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Good cop goes bad ... and he's proud of it

To Crystal River's police Chief James Farley, all the world's a stage, and he wants to play his part - especially if it's an evil one.

By ALEX LEARY

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 14, 2001


CRYSTAL RIVER -- It's the second night off book, as theater types like to say, and James Farley is stumbling over his lines.

His speech is slurred, his balance off, his eyes fixed on a flask of gin. "Excuse me, I think I'm going to be sick," he says, literally spitting out the words.

Make no mistake, this is the same James Farley who is Crystal River's chief of police -- a cop with a pistol and polished boots.

The kind of guy conventional stereotypes suggest would be more Clint Eastwood than Andrew Lloyd Webber.

Two decades ago that may have been the case. But a trip to the performing arts center in Fort Lauderdale in 1988 had a profound effect on Farley.

"I saw a play here and there, but when I saw Phantom of the Opera, it just blew me away," he recalled.

And so the 30-year law enforcement veteran became a regular at South Florida theaters. After he took the Crystal River job last year, Farley got involved with Playhouse 19 Community Theatre, first as an usher and then as a member of the board of directors.

As he watched performances, questions swirled in his mind. Does it ever get boring? What happens behind the screen? Do the actors get along? How do they memorize their lines?

Not too long ago someone approached Farley and asked him to audition for a part in Playhouse's latest production, Wedding From Hell, a murder mystery written by Eileen Moushey.

"What the heck," Farley thought to himself at the time. "Let me find out the answers to those questions."

Soon enough he would.

Farley, 56, grew up in Cohasset, Mass., a small middle class community 25 miles south of Boston. He was never a great student, preferring partying to the books, but excelled at writing and started a literary magazine.

After high school, at age 17, he entered the Navy. Four years later he moved to New York City and took a job with a shipping company. The job lost its appeal and in 1967 Farley moved to Florida to work for the Fort Lauderdale Police Department.

Farley comes across as the type of guy who takes a while to loosen up, hardly the theatrical sort. His voice is commanding and his demeanor businesslike.

His gray hair, which is flecked with black, is blown back off his forehead. A thin gold chain is wrapped around his neck, which extends to a slender frame that appears fitter than some of the men he commands.

One would have to look hard amid the accoutrements of police work that fill the shelves in his office to get a glimpse of the man with diverse interests and talents.

On the wall behind his desk hangs a picture he painted years ago. It depicts a solitary football player sitting on the bench, head bowed. "That is the study of defeat," Farley said dryly.

Besides acting, Farley has written two novels

Get him talking about his interests and Farley will tell you he is an avid writer, the author of two novels, including a thriller about a Secret Service agent who foils an assassin's attempt on the president.

In 1997, he retired from the Broward County Sheriff's Office and wrote Tropical Blues, the story of a young Fort Lauderdale police officer and his dealings with the leader of a drug posse.

His imagination was put to the test during Farley's early December audition for the play. He was asked to ad lib a scene in which he played a funeral director who was being propositioned by a salesman. Then he had to perform alone.

Aside from getting used to the stage lights, which tend to blind actors, the audition was relatively painless.

"I've done enough public speaking so getting up and talking in front of people does not bother me," said Farley who read a selection from the Iliad.

He landed the part of Judge Emmett who is described in the program as "distinguished but rather quiet and sad. Also, quite inebriated."

Wedding From Hell opens Friday, and last week the cast began working off book -- when they put down the scripts and run through the play from memory.

Farley, dressed in blue jeans, a sweatshirt and sneakers, does not speak for most of the opening scene. He swaggers about and pulls on his flask and cranes his neck out.

When he does speak, he slurs his speech convincingly, lessons perhaps picked up during years of dealing with real-life drunks.

During one scene, Judge Emmett is trying to officiate the wedding.

"Matrimony is a lot of things," the judge says, searching for words. "It's a it's a -- " Another character whispers "state" but the judge hears another word. "It's a steak, a big, thick, juicy steak."

On and on he rambles. Only once does Farley call out "line," a verbal clue meaning he has forgotten what to say next.

Director Chuck Haffenden, a short and stocky retiree in a military baseball hat, said Farley is uncommonly good for a rookie.

"He's much better than most," Haffenden said. "It's not very often that you get someone up there for the first time that plays off the others so well. He's a prince to work with."

As the only cast member with no prior experience, Farley said he has come to appreciate the hard work that goes into acting. Since Dec. 19, the group has rehearsed on a nightly basis.

After the play run is over, Farley said he will take a vacation and then retire from theater for a bit. Eventually, he would like to act in a couple of plays a year. He already knows what he wants his next role to be.

"I've had to be the good guy my whole life," he said. "I want to play a villain. A really evil one."

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