Michael Lerner, a veteran character actor who had small but memorable roles in “Barton Fink” and “Elf,” among dozens of other film and television credits, died on Saturday at a hospital in Burbank, Calif. He was 81.
His brother, Ken Lerner, said the cause was complications from brain seizures that Mr. Lerner suffered in November.
Mr. Lerner was a committed working actor who started out with roles in theater productions and episodic television before embarking on a five-decade film career. He appeared in “Elf” (2003), the Will Ferrell Christmas comedy, as a short-tempered and forceful publishing executive. And his role as Jack Lipnick, a volatile movie studio mogul, in Joel and Ethan Coen’s darkly comic “Barton Fink” (1991), earned him an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor in 1992.
In an interview with The New York Times just before “Barton Fink” was released, he said he approached the role as an archetype rather than a stereotype.
“You have no idea how difficult it was for me not to play him with a cigar,” Mr. Lerner said as smoke from his cigar wafted through his house in the Hollywood Hills. “That would have been a big mistake.”
Mr. Lerner had only three scenes in the film, but made the most of them, leaning on his range to show breadth of a larger-than-life character.
“I knew I was being enormously funny, and I knew I was saying outrageous things, but to lock into that place where his ego and power reside was difficult,” Mr. Lerner said.
Mr. Lerner, who started acting at the twilight of the golden age of Hollywood, drew inspiration for his portrayal of Lipnick from a real-life mogul, Louis B. Mayer, the co-founder of MGM studios. Mr. Lerner had studied Mayer throughout his life, and was writing a screenplay about the producer when he died, his brother said.
Michael Charles Lerner was born on June 22, 1941, in Brooklyn, the second of three boys born to Joseph Lerner, an antiques distributor, and Blanche (Halpern) Lerner, a secretary. After graduating from Brooklyn College, Mr. Lerner earned a master’s degree in English drama from the University of California, Berkeley, and studied for two years under a Fulbright scholarship at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art.
Before he moved in the late 1960s to San Francisco, where he started acting at the American Conservatory Theater, he worked as a counterman at several New York delicatessens. A memento from those days was a slightly shortened index finger, self-inflicted during the cutting of a tongue sandwich, The Times reported.
Mr. Lerner’s brother, Ken, was his only immediate survivor. His older brother, Arnold, died in 2004.
A passion for art, first-edition books, opera and hockey contributed to his versatility and range, said his brother, also an actor. “He always brought an intelligence to the characters that he played,” Ken Lerner said.
Mr. Lerner was nearly always smoking a cigar, a trademark that lent itself to several of his film roles, including as Pierre Salinger, John F. Kennedy’s White House press secretary, in “The Missiles of October,” a 1974 television movie about the Cuban Missile Crisis. Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis later told him that he had “out-Pierred Pierre.”
His television credits include “M*A*S*H,” “The Brady Bunch,” “Hill Street Blues” and a series based on the film “Clueless.” Among his favorite roles, his brother said, was as Jack Ruby, Lee Harvey Oswald’s assassin, in “Ruby and Oswald,” a 1978 television movie. In 2002, he appeared in London’s West End in “Up For Grabs,” a play starring Madonna. In 2014, he played a senator in the film “X-Men: Days of Future Past.”
“I would love people to know that I am a chameleon,” Mr. Lerner told The Times in 1991. “That I can play anything.”