Enigmatic, charismatic, felt in both his presence and absence on the big and little screen, Oscar-nominated veteran actor Michael Lerner died at the age of 81 over Easter Weekend.
His acting career spanned six decades, with roles in notable movies as such as Elf, Barton Fink, Harlem Nights, Eight Men out, and Godzilla; and tv shows such as Law and Order SVU, M*A*S*H, The Rockford Files, and Starsky & Hutch. Barton Fink is often credited as being the movie that set the tone for Lerner’s wheelhouse as hard-nosed yet quirky and personable characters in the form of bosses, cops, fathers, and other authority figures. In the film, he played opposite John Turturro as Jack Lipnick, a heavily animated pushy boss to Turturro’s Fink. Fast-talking and constantly haranguing, the humorous interplay endeared Lerner to fans, critics, and casting directors.
When speaking of his inspiration for the role of Lipnick, Lerner credits MGM producer Louis B. Mayer. Lerner even committed to learning his mannerisms from old documentary footage and buying a pair of glasses resembling Mayer’s. When he auditioned for the role with Joel and Ethan Cohen, he immediately set himself apart by entering the audition already in character, delivering the lines of the audition, and then walking right out. The impression was immediate, and he got the role.
All told, Michael Lerner had 183 acting credits, starting in 1963.
Lerner left a deep impression on his nephew, who followed in his footsteps in showbusiness, Sam Lerner. Speaking of his uncle via Instagram, Sam had this to say: “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. Everyone that knows him knows how insane he was — in the best way.”