July 22, 2013   by Mark Wilson

Most people like meeting a celebrity now and then.  If you hang out in Hollywood long enough, you’re bound to see a Kardashian.  Make your way to Las Vegas and Paris Hilton or Charlie Sheen won’t be far behind.  Even in Detroit you never know when you’ll catch a glimpse of Kid Rock, Thomas Hearns, Anita Baker or Jeff Daniels.

By the way Jeff— kick ass start to this season of “The Newsroom” on HBO.

Being in the radio and TV business affords us the opportunity to meet more than our share of celebs.  Obviously we get to talk to sports figures all the time but there are plenty of actor/politician/culinary/reality star sightings that we get regularly.  I added “culinary” in there because let’s face it— where would we REALLY be without the Food Network or Guy Fieri’s “Diners, Drive-In’s and Dives?’

I am digressing WAY too much.

The great character actor Dennis Farina passed away suddenly from a blood clot in his lung.  He was 69.

Farina was a guy who really did live the “American Dream.”  A leap year baby born in Chicago on February 29, 1944 during World War II, Farina became a Chicago cop and worked the burglary division for 18 years.  He was on the beat during the rioting in April of 1968 after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King.  It wasn’t until age 37 that Farina caught the “acting bug.”

After serving as a police consultant for director Michael Mann, Farina got cast in the 1981 film “Thief” with James Caan.  It was just a small role but Farina was hooked.

He never stopped working after that.

Back in Chicago, he left the force to act in various small productions shot out of the Windy City.  By 1984, Farina found himself portraying Albert Lombard on episodes of NBC’s “Miami Vice.”  TV parts, including 46 episodes of “Law and Order,” would come frequently all the way up until his death.

Recently, he was in two HBO series, “Luck” and “Empire Falls.”  On network television he had a recurring role as Nick’s dad on FOX’s “New Girl.”  He was also the face, and still was as of last week, for Xfinity in their Comcast commercials.

dennis-farinaHe had that rough and tumble face alright.  If he didn’t LOOK like a cop… no one did.  And, he had that incredible crop of silver hair.  You may not have always remembered his name but you sure knew that face and hair.

In Hollywood, he was known as the consummate support player.  His movies, other than “Thief”, included “Midnight Run,” “Romeo is Bleeding,” “Get Shorty,” “Saving Private Ryan,” “Reindeer Games,” “What Happens in Vegas,” and “Out of Sight.

The latter was shot in Detroit and included George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez.

Impressive resume for a guy who thought he would be pounding the pavement his entire life toting a badge and gun in Chicago blues.

I bring all this up because one of my favorite celebrity sightings happens to be Mr. Farina.

Late 1997, I took a job interview trip down to Miami for a television sports gig at the new “Wami Miami TV.”  I had worked in Miami back in the mid-80’s or right about the same time Farina began working on “Miami Vice.”  I remember going to one of the exterior sets they used but saw no Farina, Don Johnson or Philip Michael Thomas.

“C’mon Crockett and Tubbs!”  I said to myself on a steamy hot Miami afternoon when no stars were on set.

WTVJ Channel 4 was the CBS affiliate at the time.  Years ago they switched to NBC 6.  I was kind of intrigued by a return to South Florida 13 years later.

When I was done with the interview I called my then-agent to tell him about the meet and greet.  It had taken place in “Wami’s” makeshift offices in Miami Beach at the Lincoln Road Mall.  If you’ve been there you know it’s not really a “mall.”  It’s more like an outdoor hodge podge of stores and restaurants.  For some reason, I was on a pay phone which is weird to me because I know I already had a cell phone.  But, back on those days— less we forget— there were no “one-rate” plans and it was expensive to always use the cell to make long distance calls.

I was wrapping up the call when I looked up to see Dennis Farina, or someone that looked just like him, walked by a few feet away.  Being the loudmouth celebrity sighter that I am, I did what anyone would have done.

I yelled at the guy.

“Hey!  Dennis Farina!  How you doing?”

Not taking into account what I would have had to say if it WASN’T him, he broke into that trademark smile and walked right over.  He extended his hand for a shake and said, “Great!  How you doing?”

The creepy part, if it isn’t creepy already, was that we were both wearing the exact same thing.  I had on a white button down shirt (no tie), navy blue double-breasted blazer with gold buttons, tan linen pants and black loafers.

Minus an ascot, captain’s boat hat and pocket square, we looked like extras from a bad Thurston Howell III nightmare.

We could have gone to the Howell cotillion!  That was for all you old “Gilligan’s Island” fans.

Well, let me tell you— the dude couldn’t have been nicer.  Instead of just waving and walking past, Dennis Farina stopped to talk.  It was a beautiful day with amazingly low humidity on Miami Beach.  I guess he just had nowhere to be that particular moment.

Then again, I had just seen the movie, “Eddie” that he did with Whoopi Goldberg and Frank Langella.  That’s why it was so odd seeing him walk by.  Since he came up to me I figured I would go mile-a-minute to prevent him from leaving just as fast.

