Oscar nominee Michael Lerner dead at age 81

Michael Lerner, the character actor known from films like “Godzilla,” “Elf,” and “X-Men: Days of Future Past,” and who was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for his role in “Barton Fink,” has died, as per a report in Variety. He was 81 years old.

The news was broken by his nephew, actor Sam Lerner, a series regular on “The Goldbergs.” He wrote on his Instagram page that “it’s hard to put into words how brilliant my uncle Michael was, and how influential he was to me. 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.” He added, “RIP Michael, enjoy your unlimited Cuban cigars, comfy chairs, and endless movie marathon.”

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A carousel of images included pictures of Lerner on set in various costumes over the years, oftentimes kidding around in costume trailers, and one alongside Eddie Murphy. (This was most likely while shooting “Harlem Nights” in 1989.)

Michael Lerner had 186 credits listed on the IMDb, and was one of those guys who was in everything. The Brooklyn-born Lerner got his start in television, with some early guest shots on “Dr. Kildare,” “The Brady Bunch,” “That Girl,” “Ironside,” and “Night Gallery.” In the mid-1970s he had appearances on “M*A*S*H,” “Rhoda,” “Starsky and Hutch,” “Police Woman,” and “The Rockford Files,” plus a slew of television movies. (He played Pierre Salinger in the ABC Cuban Missile Crisis drama “The Missiles of October.”)

The 1980s saw him on “The A-Team,” “Hart to Hart,” “Hill Street Blues,” “MacGuyver,” and “The Equalizer.” Classic stuff. He began to make more appearances in feature films by the end of the decade, like playing gangster Arnold Rothstein in John Sayles’s Chicago Black Sox film “Eight Men Out,” in 1988, and “Bugsy Calhoune” in Murphy’s “Harlem Nights.” This led to what is arguably his most lasting role, that of Golden Age of Hollywood studio honcho Jack Lipnick in Joel and Ethan Coen’s 1991 classic “Barton Fink.”

“He’s taken a in-ter-est! Lipnick likes you!” Tony Shalhoub’s character warns John Turturro’s meek screenwriter, the titular Fink, in the existential comedy. The larger-than-life Lipnick, gracious one minute, angry the next, and, at one point, kissing Fink’s feet while wearing a bathing suit, is one of the all-time great Coen characters. The film won the Palme D’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, and Lerner found himself with a surprising (but welcome) Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor that year. (He lost to Jack Palance for “City Slickers.”)

After “Fink,” Lerner was cranking ‘em out as a character actor—”Radioland Murders,” “The Road to Wellville,” “The Beautician and the Beast,” “Newsies,” “Safe Men” (as the character always referred to as Big Fat Bernie Gayle), and in Woody Allen’s “Celebrity.” Most memorable, of course, was as Mayor Ebert (with his assistant Gene) in Roland Emmerich’s 1998 blockbuster “Godzilla.” This was the director’s none-to-subtle jab at the famous pair of film critics, who were less-than-enthusiastic about the filmmaker’s previous works. 

In the 2000s and beyond, he also appeared in “Elf,”  episodes of “Entourage,” an angry Senator in “X-Men: Days of Future Past,” and a small part in the Coens’s “A Serious Man”—but also in tons of movies with names like “Yonkers Joe.” Lerner liked to work, and people were eager to hire him. 

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