You may not know the name Jon Polito but you know his face. It is one of the most recognizable in the business, and that voice! Pure trademark gruff.
From being a kind of muse for the Coens (he appears in The Man Who Wasn’t There, The Big Lebowski and Barton Fink) to creating a memorable Seinfeld character to playing rough on TV’s Homicide, Polito’s done it all in more than one hundred films and TV shows.
He’s a tough but tender mob boss in The Last Godfather, a slapstick spoof on gangster films from Korean comedian and filmmaker Hyung Rae Shim, who wrote, directed and stars. Polito chomps on big cigars, and growls with that unmistakable voice while plotting to bring down a rival don (Harvey Keitel) even as his daughter’s falling for his rival’s son.
Monsters and Critics spoke with Polito, whose natural voice is surprisingly soft, about the film and his remarkable career.
M&C: The Last Godfather is a trip; it’s different from Hollywood comedies as it has a unique Korean flavor.
Polito: The thing is we’re dealing with a comedian from Korea who studied Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin; the early slapstick American work. It was great for him in creating Yung Gu. It worked for the Korean audiences and I totally understood why Chaplin and Keaton in those old movies that went overseas.
That comedy worked just as well for all audiences. Mr. Shim really understood the comedy and slapstick. The Tramp, the idea of using that character juxtaposed with a basic gangster film was the hook and interesting way of approaching comedy.
And the studio used certain familiar figures to be mob gangsters – Harvey Keitel, Michael Rispoli and myself American, they had the right people. It’s a funny thing. I was doing an interview on Bogart’s films and we talked about character actors.
There are certain actors you see on the screen and you know what they’re going to do and you’re happy to see them, like Harvey Keitel and Rispoli in strong performances and you know who I am when you see me especially in a gangster set-up since the Coens. You know you’re in familiar territory when you hear my gruff voice.
M&C: For all the prestigious work you do, I think you’ll always be known as Silvio, Jerry Seinfeld’s landlord in the reverse peephole episode.
Polito: Seinfeld. That was an amazing story how I even got that thing because the audition was on a Saturday and started shooting Sunday and basically I had the script on my old fax machine that didn’t print very well. My first line to Kramer when he’s reversing peepholes was “What are you doing?”
I assumed an accent and in my mind it was a Middle Eastern European accent, and I had the hairpiece from Barton Fink and so I walked into the room first to audition and I’m with this accent and I ask the other actors what accents they’re doing and they say “What accent?” Anyway, the first line is “What are you doing?” So they call “Jon Polito to the casting room”. There was Seinfeld and I told him my fax didn’t work and I’d been working on an accent and had a hairpiece. He said to try it. I was the first to read and I got it.
And I thank the gods because the cheques keep coming in and people know me. Then I worked for the Coens on five films and played a nerdy studio head in Rocketeer, all these things because of a popular TV show playing a character a little crazy around the edges named Silvio.
What nationality was he? When you get something like that, it’s like the Big Lebowski which is iconic, and you end up being known.
M&C: Character actors are really well known these days.
Polito: When I was a kid my brother used to take me to these silent movies, those 4.30 old movies in Philadelphia. We’d see actors in silent films like Lon Chaney, Bette Davis who has great variations.
I was always a character person who likes the variations, the wigs, in all ways, and as a character actor in theatre everything from leading men to older parts from the time I started. I don’t even charge much!***image4:center**
M&C: Is there a role you want to do that has eluded you?
Polito: I’m getting to the point where I start to think about the grandfather roles, something to do with kids, I think my curmudgeonly character combined with some sweet kid, would be fun. I’m too old to play Willy Loman but I could play Big Daddy in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.
I enjoy character actors like Walter Brennan and Charles Laughton and Burl Ives. I could only aspire to be these guys. Especially Burl Ives, he was in East of Eden, he was Big Daddy. He was brilliant and untouchable.
M&C: You have worked steadily since 1981. Has it been easy or tough?
Polito: It’s been very tough. The main thing is to remain consistently employed. My major job in life is getting employed. Let’s talk about The Big Lebowski – I shot my part in only one evening, The Man Who Wasn’t There, I shot in two days. So basically you’re really trying to get enough work to keep alive. I never made tremendous money.
I’ve envied my relatives that had steady jobs. You have no idea how difficult it is. Every month or week, you struggle and now in this economy, everyone’s in the same boat. As an actor people see you in a performance, say The Mentalist, and they say “There’s Jon Polito”. The Mentalist pays you $6000.
You pay government taxes, agents, managers and you don’t get another job for 3 – 4 months, minus taxes and commission.
M&C: But you’ve done great work.
Polito: The hardest thing for any actor to do is find work. That’s why for me, the gift of the Coen brothers when I did Miller’s Crossing, I was 39. They had no money and the film wasn’t received all that well, it wasn’t what it is now.
The Coen films grow more important with age. It got okay reviews but since they became iconic figures, they are able to be guaranteed 2 or 3 jobs a year as a result of that job. Not everybody knows my name but they know my face.
The younger filmmakers know my name, and you’re cast based on history, reputation and status as a cult figure. Filmmakers now, I just jump on their coattails and grab on.
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