I forced Farina to say thanks about a hundred times.

“Eddie” is not the greatest flick ever.  However, it has its moments.  Farina plays the coach of the New York Knicks and Goldberg is a fan who heckles Farina at a game.  She wins a contest at halftime to coach the second half and since the Knicks sucked, the owner (played by Langella) fires Farina and hires Whoopi to coach full time.  Hilarity and hijinx ensue.

Come to think of it— that’s what the PISTONS should have done.  Oh well; maybe next time, Joe.farina

If you care, the movie ends with the Knicks having to beat the Charlotte Hornets to make the playoffs.  Farina (as Coach John Bailey) has been hired by then to coach the Hornets.  Real NBA players were in the film.  Larry Johnson, an actor in his own right when he played Grand-ma-ma in the Nike ads, misses the game winning shot and Farina’s team loses to Goldberg’s and that was that.  There was some subplot about Langella moving the team to St. Louis but Whoopi exposes the plan so they stay in New York, blah blah blah.

See?  I told you; hilarity!  Moving the Knicks to St. Louis?

In any event, I think I might have detailed what I just typed to Farina standing next to me at a Miami Beach pay phone.  He didn’t look bored for a second.

Outstanding actor!

Then he did something he didn’t have to do.  He said he was on his way to the famous “News Café” to have a beer.  He asked me to join him.  Ironically, I was going to go to the “News” for lunch.  Seriously.  I was.  It’s one of the greatest people watching places on earth.  Hot models in bikinis sashaying by the outside patio up and down Ocean Drive or as it is now called, “Deco Drive.”

Great minds think alike.  The food is ok but nothing compared to just sitting there watching the action across from the Atlantic

I had lunch, Farina had a couple of brews and, knowing he was from Chicago, we talked about his love of all things Cubs.  He was kind of famous for being one of the biggest Cub baseball fans anywhere.

He really lit up when I mentioned I grew up in Chicago and was a Wrigley Field junkie as a kid.  Farina said he was there when Hall of Fame shortstop/first baseman Ernie Banks made his major league debut in 1953.  He might have said he was there when Don Cardwell threw his no-hitter in 1960.  Yeah, I think he said that.

We talked about those 60’s Cubs of Banks, Billy Williams, Fergie Jenkins and Ron Santo.  I told him Santo was my athletic idol and I was in a picture of all those guys when I was around 10 years old.  I had my little Cubs’ helmet on and everything.

“Me too!” he belted out as more bikini chicks slid by.

I say “slid” because it seems that they slide more than they walk.

Farina started asking me questions when he learned why I was in Miami in the first place.  He actually looked fascinated when I told him I did sports on TV and radio.

More fantastic acting!

He talked about being on “Vice” and other projects.  He told me he was going to be in a movie remake of the “Mod Squad” with Claire Danes.  Farina also talked about shooting “Out of Sight” which actually took place in Bloomfield Hills.  I told him I lived a stones throw from where the production was.

In all, we spent about an hour and a half at the “News Café.”  When the check came, he grabbed it and wouldn’t let me pay.  I argued but then I saw that “face.”  This was a man that carried a gun legally in Illinois for two decades.  I wasn’t about to elongate the argument.

I gave him my card, thanked him for the time and lunch and said that if he was ever in Detroit again to ring me up on whatever phone I had listed on that damn card.

“You put me on your show!?’ he asked with emphasis.

“Uh, hell yeah of course,” was my less than brilliant reply.

He told me we could talk Tigers’ baseball and that he loved Sparky Anderson.  Sparky was two years removed as manager at that point and Buddy Bell was “now” skipper.  Also, one of his “current” favorite players was Tigdennis-farina-2078609ers’ third baseman Travis Fryman.  It was right before T-Fry was traded to Arizona and eventually to Cleveland.

I joked with him before he walked off that we might have to change that idea if I ended up taking the Wami Miami TV gig.  He laughed, shook my hand again and gave me a big-eyed expression and grin as he left the café right behind one of South Beach’s finest bikini-clad talents.

“How cool was that?” I thought.

Clooney and J-Lo could have sauntered by that pay phone and it would NOT have been as cool as Farina.

As I left to go back to my rental car, I realized I never found out why he was tooling around SoFla.  Maybe he was doing a movie, maybe he had a place, maybe he was on vacation.  I was so into him talking sports and baseball and bikinis and acting that it slipped past.

All I know is that 16 years later, I remember that meeting like it was yesterday.  When I saw he died, it really DID feel like yesterday.

Alas, there will be no “Nick’s dad” when “New Girl” returns this fall on FOX even though I think they might have killed him off last season.  There will be a new spokesman for Xfinity.  Actors who play cops in movies will have a lot to live up too.  The Cubs lost an incredible fan.

We can also kiss goodbye an, “Eddie 2.”  Dennis Farina is gone; dying near his home in Scottsdale, Arizona.

So, next time you see a celebrity that you recognize, don’t be afraid to say something.  You just might get a memory you won’t soon forget.