Michael Lerner dies at 81; actor had roles in ‘Barton Fink,’ ‘Godzilla’

Michael Lerner made his acting debut on TV in 1963. HIs portrayal of Jack Lipnick in the 1991 Coen brothers film ‘Barton Fink’ garnered an Oscar nomination.

SHARE Michael Lerner dies at 81; actor had roles in ‘Barton Fink,’ ‘Godzilla’
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Michael Lerner, best known for his roles in “Barton Fink,” “Godzilla” and “Elf,” has died at the age of 81, his nephew said Sunday.

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Michael Lerner, best known for his roles in “Barton Fink,” “Godzilla” and “Elf,” has died. He was 81.

Lerner’s nephew, ”The Goldbergs” actor Sam Lerner, confirmed his death in an Instagram post Sunday. A cause of death was not given.

“We lost a legend last night,” Sam wrote alongside a series of throwback photos of Lerner. “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.”

Born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1941, Lerner made his acting debut with a guest role on the medical drama “Dr. Kildare” in 1963. He went on to appear in numerous television series in the following decades, such as “The Brady Bunch,” “The Odd Couple,” “The Rockford Files,” “The A-Team” and “Hill Street Blues.”

Lerner began acting in his native Brooklyn as a teen and into his days at Brooklyn College, where he got the chance to play Willy Loman in “Death of a Salesman.” His ambitions to pursue acting professionally crystalized when he received a Fulbright Scholarship and chose to study theater 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.” His brother, Ken Lerner, also became an actor.

Lerner’s big break in show business came when he landed the role of monologuing movie mogul Jack Lipnick in the Coen brothers’ 1991 comedy thriller “Barton Fink,” co-starring John Turturro, John Goodman and Judy Davis. The role earned Lerner an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor in 1992.

Drawing inspiration from Preston Sturges movies, Lerner said the Coens didn’t 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.

“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 told The Associated Press in 2016. “I did the monologue the way I wanted to do it and I just walked out of the room and that was it. And Joel and Ethan were just sitting in a corner just laughing and laughing and that was it.”

Following the success of “Barton Fink,” Lerner continued to appear in various films and TV series, including “Clueless,” “Godzilla,” “Elf,” “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” and “Glee.” Lerner’s most recent role was in the Sergey Mokritskiy-directed war drama “Pervyy Oskar” in 2022.

“Everyone that knows him knows how insane he was— in the best way,” Sam concluded his post. “I’m so lucky I got to spend so much time with him, and we’re all lucky we can continue to watch his work for the rest of time.”

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