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Michael Lerner, Actor in ‘Barton Fink’, ‘Harlem Nights’ and ‘Eight Men Out’, Dies at 81


Michael Lerner, the busy Oscar-nominated character actor who had memorable turns as bombastic types Bart Finn, Haarlem nights, Eight men out and many more, passed away. He turned 81.

Lerner died Saturday night, according to one Instagram message from his cousin, Sam Lerner, who is also an actor (The Goldbergs). The cause of death was not immediately known.

“It’s hard to put into words how brilliant my Uncle Michael was and how influential he was on me,” Sam wrote. “His stories have always inspired me and made me fall in love with acting. He was the coolest, most confident, talented guy, and the fact that he was my blood will always make me feel special. Anyone who knows him knows how insane he was – in the best way.

Raised in a Brooklyn housing project as the son of a junk dealer, Lerner specialized in playing authority figures such as cops, crooks, politicians and Hollywood moguls. “His characters have a layer of charm, a thin skin of bonhomie over the natural bully’s blubber,” is how The protector ever described them.

Before going to Hollywood, Lerner appeared in an experimental film directed by a former London flatmate Yoko Ono, then played the speechwriter for Robert Redford’s character in Michael Ritchie’s The candidate (1972).

He turned heads with a stint as White House Press Secretary Pierre Salinger on the 1974 ABC telefilm October rockets and as the murderer Jack Ruby in the 1978 CBS docudrama Ruby and Oswald.

In Bob Rafelson’s rerun the postman always rings twice (1981), Lerner was the attorney for Jessica Lange’s character (Hume Cronyn portrayed the attorney in the 1946 original). And Lerner also stood out opposite Anthony Hopkins and John Cusack in Alan Parker’s The road to Wellville (1994) and with Allison Janney in Todd Solondz’s Life in wartime (2009).

The actor also played hard-hearted book publisher Fulton Greenway Eleven (2003), the mayor of New York City named after Roger Ebert in Roland Emmerich’s remake of Godzilla (1998) and US Senators Boy poster (2004) and X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014).

Lerner auditioned for the part of Det. Dave Starsky on ABCs Starsky and Hutch (Paul Michael Glaser got the job, of course) and stuck around as the lowlife criminal Fat Rolly in the first two episodes.

He later portrayed a rabbi on NBC’s Hillstreet blues; Mel Horowitz, the Beverly Hills lawyer and father of Cher (Rachel Blanchard), on the first season of the ABC adaptation of Ignorant; and Sidney Greene, a Broadway producer working on a revival of Funny girlon Fox’s cheerfulness.

Michael Lerner as movie mogul Jack Lipnick in 1991 Bart Finn


Lerner received his Oscar nomination for his performance as the brash 1930s studio magnate Jack Lipnick in that of Joel and Ethan Coen Bart Finn (1991). He had previously auditioned for the brothers – he was not accepted Miller’s crossing — but arrived with a purpose this time.

“They said the character was a Michael Lerner type, but they didn’t let me in until the last minute,” he said. Cigar lover magazine in a 1999 interview. “I came in and blew the hell out of them. I auditioned in character, talking a mile a minute. Joel and Ethan Coen were on the floor, laughing and crying hysterically, and I just walked out of there. I came in, I gave the first big speech and walked out.

He based Lipnick on legendary MGM producer Louis B. Mayer. “I watched a lot of documentary footage, picked out glasses that were just like he was wearing, and picked up some mannerisms he had,” he said. “It’s fun for an actor to do that.”

A little earlier, Lerner made an impression as blackmailer Arnold Rothstein, the architect of the 1919 “Black Sox” baseball scandal, in John Sayles’ Eight men out (1988), then starred cold-blooded mobster Bugsy Calhoune to Eddie Murphy Haarlem nights (1989).

In a 1992 interview for NPRs Fresh airhe told Terry Gross that one of the best films he ever made was the horror film produced in Spain Agony (1987), portraying an ophthalmologist’s assistant who is hypnotized by his mother (Zelda Rubinstein) into going on a killing spree so he can save his weak eyesight.

“I was advised by my managers at the time not to do that part because it was so unflattering,” he said. “I played a character that is kind of repulsive, but it was great [role].”

Born June 22, 1941, Lerner grew up in a housing project in the Red Hook neighborhood of Brooklyn. His father, George, “liked to think he was an antiques dealer, but in reality he was a junk dealer,” he said.

