Michael Lerner, Character Actor and ‘Barton Fink’ Oscar Nominee, Dead at 81

The actor was best known for his role as studio executive Jack Lipnick in the Coen Brothers' "Barton Fink."
BARTON FINK, Michael Lerner, 1991. ©20th Century-Fox Film Corporation, TM & Copyright/courtesy Everett Collection
Michael Lerner in "Barton Fink"
©20thCentFox/Courtesy Everett Collection

Michael Lerner, the longtime character actor who earned an Oscar nomination for his performance as the artistically disinterested studio executive Jack Lipnick in “Barton Fink,” has died at the age of 81. The news was announced by Lerner’s nephew, actor Sam Lerner, on his personal Instagram page. While he did not offer any specifics about his uncle’s death, he used the post to pay tribute to the late Oscar nominee.

“We lost a legend last night,” Sam Lerner wrote. “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. Everyone that knows him knows how insane he was— in the best way. 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. RIP Michael, enjoy your unlimited Cuban cigars, comfy chairs, and endless movie marathon.”

Born in Brooklyn in 1941, Lerner began performing in theatre and radio plays in his early 20s, shortly after studying acting at the American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco. He began regularly booking guest spots on popular television series in the 1970s, and made his first film appearance in Paul Mazursky’s 1970 comedy “Alex in Wonderland.”

He continued to work as a character actor throughout the 1980s before the Coen Brothers gave him his career defining role in their 1991 classic “Barton Fink.” As Jack Lipnick, the mogul whose commercial instincts and interest in wrestling constantly clash with John Tuturro’s eponymous leftist playwright, Lerner struck the perfect balance of Old Hollywood bluster and psychological torture. He was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor in a Supporting Role for the performance, ultimately losing to Jack Palance for “City Slickers.”

Lerner stayed active well into the 21st century and remained in the public eye for his roles in “Elf” and “X-Men: Days of Future Past” and his brief arc on “Glee.”

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