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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Michael Carlson

Michael Lerner obituary

Michael Lerner in Barton Fink, 1991.
Michael Lerner in Barton Fink, 1991. Photograph: Circle/Kobal/Shutterstock

Michael Lerner, who has died aged 81, was a versatile character actor whose specialty was imbuing heavies with nuanced depth. The critic Philip French recognised the “layer of charm, the thin skin of bonhomie” he brought to his roles, the most famous of which were the gangster Arnold Rothstein, fixing baseball’s World Series in John Sayles’s Eight Men Out (1988), or the studio boss Jack Lipnick in the Coen brothers’ Barton Fink (1991), in which his displays of alternating intimacy and threat get him what he wants, and which earned him an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor.

Lerner had auditioned for a gangster part in Joel and Ethan Coen’s Miller’s Crossing, but though the brothers described Lipnick as a “Michael Lerner type”, for Barton Fink “they didn’t have me come in until the last minute”. Wearing a pair of glasses he had found in a junk shop that made him look like the MGM boss Louis B Mayer, “I fucking blew them away,” he said: “I auditioned in character, talking a mile a minute.”

He lost the Oscar to Jack Palance in City Slickers, but did not complain. “I’d been a working character actor for 20 years, then all of a sudden I got nominated and my price went up.”

Lerner was born in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn, New York, where his father George sold what he called antiques in what was “really a junk shop”. His mother, Blanche (nee Halpern), worked as a secretary, and his older brother Arnold had a delicatessen in Brighton Beach, where young Michael cut off the end of an index finger slicing a tongue sandwich.

An unathletic sports fan, he appeared as a “quiz kid” on the sportcaster Bert Lee’s radio quiz show, then became sports editor of the paper at Lafayette high school.

As Rothstein, he explained to a former boxing champ involved in the baseball fix that “I was the fat kid they wouldn’t let play. They said sit down fat boy, maybe you’ll learn something. Well I learned something all right. Pretty soon I owned the game, and those guys came to me with their hats in their hands.”

Madonna, left, as Loren, Michael Lerner, right, as Manny and Debora Weston as Phyllis in Up for Grabs at Wyndham’s theatre, London, in 2002.
Madonna, left, as Loren, Michael Lerner, right, as Manny and Debora Weston as Phyllis in Up for Grabs at Wyndham’s theatre, London, in 2002. Photograph: Daniel Smith/PA

He studied drama at Brooklyn College, playing Willy Loman in a production of Death of a Salesman, and in 1963 had a small uncredited TV part in an episode of Dr Kildare. He gained an MA in theatre at the University of California, Berkeley, then won a Fulbright grant and attended the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. He found himself sharing a house with Yoko Ono and eventually John Lennon. Lerner appeared in Yoko’s Film No 4, aka Bottoms, as “one of the bare asses walking on a treadmill”. Another was Paul McCartney.

Back in the Bay Area, he joined the American Conservatory Theatre company in San Francisco, and got bit parts in five TV shows, but it was in a Los Angeles production of Jules Feiffer’s Little Murders that he caught the eye of a fellow-Brooklynite, the director Paul Mazursky, who cast him in his 1970 Hollywood satire Alex in Wonderland.

By the time he played Robert Redford’s speechwriter in The Candidate (1972), he was busy in television; you may have seen him in anything from M*A*S*H to The Rockford Files to The Odd Couple.

In the 1974 TV movie The Missiles of October, about the Cuban missile crisis, he played President John F Kennedy’s press secretary Pierre Salinger; with his omnipresent cigar, Jacqueline Kennedy told Lerner he had “out-Pierre’d Pierre”. Lerner would become a noted cigar aficionado, leaving the hour from five to six each day to “swim naked, read the trades and enjoy a cigar”.

In other TV movies he played Jack Ruby (Ruby and Oswald, 1978) and Robert Kennedy’s arch-enemy Jimmy Hoffa’s lawyer in Blood Feud (1983). “I love playing real people; it gives me a chance to become that person for a while,” he said. He played two real studio heads in TV movies: Jack Warner in Moviola (1980), and Columbia Pictures’ Harry Cohn in Rita Hayworth: The Love Goddess (1983).

In 1975 Lerner auditioned for the role of Starsky in Starsky & Hutch; he wound up playing a criminal called Fat Rolly in the show’s pilot and second episode. He returned to the theatre in David Mamet’s 1980 off-Broadway production of Twelfth Night, and in 1981 was Jessica Lange’s lawyer in Bob Rafelson’s remake of The Postman Always Rings Twice, scripted by Mamet.

His own favourite role was a rare lead, as a serial killer, in Anguish (1987); he returned to gangsters playing Bugsy Calhoune in Eddie Murphy’s Harlem Nights (1989). He played Cher’s father Mel in the TV version of Clueless (1996-97). His later films included My Favorite Martian (1999), in which he was the TV station owner relentlessly promoting his talentless daughter, played by Liz Hurley; Woody Allen’s Celebrity (1998); a sharp turn as the domineering publisher in the Christmas comedy Elf (2003); the Coens’ A Serious Man (2009); and X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014). In 2002 he was on stage with Madonna in the West End production of Up For Grabs, and six years later he appeared in the BBC radio comedy series One.

In 2022 he returned to studio tycoons, playing Mayer in the Russian docudrama Pervyy Oscar (AKA The First Oscar); he is due to appear in the forthcoming Sallywood, starring Sally Kirkland.

Lerner collected rare books, and was a serious poker player in a long-running Hollywood game that included, at various times, Charles Bronson, Milton Berle and Ed Asner.

He is survived by his younger brother Ken, an actor who played Principal Flutie in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, his nephew Sam, who starred with Ken in The Goldbergs, and his niece Jenny, also an actor.

• Michael Charles Lerner, actor, born 22 June 1941; died 8 April 2023

• This article was amended on 13 April 2023. It was Michael Lerner who played Cher’s father Mel in the TV version of Clueless, rather than his brother, Ken, as an earlier version stated.

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