A sports geek, Lerner appeared as a “quiz kid” at age 13 on a local TV program hosted by sportscaster Bert Lee Jr., and was then sports editor of the school newspaper at Lafayette High School. To help his family, he worked at his older brother’s Zei-Mar delicatessen in Brighton Beach.

Lerner attended Brooklyn College (future director Joel Zwick was a classmate) and played Willy Loman in a production of Death of a salesman, then received his master’s degree from UC Berkeley. He intended to become a professor of English, but accepted a Fulbright Scholarship to study theater at the London Academy of Music & Dramatic Art for two years.

In London he shared a house with Ono. “She made a movie with bare donkeys walking on a treadmill,” he said. “I’m in it and so is Paul McCartney. Besides, I do stories about censorship and all that nonsense.”

He joined the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco in 1968 and moved to Los Angeles a year later to appear in a production of Jules Feiffer’s off-Broadway hit Small murders. Brooklyn-born filmmaker Paul Mazursky liked him in that and cast him in it Alex In Wonderland (1970), with Donald Sutherland and Ellen Burstyn.

Meanwhile, Lerner appeared in such TV shows in the 1970s The Brady Gang (plays a friendly bike salesman), That girl, The separate couple, Iron silk, The Bob Newhart Show, M*A*S*H, The Rockford Files And Koyak.

After his turn as the colorful Salinger, John F. Kennedy’s press secretary during the Cuban missile crisis, he received a nice compliment from former first lady Jackie Kennedy. “I met [her] at a jazz concert at Carnegie Hall and she said, “Mr. Lerner, you finished Pierre’d Pierre,” which I found very funny,” he recalled in a 2016 AV Club interview.

THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE, Michael Lerner, Jessica Lange, 1981.

Michael Lerner (left) with Jessica Lange in 1981 the postman always rings twice

Paramount/Courtesy Everett Collection

For Haarlem knightsLerner noted that “Murphy courted me like crazy. [Producers] wanted Robert Duvall to play the part. I auditioned for Eddie twice and he said, no, he wants me. He had a lot of power, so I got the part.”

On 1980s television movies, Lerner had portrayed Jack Warner from the Golden Age studio Blonde this year and Harry Cohn in it Rita Hayworth: the love goddess before landing on it Bart Finn. Even though he lost to Jack Palance on Oscar night City peoplehe couldn’t complain.

“I was a working character actor for about 20 years, and then all of a sudden I got nominated and my money went up!” he said. He appeared again for the Coens A serious man (2009).

Lerner’s big screen resume also included Busting (1974), St Ives (1976), Strange invaders (1983), Maniac Cop 2 (1990), News items (1992), Amos & Andrew (1993), No escape (1994), Radioland Killings (1994), For richer or poorer (1997), Safe men (1998), Woody Allens Celebrity (1998), Story of the mummy (1998), The Mod Squad (1999), My favorite Martian (1999), Mirror mirror (2012) and that of Sidney J. Furie Take me to Vegas and Mars (2018).

And in 2002, he played an art collector in a West End production of Up for grabsstarring Madonna.

When not working, Lerner collected rare books – in 2012 he auctioned two 1665 editions of Aesop’s fables amidst other valuable works – and enjoyed Cuban cigars.

“There’s a strong case to be made about the physiological and mental calmness” that comes with a good stogie, he said. “Between 5 and 6 no one comes to my house. That’s when I swim naked, read the trade and smoke cigars.”

He was also part of a regular poker game that included Charles Bronson, Richard Dreyfuss, Jason Alexander, Ed Asner, Milton Berle, Richard Lewis, and Agent Norby Walters.

Survivors include his younger brother, Ken Lerner, and cousin Sam Lerner – both were on the ABC sitcom The Goldbergs — and cousin Jenny Lerner, also an actress.

In his AV Club interview, Lerner said he liked a director who appreciated what he had to offer.

“If a director comes up to me and says, ‘That’s too big, that’s too small,’ those are good clues,” he said. “But my interpretation of a character is instinct. If a director doesn’t like my interpretation, I have a problem.”

Merry C. Vega is a highly respected and accomplished news author. She began her career as a journalist, covering local news for a small-town newspaper. She quickly gained a reputation for her thorough reporting and ability to uncover the truth.

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