Michael Lerner, who has died aged 81, was the American character actor best known for his Oscar-nominated turn as a boisterous, bullying 1940s Hollywood mogul in the Coen brothers’ 1991 masterpiece Barton Fink.
“You have no idea how difficult it was for me not to play him with a cigar,” said Lerner, who wanted his studio boss to be an “archetype, not a stereotype”. He based the character of Jack Lipnick, the “Philistine [with] his finger on the pulse of America”, on legendary MGM boss Louis B Mayer. “I even found a pair of glasses in a junk shop that were identical to the ones he wore. As soon as I put them on, I felt like Mayer.”
The motormouth Lipnick orders his assistant to kiss the feet of the highbrow New York playwright Barton Fink (John Turturro), who soon finds himself writing a wrestling movie. “Look, I’m not one of those guys who think ‘poetic’ has to be fruity,” Lipnick tells him.
Lerner was only on screen for a quarter of an hour, but he stole the show. “It’s the ultimate Hollywood cliche,” Lerner said, when Barton Fink came out. “Twenty years in the business and I’m an overnight success. I love it.”
Michael Charles Lerner was born in Brooklyn, on June 22 1941, to Blanche Lerner (née Halpern), a secretary, and George Lerner, a fisherman and antiques dealer. The family moved to the Cleveland suburb of Solon, then back to Brooklyn, where they lived in the rough-and-tumble dock neighbourhoods of Red Hook and Bensonhurst.
Lerner went to Lafayette High School, then Brooklyn College, where he earned money in his brother’s deli (“I even left a bit of my finger there on a slicing machine”) and played Willie Loman in Death of a Salesman. “I looked in the mirror as I was applying makeup, and I said to myself – I remember this vividly – ‘Oh my God… I’m an actor.’”
He had planned to become an English professor, but (to his parents’ dismay) accepted a Fulbright Scholarship to study theatre for two years at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, where Donald Sutherland and John Lithgow were fellow students.
In London, he shared a flat with Yoko Ono, who cast him alongside Paul McCartney in her short film Smile (1968), co-directed with John Lennon. Lerner described it as “a movie comprised of bare asses walking on a treadmill… I’m doing narration about censorship and all that crap.”
He found Yoko Ono strange – “we were having Chinese food together and she was talking to me about the moon being a grapefruit” – and wondered if it was all an act. Later, he concluded she was “a very smart businesswoman”.
He joined the non-profit American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco, where he had a big hit with Jules Feiffer’s 1970 play, Little Murders. The directors Paul Mazursky and Michael Ritchie both saw it; Mazursky gave Lerner his film debut alongside Charlotte Rampling in Alex in Wonderland (1970), while Ritchie cast him as Robert Redford’s speechwriter in The Candidate (1972).
Lerner settled in LA, where he was to be seen on television in the very first episode of Starsky and Hutch, M*A*S*H, The Brady Bunch and The Rockford Files (the last of which made his father – then on his deathbed – finally concede his son was an actor).
His first leading role was playing Jack Ruby, assassin of Lee Harvey Oswald, in the 1978 television movie Ruby and Oswald. Ruby’s siblings worked as technical advisors on the film: “I walked around Dallas with my head shaved, and they thought it was scary. Earl Ruby said, ‘You look just like Jack.’” He scored another uncanny impersonation as John F Kennedy’s cigar-smoking White House press secretary, Pierre Salinger, in the 1974 docudrama Missiles of October, about the Cuban crisis. Jackie Kennedy Onassis later told him that he had “out Pierre’d Pierre”.
Lerner played two more Hollywood executives – Jack Warner and Harry Cohn – in TV movies, then in 1981, appeared in the remake of The Postman Always Rings Twice, with Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange.
After his Oscar nomination for Barton Fink, Elizabeth Taylor invited him to her birthday party in Disneyland, and Woody Allen cast him in Celebrity (1998). They fell out, however, over how a scene should be played. “He is a schmuck,” Lerner later said. “And the movie’s a piece of s---.” He appeared in Elf, Godzilla and X-Men: Days of Future Past, and starred opposite Madonna in her West End stage debut, the art world satire Up for Grabs.
Lerner collected rare books and paintings, played poker and swam naked, but his greatest passion in life was smoking cigars, a habit he copied from Edward G Robinson: “one of my favorite actors and a Romanian Jew like me”. He told Cigar Aficionado that what makes a Cuban cigar great is “the manure. When you hold a Montecristo No. 2 to your nose, you smell s---.”
For the 1999 film The Mod Squad, he had to swap Montecristos for 79-cent Brazilian cigars. “God, it was agony. But I was trying to be true to the character. It was method cigar acting.”
Michael Lerner’s brief marriage in the 1960s to Deborah Lerner ended in divorce. He had no children.
Michael Lerner, born June 22 1941, died April 8 2023