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

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Michael Lerner, the busy Oscar-nominated character actor who had memorable turns as bombastic types in Barton Fink, Harlem Nights, Eight Men Out and so much more, has died. He was 81.

Lerner died Saturday night, according to an Instagram post from his nephew, Sam Lerner, who is also an actor (ABC’s The Goldbergs). The cause of death was not immediately known.

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“It’s hard to put into words how brilliant my uncle Michael was, and how influential he was to me,” Sam wrote. “His stories 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. Everyone that knows him knows how insane he was — in the best way.”

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

Before he got to Hollywood, Lerner appeared in an experimental film directed by onetime London housemate Yoko Ono, then played the speechwriter for Robert Redford’s character in Michael Ritchie’s The Candidate (1972).

He made heads turn with a stint as White House press secretary Pierre Salinger on the 1974 ABC telefilm The Missiles of October and as the killer Jack Ruby on the 1978 CBS docudrama Ruby and Oswald.

In Bob Rafelson’s redo of The Postman Always Rings Twice (1981), Lerner was the lawyer 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 During Wartime (2009).

The actor also played the callous book publisher Fulton Greenway in Elf (2003), the mayor of New York City named for Roger Ebert in Roland Emmerich’s remake of Godzilla (1998) and U.S. senators in Poster Boy (2004) and X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014).

Lerner auditioned for the part of Det. Dave Starsky on ABC’s Starsky and Hutch (Paul Michael Glaser got the job, of course) and wound up sticking around as the lowlife criminal Fat Rolly on the first two episodes.

He later portrayed a rabbi on NBC’s Hill Street Blues; Mel Horowitz, the Beverly Hills lawyer and father of Cher (Rachel Blanchard), on the first season of the ABC adaptation of Clueless; and Sidney Greene, a Broadway producer who’s mounting a revival of Funny Girl, on Fox’s Glee.

Michael Lerner in Barton Fink
Michael Lerner as movie mogul Jack Lipnick in 1991’s Barton Fink

Lerner received his Oscar nomination for his performance as the brash 1930s studio mogul Jack Lipnick in Joel and Ethan Coen’s Barton Fink (1991). He had auditioned for the brothers before — he didn’t get hired for Miller’s Crossing — but arrived this time with a purpose.

“They said the character was a Michael Lerner type, but they didn’t have me come in until the last minute,” he told Cigar Aficionado magazine in a 1999 interview. “I came in and fucking blew them away. I auditioned in character, talking a mile a minute. Joel and Ethan Coen were on the ground, laughing and crying in hysterics, and I just walked out of there. I came in, I did the first big speech and walked out.”

He based Lipnick on legendary MGM producer Louis B. Mayer. “I looked at a lot of documentary footage, I selected a pair of eyeglasses that were exactly the kind he wore, and I picked up on some mannerisms he had,” he said. “It’s fun for an actor to do that.”

A bit earlier, Lerner made his mark as racketeer Arnold Rothstein, the architect of baseball’s 1919 “Black Sox” scandal, in John Sayles’ Eight Men Out (1988), then played the cold-blooded gangster Bugsy Calhoune for Eddie Murphy in Harlem Nights (1989).

In a 1992 interview for NPR’s Fresh Air, he told Terry Gross that one of the best films he ever did was the Spain-produced horror movie Anguish (1987), in which he portrayed an ophthalmologist assistant who’s hypnotized by his mother (Zelda Rubinstein) to go on a killing spree so he can save his flailing eyesight.

“I had been 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 quite repulsive, but it was a great [role].”

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

A sports nut, Lerner appeared as a “quiz kid” at age 13 on a local TV program hosted by sportscaster Bert Lee Jr., then was sports editor of the school newspaper at Lafayette High School. To help out his family, he worked at the Zei-Mar delicatessen owned by his older brother 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 got his master’s from UC Berkeley. He intended to become an English professor but accepted a Fulbright Scholarship to study theater for two years at the London Academy of Music & Dramatic Art.

In London, he shared a house with Ono. “She made a movie comprised of bare asses walking on a treadmill,” he said. “I’m in it and so is Paul McCartney. Plus I’m doing narration about censorship and all that crap.”

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

Meanwhile, Lerner was showing up on such TV shows in the ’70s as The Brady Bunch (playing a kind bicycle salesman), That Girl, The Odd Couple, Ironside, The Bob Newhart Show, M*A*S*H, The Rockford Files and Kojak.

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’ve out Pierre’d Pierre,’ which I thought was very funny,” he recalled in a 2016 A.V. Club interview.

THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE, Michael Lerner, Jessica Lange, 1981.
Michael Lerner (left) with Jessica Lange in 1981’s The Postman Always Rings Twice

For Harlem Knights, Lerner remarked 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 role.”

On 1980s’ telefilms, Lerner had portrayed Golden Age studio kingpins Jack Warner in This Year’s Blonde and Harry Cohn in Rita Hayworth: The Love Goddess before landing on Barton Fink. Even though he lost on Oscar night to Jack Palance of City Slickers, he couldn’t complain.

“I’d been 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 for the Coens again in A Serious Man (2009).

Lerner’s big-screen résumé also included Busting (1974), St. Ives (1976), Strange Invaders (1983), Maniac Cop 2 (1990), Newsies (1992), Amos & Andrew (1993), No Escape (1994), Radioland Murders (1994), For Richer or Poorer (1997), Safe Men (1998), Woody Allen’s Celebrity (1998), Tale of the Mummy (1998), The Mod Squad (1999), My Favorite Martian (1999), Mirror Mirror (2012) and Sidney J. Furie’s Drive Me to Vegas and Mars (2018).

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

When he wasn’t working, Lerner collected rare books — in 2012, he put up for auction two 1665 editions of Aesop’s Fables amid other valuable works — and enjoyed Cuban cigars.

“There is a strong argument to be made about the physiological and mental peace” that comes with a good stogie, he said. “Nobody comes to my house between 5 and 6 o’clock. That is when I swim naked, read the trades and smoke cigars.”

He also was part of a regular poker game with the likes of Charles Bronson, Richard Dreyfuss, Jason Alexander, Ed Asner, Milton Berle, Richard Lewis and agent Norby Walters.

In addition to his nephew, survivors include his younger brother, Ken Lerner — also on The Goldbergs — and niece and actress Jenny Lerner.

In his A.V. Club interview, Lerner said he liked a director who appreciated what he brought to the table.

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

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