At the end of 2011, a poster featuring a group of square-jawed characters in dark suits, legs slightly apart, started appearing in bus shelters around Chicago. The men — the group was all white men — looked like they might have gathered for a retirement party for one of their number. A police offer, perhaps. Maybe a military man. Perchance a Chicago alderman or former mayor.
Actually, the group was composed of Hollywood stars — Dennis Franz, Joe Mantegna, Gary Sinise, William Petersen and Dennis Farina. But there was not the slightest whiff of Malibu in the image. These were actors with serious roots in Chicago, brought together for the 100 Club, a charity that benefits the dependents of fallen police officers, firefighters and other first-responders. The Chicago club's chief executive is the former TV executive Joe Ahern. Comedian Tom Dreesen, who has promoted the club, is also in the picture. They may have made their living in Los Angeles, where the photo was taken, but they had absorbed none of that town's famous superficiality and certainly none of its California nonchalance. This, surely, was why most of them had spent much of their careers playing the very authority figures they resembled — detectives, investigators, beat cops, the occasional crime kingpin. Their bona-fides for playing such characters seems unimpeachable.
According to Rick Kogan, who reported at the time on the photo shoot that produced the poster, the picture took nine hours. Everyone was enjoying being together.
That group is one down now.
Farina, who looked like a cop not the least because he was one in Chicago for much of his life, died on Monday. He was 69. On Wednesday, his doctor reportedly said Farina was being treated for lung cancer at the time of his death. It is unlikely that this particular group will be admitting any replacements. Its values are old-school Chicago — and they're harder to come by these days.
Appearances notwithstanding, these actors are not entirely homogenous. They do not share all the same political views or personalities and Mantegna, in particular, has a jauntiness the others don't match. But they have a lot in common. As the news spread of Farina's death, some wrongly thought they were reading of the death of the other Dennis — Franz — who was not a real-life cop like Farina but had a look that has allowed him to play one on and off TV for more than 30 years.
None of them look like actors are supposed to look. They all treat the craft of acting with manly seriousness. They all can be intimidating in that familiar Chicago way. None of them much like talking to the press or dancing any kind of promotional jig. They do not suffer fools with ease. They all retain a fierce loyalty to the city that nurtured their careers. They all have been associated with charitable work, especially of the kind that produced this picture. They all are known for being decent to other Chicago actors who started where they started; in social-media circles this week, Chicago stage actors were recalling Farina's kindnesses to former compatriots who had headed to Los Angeles for pilot season.
Each of these men, to greater or lesser extent, also has a certain distance from, and a certain unease with, the Hollywood establishment — perhaps because most of them first did something else (Franz served in Vietnam). Among all the stories feeding Facebook and Twitter about Farina, some of the most telling were reports of the late actor's habit of purloining, for his pals, little semi-illicit souvenirs from the very posh hotels who would have fallen over themselves to give him anything he wanted. It indicates a man who does feel like he entirely belongs. This, of course, is why the movies brought Farina to Hollywood in the first place. Sometimes, just hiring the real thing is easier and better.
Farina did belong, of course, to Chicago, the city that claims all of these other actors. As they claim it back. Franz has shot footage promoting Chicago storefronts. Sinise likes to come back with his Lt. Dan Band and play benefits. This weekend, Petersen is opening a show, "Slow Girl" at the Steppenwolf Theatre Company (co-founder: Gary Sinise), playing a fellow who does not come easily to intimacy.
It's hard to overstate the centrality of these men in what the world still thinks of as Chicago culture. For sure, they do not make a diverse picture. For sure, they seem to belong more to a Daley Chicago than the more kinetic Emanuel Chicago. There's no question that the city is, to some extent, now fighting the tough, taciturn image these men represent to many. Being so well represented in crime drama is a double-edged sword, especially when a city has changed. Even Steppenwolf is a very different place now and, notably, run by Martha Lavey, a very strong woman.
But these actors are widely seen as decent men, mostly untouched by fame, loyal to their friends and their town, and deeply committed to veracity in art. They have done Chicago plenty of favors — it is possible for a city to change and yet still embrace these sons.
Farina, most of the tributes have said this week, was, first and foremost, a fine Chicago police officer, and he just went from there.
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