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Law & Order's Dennis Farina Was A Real-Life Cop For Two Decades

"Law & Order" has had its fair share of detectives, some played by heavy hitters like Michael Imperioli and Paul Sorvino. Creator Dick Wolf has gathered together quite a mix of actors over the years, but one stands out because of the similarities he shared with his onscreen persona.

Dennis Farina portrayed Detective Joe Fontana on "Law & Order" in its 15th and 16th seasons. Farina had big shoes to fill as a replacement for Jerry Orbach's Lennie Briscoe, who had become a series staple since his debut in its third season. Fontana partners up with Detective Ed Green (Jesse L. Martin), and it's clear from the get-go that he was cut from the same cloth as the detectives that came before him. 

Originally a cop in Chicago, Fontana dresses flashy, speaks Italian, and has no problem bending a rule or two if it means closing a case. Fontana didn't become a long-running detective like Briscoe, but he remains a lovable oddity in the series. While more Fontana might have been a possibility, Farina ultimately decided to depart the show to pursue other opportunities, a spokesperson explained in 2006. 

What made Farina so good at playing Fontana? His own history as a Chicago cop might have had something to do with it. 

Dennis Farina was a Chicago cop for 18 years

Dennis Farina's acting career kicked off thanks to Michael Mann (via the Los Angeles Times). The director met Farina when he still worked as a Chicago police officer. While researching for 1981's "Thief," Mann offered Farina a role in the movie, as the filmmaker wanted authenticity for his crime picture. Farina agreed to a bit part and continued working as a cop in the meantime. He appeared in Mann's "Miami Vice" and then committed to acting full-time when he took the lead in "Crime Story" where he also played a Chicago detective.

Farina worked as a cop for 18 years. He definitely had the qualifications to play Chicago officers, but Farina ultimately became a character actor known for supporting roles in films like "Snatch" and "Midnight Run." According to Farina, he never thought of acting as an occupation, but he grew up watching some of Hollywood's biggest stars. "I was always a movie fan. As a kid, we would go to the neighborhood theater and watch Bogart movies and Cagney movies and stuff like that. I never thought I would be doing what I'm doing," he told the Los Angeles Times in 2001.

Farina liked roles that let him 'spread [his] wings'

Farina never strayed too far from his history with the police. On top of playing Chicago cops on series like "Crime Story" and "Law & Order," Farina also hosted "Unsolved Mysteries," a reality series about unsolved crimes that asks for help from viewers in solving them, from 2008 to 2010. His familiarity with police and his background working as a detective himself made him a fitting get for the show. 

Despite this, Farina appreciated it when he got to play characters who differed from his real-world identity. He portrayed everyone from a shady casino owner in "Reindeer Games" to a crime boss who threatens to stab a character in the heart using a pencil in "Midnight Run."

"I think the idea of acting is to spread your wings a little bit. I was so grateful for 'Saving Private Ryan' and 'Snatch' and things like that," Farina told the Los Angeles Times in 2001. In the same interview, Farina said he loved being described as a character actor, typically a phrase used to describe chameleon actors who can steal a movie with a supporting role. "I think that's a nice compliment. I accept it with all humility," he stated.