Michael Lerner, Barton Fink and Elf actor, dies aged 81

Nephew of the famed character actor posted on Instagram that he died on Saturday

Michael Lerner died on Saturday after 60 years in the entertainment industry. Invision / AP
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Michael Lerner, the Brooklyn-born character actor who played myriad imposing figures in his 60 years in the business, including movie mogul Jack Lipnick in Barton Fink, Jewish mobster Big Fat Bernie Gale in Safe Men and an angry publishing executive in Elf, has died at age 81.

His nephew, actor Sam Lerner, announced his death in an Instagram post on Sunday. Sam Lerner wrote that his uncle had died on Saturday but did not provide further details. Neither his nor Michael Lerner’s representatives immediately responded to requests for further comment.

“He was the coolest, most confident, talented guy,” Sam Lerner wrote. “Everyone that knows him knows how insane he was — in the best way … we’re all lucky we can continue to watch his work for the rest of time. RIP Michael, enjoy your unlimited Cuban cigars, comfy chairs and endless movie marathon.”

Born in 1941 to Romanian-Jewish parents and raised in Brooklyn's Red Hook neighbourhood, Michael Lerner began acting locally as a teenager and into his days at Brooklyn College, where he got the chance to play Willie Loman in Death of a Salesman.

He then received a Fulbright Scholarship and chose to study theatre at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts, where he lived in an apartment with Yoko Ono for a time, appearing in her short film Smile alongside Paul McCartney.

Lerner moved to Los Angeles in 1969, at the urging of an agent who saw his work at the American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco.

He started getting cast in television shows, including The Brady Bunch and The Rockford Files, making his film debut in Paul Mazursky’s Alex in Wonderland, alongside Charlotte Rampling.

He considered his first significant role to be in the television movie Ruby and Oswald — he played Jack Ruby — with Brian Dennehy.

Lerner worked with John Sayles on Eight Men Out, in which he played Arnold Rothstein, the crime boss who conspired to fix the 1919 World Series.

“Most of the time I don’t rehearse, but I do a lot of preparation. Especially for a biographical character or one of the studio heads,” he said in 2016. “I did a lot of research for Barton Fink and looked into Louis B Mayer and all the moguls in Hollywood.”

Joel and Ethan Coen’s Barton Fink, released in 1991, is the film Lerner is most remembered for.

“I had auditioned for Joel and Ethan before, for Miller’s Crossing. So I walked into the room, as the character, and I don’t say hello to anybody. And I sit down behind my desk and do this big speech: ‘Bart! Bart! So great to see you,’” Lerner said in 2016.

“I did the monologue the way I wanted to do it and I just walked out of the room … And Joel and Ethan were just sitting in a corner just laughing and laughing and that was it.”

Lerner, who drew inspiration from Preston Sturges movies, said the Coens did not give him much acting direction and “were a little nervous that I was talking so fast” but that they let him do what he wanted.

The role got him his first and only Oscar nomination, but in 1992, the Academy Award for supporting actor went to Jack Palance for City Slickers.

Lerner also said he was frequently recognised for his turns in Eddie Murphy’s Harlem Nights and Elf, as Fulton Greenway.

“Those are good parts but not great acting roles,” Lerner said.

And he never felt cheated by being known as a “character actor” rather than a leading man. In 1999, in an interview with Cigar Aficionado, he said: “Every role is a character role.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report

Updated: April 11, 2023, 8:53 AM