A handsome, sometimes brooding American actor with great promise as a leading man, James Farentino demonstrated his skills in a wide variety of roles on stage and screen. After starting his career on Broadway, Farentino transitioned to film and television in the early 1960s, before becoming a leading man in "The Pad And How to Use It" (1966). He played Happy Loman in a telecast of "Death of a Salesman" (CBS, 1966) and later starred as the brutish Stanley Kowalski in a Broadway revival of "A Streetcar Named Desire" (1972). That same year, Farentino starred in his own detective series, "Cool Million" (NBC, 1972), and followed with his biggest role of the decade, and perhaps his career, by playing the apostle Simon Peter in the seminal miniseries "Jesus of Nazareth" (NBC, 1977), which earned him an Emmy nomination. Turns as Juan Peron in the biopic "Evita Peron" (NBC, 1981) and the helicopter pilot on the short-lived cop series "Blue Thunder" (ABC, 1984) followed. From there, Farentino struggled to maintain consistency, appearing infrequently on the small screen throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Meanwhile, the actor found his legacy tarnished with a string of failed marriages, a charge of cocaine possession in 1991, a conviction for stalking former girlfriend Tina Sinatra in 1993, and an arrest for battery in 2010. The controversies were that much more regrettable as they overshadowed a talented actor's long and versatile career, which ultimately ended rather quietly with his death in 2012.
Born Feb. 24, 1938 in Brooklyn, NY, James Ferrantino was the son of Helen, a homemaker, and Anthony, a clothing designer. After tweaking his last name, he made his Broadway debut in a small role in Tennessee Williams' "The Night of the Iguana" in 1961 and quickly moved on to success in television and films, making only isolated returns to the stage. His film debut came in the forgotten thriller "Psychomania/Violent Midnight" (1963) and he next appeared in "Ensign Pulver" (1964) before catching a break with the lead in 1966's "The Pad...(And How to Use It)," as the hip friend of Brian Bedford who gives him advice on how to be a swinger. Farentino stole the movie and earned a Golden Globe Award as Most Promising Newcomer, but as the late 1960s were a difficult time for conventional leading men, the actor found good roles were sparse. After appearing in the ensemble melodrama "Banning" (1967) and opposite Patty Duke in "Me, Natalie" (1969), Farentino found better opportunities on television, beginning with his regular role as a novice, unorthodox attorney in the NBC series "The Lawyers" (1969-1972), which aired under the umbrella of "The Bold Ones."
After the case closed on "The Lawyers," Farentino segued into more series work as a CIA agent turned private investigator in "Cool Million" (NBC, 1972-73). He was Stanley Kowalski in the 25th anniversary production of "A Streetcar Named Desire" on Broadway in 1972 - for which he won a Theatre World Award - and won the Joseph Jefferson Award for Best Guest Artist for his work as McMurphy in a 1973 Chicago production of "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest." In 1975, he tackled the role of the older son Biff in a revival of Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman;" he previous played younger son Happy in a 1966 CBS telecast. For his portrayal of Simon Peter in the 1977 NBC miniseries "Jesus of Nazareth," he earned an Emmy nomination, and Farentino essayed a memorable Juan Perón opposite Faye Dunaway's "Evita Perón" (NBC, 1981). The actor also appeared as the mysterious Dr. Nick Toscanni on the iconic nighttime soap "Dynasty" (ABC, 1981-89) and filmed the miniseries "Sins" (CBS, 1986) opposite its queen bee, Joan Collins. When he found the occasional film role, it was usually as men of power like the Navy commander from the past in the time-traveling Pearl Harbor adventure "The Final Countdown" (1980). In 1984, Farentino played the human lead to a police helicopter on the short-lived "Blue Thunder" (ABC) before trying a romantic role as the newsroom boss and love interest of Mary Tyler Moore on "Mary" (CBS).
He was on surer ground in the role of the district attorney and adversary to Tom Selleck in the feature "Her Alibi" (1989), and as Boston Mayor Kevin White in "Common Ground," the 1990 CBS miniseries about school busing in Boston. Real-life legal woes interceded on his career when he was arrested and charged with cocaine possession after Royal Canadian Mounted Police intercepted a package sent to his hotel room. Ironically, the trouble-prone actor was teamed romantically with the pristine Julie Andrews on her short-lived ABC sitcom "Julie" (1992). Farentino played an abusive husband opposite his real-life ex-wife Michele Lee in "When No One Would Listen" (CBS, 1992), and embodied the doomed Jose Menendez in the 1994 Fox miniseries "Honor Thy Father and Mother: The True Story of the Menendez Murders."
Farentino's love life was famously complicated - he had four ex-wives in total, including the actresses Elizabeth Ashley and Michele Lee - and he pled no contest to a 1994 charge of stalking ex-girlfriend Tina Sinatra. Despite his illustrious résumé - not counting all his roles, he was one of Universal's last contract players - Farentino found quality work hard to come by as he aged, although a few projects stood out. He notched strong arcs on the hit shows "Melrose Place" (Fox, 1992-99) opposite Jack Wagner, and "ER" (NBC, 1994-2009) as George Clooney's dad, as well as had a supporting role opposite ex-wife Michele Lee in "Scandalous Me: The Jacqueline Susann Story" (USA Network, 1998). He worked occasionally the following decade, but made his biggest headlines with additional legal trouble in 2010. Police were called to Farentino's home on June 13, and they took him into custody after another man, who suffered visible bruises, pressed charges of battery against the actor. Meanwhile, his health began to deteriorate and he fell off the public radar until Jan. 24, 2012, when news broke that he had died from heart failure following a lengthy battle with the illness. Farentino was 73 years old.
By Jonathan Riggs