence swung open. I never knew that part of the fence held a door-like panel that opened on hinges. Dennis Farina stood there, at his actual height of six-feet, two inches, holding the panel open for us.

“Get in here,” he said. We entered the Deep End patio and he closed the panel. “Are we in trouble?” I asked. “No, I’m just getting sick of listening to you. Go inside and leave me alone to do my job,” he said. “You mean you’re letting us in for free?” I asked.

He then turned his back, pretending as if he didn’t see us. Sue and I ran up the patio stairs into the club and danced the night away doing the "Funky Broadway," the "Boogaloo" and other dances of the era as local bands covered Motown favorites, or groups like the New Colony Six and Blood, Sweat and Tears played original material.

From then on, when Farina was on duty, we stopped to chat once or twice a night. We tried to behave ourselves and not act too silly, but it was hard. At age 16, “Silly” could often be both our middle names.

Farina grew up in the St. Michael Church, Old Town area, with his Italian father and German mother, by heritage. “My area was a poor, Italian neighborhood before the hippies came in and gentrified the place,” he said. “But it was a solid neighborhood. My parents lived there for decades. Now even they can no longer afford the neighborhood anymore.” They were forced to move to a less expensive residential area far west of Old Town. He was upset that what he once called home wasn’t the home he had once known.

By day, Farina served as a rookie cop on the Chicago police force, then worked at Deep End and at some of the area Catholic church teen clubs a few nights a week. When he’d see us at the Catholic venues, he’d just sigh and roll his eyes. “Not you two, again. Can’t I get away from you for one evening?” he’d say.

On one particular three-mile walk back to our neighborhood after Deep End closed, we spied Farina sitting in a corner coffee shop. He was wearing his police hat low on his head, the glow of the restaurant contrasting both the dark night and his chiseled, rugged face.

“He’s like ‘Nighthawks’ by Edward Hopper,” I said. “Remember we saw that painting at the Art Institute, Sue? The people sitting at the restaurant counter in the middle of the night? Farina’s a work of art,” I said.

Sue answered, “I wouldn’t go quite that far."

Another time, right in front of Farina, Sue said, “Cindy’s got a crush on you.” I was embarrassed, but only for a moment. “But I’m old enough to be your father,” Farina said. He was about 12 years older than I, 28 to my 16. “You might be old enough to be my brother, not my father,” I said. Somehow, that didn’t seem to impress Farina.

One night in late spring, Farina was on duty at Deep End as usual. “Some day I’m going to be far away from here and not a cop anymore,” he mused out loud.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“What I really want to be is an actor,” he said.

“And I want to run as Senator for the state of Connecticut,” Sue said.

“I just don’t want to be an actor,” he said. “I will be an actor. It’s going to happen.” Sue just laughed him off, but I could tell he was serious. In the midst of his intensity, his pronouncement seemed prophetic, as if it really would come true.

About a week later, Farina came up to Sue and me. “This is it. Tonight’s my last night,” he said.

“What? You’re leaving?” I said.

“I can’t take these places anymore,” he said. “Too much nonsense for what they pay me.”

We both couldn’t blame him and told him we’d miss him. He picked up his paycheck from the owners and took off early. Sue and I watched as he walked away, headed back down the block to his car, back toward Chicago down Touhy Avenue. Sue looked over to me.

I watched Farina and his elegant long legs move almost in slow motion farther and farther away from us. “Somehow, I feel that man might haunt me the rest of my life,” I said. And as it turned out, in a strange, unexpected way, he did. Just when I thought I’d forgotten him, he’d turn up in living color on a billboard, in TV shows such as “Crime Story,” “Law & Order” or “Unsolved Mysteries,” or movies such as “Get Shorty” or “What Happens in Vegas.”

Coincidentally, Farina’s character’s name on “Law & Order” was the same as one of my high school classmates who was also a Deep End regular, Joe Fontana (who coincidentally also became an actor).

Of course, I got over my teenage angst. When I witnessed various celluloid, four-color process and digital images of Farina, I really wasn’t “haunted” in the strict sense, but happy instead to be reminded of him, delighted to see what a success he had made for himself. Farina’s dreams of Hollywood came true, in a realm as far away from the Deep End of things as you might possibly get. #

RIP Dennis Farina -- July 22, 2013

(excerpted from Cynthia Gallaher's memoir-in-progress: "Year of 14 Jobs")