Michael Lerner, ‘Barton Fink’ and ‘Elf’ Actor, Dead at 81

Wire Service
By Wire Service
April 10, 2023Entertainment
Michael Lerner, ‘Barton Fink’ and ‘Elf’ Actor, Dead at 81
Actor Michael Lerner attends the premiere of "Yonkers Joe" during the 2008 Tribeca Film Festival in New York on April 24, 2008. (Bryan Bedder/Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival)

Michael Lerner, a veteran character actor who received an Oscar nomination for his performance as an overbearing studio head in the 1991 film “Barton Fink,” has died, his nephew, actor Sam Lerner, announced in a post on social media. He was 81.

“We lost a legend last night,” Sam Lerner wrote on Instagram Sunday. “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.”

No further details on Lerner’s death were given. CNN has reached out to representatives for Michael and Sam Lerner for further comment.

Michael Lerner was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1941 and studied drama at Brooklyn College. He later earned a Fulbright scholarship and spent two years in London before he was invited to join the American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco. He was discovered by an agent in San Francisco who brought him down to Los Angeles where his Hollywood career began.

With film and television credits dating back to the 1960’s, Lerner’s career in Hollywood spanned decades. His earliest work throughout the 1960’s and 1970’s included appearances on television shows like “The Doris Day Show,” “The Bob Newhart Show,” and “M*A*S*H.”

His first film came in 1970 as the character Leo in “Alex in Wonderland” alongside Donald Sutherland and Ellen Burstyn. Lerner went on to appear in films such as “The Ski Bum,” “The Candidate,” and “Outlaw Blues.”

The actor appeared in multiple episodes of “Hill Street Blues” and “Melba” in the mid 1980s before he starred in “Barton Fink” in 1991. His performance as studio executive Jack Lipnick, for which he starred alongside John Turturro, John Goodman, and Judy Davis, earned him an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor.

“I read the script, and you just know good writing. It was brilliantly written, and I just knew it,” Lerner said in 2016 of the “Barton Fink” script, adding that during his audition in front of directors Joel and Ethan Coen, “I did the monologue the way I wanted to do it and I just walked 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.”

In 1995, Lerner starred in the CBS drama “Courthouse” as Judge Myron Winkleman, which lasted for one season. He went on to play Cher Horowitz’s father Mel Horowitz for one season in the 1996 “Clueless” television series inspired by the hugely successful film of the same name starring Alicia Silverstone.

Throughout the aughts and 2010’s, Lerner appeared as Fulton in the holiday classic “Elf” alongside Will Farrell, and in TV shows like “Law and Order: SVU,” “The Good Wife,” and “Glee.”

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