Jon Polito, a character actor best known for his roles as menacing, gravelly voiced gangsters, cops and shady business executives in movies created by the Coen brothers and in the first two seasons of the television crime drama “Homicide: Life on the Street,” died Sept. 1 at a hospital in Duarte, California. He was 65.
His death was announced by his manager, Maryellen Mulcahy. The cause was multiple myeloma.
Stocky, bald and often sweaty, Polito seldom if ever had a leading role. Yet in a career that included more than 100 films and 50 television shows, he often had many memorable dramatic – and comedic – parts.
He acted on Broadway alongside Dustin Hoffman and John Malkovich in Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman”; improvised a comedy scene with Marlon Brando in “The Freshman” (1990); and appeared in the 1998 cult classic film, “The Big Lebowski,” created by Joel and Ethan Coen, as a hapless detective in a comically profane encounter with Jeff Bridges’s character, the Dude.
“I’m a brother shamus,” Polito says.
“A brother shamus?” says the Dude. “Like an Irish monk?”
“I’m a private snoop like you, man,” Polito replies.
During the first two seasons of NBC’s “Homicide: Life on the Street,” in 1993 and 1994, Polito played Steve Crosetti, a hardened but haunted Baltimore police officer. He was prominently featured in the show’s first two seasons, but when the producers planned to de-emphasize his role in the third season, Polito voiced his frustration to the media.
It didn’t take long before Crosetti’s body was pulled out of the water, a victim of suicide.
“I was totally wrong,” Polito later admitted, “because, in fact, the changes they made meant that NBC put it on a better night, and it became a success.”
But Polito became a success in his own right, even if his face was more familiar than his name. Early in his stage career in New York, he won awards for his work in off-Broadway productions, and he appeared opposite Faye Dunaway in a short-lived Broadway drama, “The Curse of an Aching Heart,” in 1982.
In a Tony Award-winning 1984 revival of “Death of a Salesman,” he played the callous boss who fired Willy Loman, the central character played by Hoffman.
Polito portrayed a mob boss in the 1980s TV police drama “Crime Story” before being cast in his first Coen brothers production, “Miller’s Crossing,” in 1990. In the film, set in the 1930s, he plays a mobster, Johnny Caspar, at odds with another gangster played by Albert Finney.
In a riveting scene, Caspar confronts Finney’s character, Leo, and says a bookie named Bernie Bernbaum should be killed: “I’m talkin’ about friendship. I’m talkin’ about character. I’m talkin’ about . . . Hell, Leo, I ain’t embarrassed to use the word – I’m talkin’ ethics. Whereas Bernie Bernbaum is a horse of a different color. Ethics-wise. As in, he ain’t got any.”
Polito appeared in four other Coen brothers films, “Barton Fink” (1991), “The Hudsucker Proxy” (1994), “The Big Lebowski” (1998) and “The Man Who Wasn’t There” (2001), a noirish movie starring Billy Bob Thornton.
Throughout his career, Polito often took on comic roles, including that of Silvio, a hotheaded landlord in a 1998 episode of “Seinfeld.” He also played an executive of a low-budget airline in “View From the Top” (2003), a frothy romantic comedy starring Gwyneth Paltrow.
Interviewing Paltrow for a job as a flight attendant, Polito had one of the movie’s best lines: “You’re gonna love the uniform. Our motto is big hair, short skirts and service with a smile.”
John Polito – he later dropped the “h” from his first name – was born Dec. 29, 1950, in Philadelphia. His father was a factory worker.
Inspired by classic Hollywood character actors such as Sidney Greenstreet and Charles Laughton, Polito began appearing in high school plays before receiving a drama scholarship to Villanova University, outside Philadelphia. He graduated with honors.
He landed his first major acting job on Broadway in 1977 as an understudy in the David Mamet drama “American Buffalo.”
Polito had been treated for multiple myeloma, a form of blood cancer, for several years but continued to act until shortly before his death. He had recurring roles in several TV series, including “Modern Family,” “Bunheads” and “Raising the Bar.” He played Danny DeVito’s brother in the sitcom “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” and appeared in the 2006 World War II film “Flags of Our Fathers,” directed by Clint Eastwood.
Polito’s survivors include his husband, Darryl Armbruster.
One of Polito’s final film roles came in 2013, when he played an unflappable mobster in “Gangster Squad” who tells a character played by Sean Penn: “I’ve seen guys like you before. The Mojave is filled with them. Bright boys that want to shoot their way to the top of the class.”
Polito said it was easy for him to pick a good role.
“My theory is there are only gangsters and cops,” he said in 2005. “There are also fathers, but they are really boring unless some tragedy happens to the father.”