Michael Lerner, Oscar-nominated character actor, dies at 81

Michael Lerner, a prolific screen actor who brought a gruff charisma to his portrayal of mobsters, street toughs and other Hollywood heavies, notably in his Oscar-nominated performance as an imposing movie mogul in the Coen brothers’ “Barton Fink,” died April 8 at a hospital in Burbank, Calif. He was 81.

The cause was brain seizures, said his brother Ken Lerner, who is also an actor.

Mr. Lerner amassed more than 180 film and television credits in a career that spanned 60 years. He said he was content to be known as a character actor — “every role is a character role,” he once remarked — and developed a reputation as a reliable scene-stealer, even when his scenes were brief.

“His characters have a layer of charm, a thin skin of bonhomie over the blubber of the natural bully,” London Observer film critic Philip French once wrote. “Cops, politicians, gangsters and Hollywood tycoons are his forte, and he’s brought a number of them to memorable life.”

Mr. Lerner played a fictional speechwriter in Robert Redford’s political comedy “The Candidate” (1972) and was the debonair White House press secretary Pierre Salinger in “The Missiles of October” (1974), a TV movie about the Cuban missile crisis. He later recalled that after watching the movie, former first lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis told him, “Mr. Lerner, you’ve out Pierre’d Pierre.”

“I love playing real-life people,” Mr. Lerner once told the Los Angeles Times. “It gives me a chance to become that person for a while.”

He had what he regarded as his first important part in “Ruby and Oswald” (1978), a TV film about the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy, with Frederic Forrest as assassin Lee Harvey Oswald. Mr. Lerner played Jack Ruby, the Dallas nightclub owner who fatally shot Oswald after he was taken into custody.

Mr. Lerner later appeared in two TV films as real-world movie executives, playing Jack Warner of Warner Bros. in the Marilyn Monroe biopic “This Year’s Blonde” (1980) and Harry Cohn of Columbia Pictures in “Rita Hayworth: The Love Goddess” (1983).

But to many critics, his finest performance came in “Barton Fink” (1991), a period piece about a New York playwright (John Turturro) trying to launch a screenwriting career in 1940s Hollywood. Mr. Lerner played the fast-talking, hard-driving movie executive Jack Lipnick, a character he said he modeled after Louis B. Mayer of MGM.

“I even found a pair of glasses in a junk shop that were identical to the ones he wore,” Mr. Lerner said. “As soon as I put them on, I felt like Mayer.”

In three scenes lasting about 15 minutes, Mr. Lerner created a vivid portrait. “I figured you can’t play Lipnick small,” he told the Knight-Ridder News Service. “I had to find that line between charisma and truth. And I found it through his ego, through his needs, his wants. Gimme, gimme, gimme, gimme. Me, me, me, me, me.”

When Mr. Lerner was nominated for the best supporting actor Oscar, many colleagues and movie watchers considered the recognition overdue. The nomination brought Mr. Lerner attention to which he had been unaccustomed, including an invitation to Elizabeth Taylor’s birthday party at Disneyland.

Mr. Lerner ultimately lost to actor Jack Palance for “City Slickers.”

He went on to earn an enduring place in holiday movie-watching traditions with a role in “Elf” (2003), a comedy starring Will Ferrell as a human who is raised in the North Pole by Santa’s elves and returns to New York to find his biological father (James Caan). Mr. Lerner plays Caan’s boss, a formidable publishing executive who is desperate for a blockbuster Christmas book to revive his foundering company.

Michael Charles Lerner, the middle of three brothers, was born in Brooklyn on June 22, 1941, to a Jewish family of Romanian heritage. His mother was a secretary, and his father “liked to think he was an antiques dealer, but in all actuality he was a junk dealer,” the Hollywood Reporter quoted Mr. Lerner as saying.

Mr. Lerner became active in theater while studying English at Brooklyn College, where he played Willy Loman in a campus production of Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman.”

“I looked in the mirror as I was applying makeup,” he told the Miami Herald, “and I said to myself — I remember this vividly — ‘Oh my God … I’m an actor.’”

Mr. Lerner received a bachelor’s degree in 1963. He later studied drama and acting at the University of California at Berkeley, and at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art as a Fulbright fellow. In London, he was a flatmate of Yoko Ono before she married John Lennon of the Beatles. Mr. Lerner appeared in Ono’s experimental short film “Smile” (1968), which she co-directed with Lennon.

Mr. Lerner later acted in San Francisco with the American Conservatory Theater before moving to Los Angeles and venturing into television and film. Early in his career, he appeared on shows including “The Brady Bunch” and “The Doris Day Show” before winning a role in the film “Alex in Wonderland” (1970), starring Donald Sutherland and Ellen Burstyn.

Mr. Lerner appeared in TV shows including “M.A.S.H,” “The Odd Couple” and “Hill Street Blues.” In the 1990s, he played the father of the protagonist on “Clueless,” a TV show inspired by the earlier Alicia Silverstone movie. He later acted on “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,” “Entourage” and “Glee.”

Mr. Lerner had a notable role in the film “Harlem Nights” (1989), in which director Eddie Murphy cast him as the fictional crime boss and nightclub owner Bugsy Calhoune.

He also appeared in the 1998 remake of the monster movie “Godzilla” as the bumbling Mayor Ebert of New York — an unsubtle nod to film critic Roger Ebert, who took the put-down in stride. (“They let us off lightly; I fully expected to be squished like a bug by Godzilla,” he wrote.)

Mr. Lerner’s other film credits included “The Postman Always Rings Twice” (1981), “X-Men: Days of Future Past” (2014) and “A Serious Man” (2009), which reunited him with filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen.

Mr. Lerner’s nephew Sam Lerner appears on the TV series “The Goldbergs,” and his niece Jenny Lerner is also an actress. A complete list of survivors was not immediately available.

Mr. Lerner found that after a career spent not quite in obscurity but neither in the spotlight, an Oscar nomination carried benefits beyond the honor. “For a long time,” he told the Herald, “I went through this whole thing of being confused with Michael Learned, who played the mother on The Waltons. … I don’t think that mistake will happen very often now.”

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