Michael Lerner, the veteran character actor who received an Oscar nomination for his performance in the Coen brothers' Barton Fink, has died at age 81. His nephew, actor Sam Lerner, announced his passing on social media.
"We lost a legend last night. It's hard to put into words how brilliant my uncle Michael was, and how influential he was to me," Sam Lerner wrote on Instagram. "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," he concluded. "RIP Michael, enjoy your unlimited Cuban cigars, comfy chairs, and endless movie marathon"
Born in New York on June 22, 1941, Lerner fell in love with acting while studying at Brooklyn College. He later received a Fulbright Scholarship to study theater at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, during which time he shared a flat with John Lennon and Yoko Ono. One of Lerner's first film roles was in Ono's experimental short, Smile. "She made a movie comprised of bare asses walking on a treadmill," he said. "I'm in it, and so is Paul McCartney."
Lerner moved to Los Angeles in the late 1960s to pursue a career in acting, making his feature film debut in director Paul Mazursky's Alex in Wonderland in 1970, starring alongside Donald Sutherland and Ellen Burstyn. Roles opposite Robert Redford in The Candidate and Jack Nicholson in The Postman Always Rings Twice led to memorable turns in John Sayles' Eight Men Out in 1988 and Eddie Murphy's Harlem Nights the following year.
In 1991, Lerner starred in Joel and Ethan Coen's period thriller Barton Fink, playing the brash studio mogul Jack Lipnick opposite John Turturro in the title role. The actor had previously auditioned for the Coens for a role in their crime drama, Miller's Crossing, that he didn't get.
This time, "I walked into the room, as the character, and I don't say hello to anybody," Lerner recalled in an interview with AV Club. "And I sit down behind my desk and do this big speech: 'Bart! Bart! So great to see you.' I did the monologue the way I wanted to do it and I just walked [off] the room and that was it. And Joel and Ethan were just sitting in a corner just laughing and laughing and that was it."
Barton Fink earned three nominations at the 64th Oscars, including Best Supporting Actor for Lerner.
The actor later reunited with the Coens for a cameo in 2009's A Serious Man. Other highlights from his prolific filmography include playing the antagonist Mr. Greenway in 2003's Elf, as well as roles in Life During Wartime (2009) and X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014).