Obituary: Jon Polito, actor

Born: 29 December, 1950, in Philadelphia. Died: 1 September, 2016, in Los Angeles, aged 65.

Jon Polito, actor who specialised in charismatic gangsters. Picture: AP
Jon Polito, actor who specialised in charismatic gangsters. Picture: AP

Short and stocky, balding, with little, shifty eyes, a croaky voice and sometimes a pencil-thin moustache, Jon Polito looked like the sort of man you would trust with your life only if you had a death wish. He appeared in over 200 television shows and films, often as villains.

He was a character actor, rather than a star, appearing mainly in supporting roles. But Miller’s Crossing (1990) gave him one of his meatier parts, as the hot-headed Italian gang boss Johnny Caspar, alongside Gabriel Byrne and Albert Finney. Miller’s Crossing was one of five films he made with the Coens.

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Polito insisted he did not mind being typecast as gangsters as long as he could bring something interesting to his characters, and he did play a few detectives too, including a private eye in the Coens’ 1998 cult favourite The Big Lebowski and Steve Crosetti in the first two series of acclaimed American crime drama series Homicide: Life on the Street (1993-94).

Polito’s character was dropped at the end of the second series because NBC wanted a new female character. His disappearance was supposed to be temporary, but Polito was unhappy and publicly criticised the producers, who responded by having his character commit suicide, which made Polito even more unhappy. “It makes no sense,” he said.

He patched up his differences with the producers. The series, which was noted for its realism, ended in 1999. But there was a further feature-length special the following year, in which Polito’s character appeared briefly – even though he was dead. He is seen playing poker with other dead detectives in the afterlife.

Films and television do not always have to make sense, of course. Polito could never work out what was meant to be going on in The Big Lebowski – in which Jeff Bridges is mistaken for another man called Lebowski by some thugs and is then mistaken for a fellow detective by Polito.

Nor could he make much sense of cult 1986 fantasy film Highlander, which starred Sean Connery as an ancient Egyptian-Spaniard warrior, who is immortal, almost – he belongs to a race who can die only by chopping each others’ heads off.

Connery’s character turns up in Scotland to provide fencing lessons for the French actor Christopher Lambert, who was unlikely casting in the title role. The film jumps back and forward between medieval Scotland and modern-day New York, where Polito played a detective investigating a spate of beheadings.

The film did not do well on its initial release, but got a new lease of life on video and spawned various sequels and television spin-offs. “It’s a tough movie to figure out,” said Polito. Because of the structure of the film, Polito never got the chance to appear in any scenes with Connery, which he said was “a great regret”.

Born Jon Raymond Polito in Philadelphia in 1950, he began acting at school, studied drama at the city’s Villanova University and moved to New York to pursue a career in theatre. He appeared in the acclaimed 1984 Broadway production of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, with Dustin Hoffman as the main character Willy Loman.

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Polito played the hard-hearted boss who fires Willy, setting him on a spiral of decline. Coincidentally, the production also featured David Huddleston, who played “The Big Lebowski” a few years later, and died last month.

During the 1980s, Polito also began landing occasional television roles and early recurring roles as a crook in The Gangster Chronicles (1981) and a detective in Ohara (1987), with Pat Morita as the Japanese-American title character, gave an early indication of Polito’s career path.

However, it was his performance in Death of a Salesman that led to his appearance in Miller’s Crossing. The Coens remembered seeing him in it on Broadway and initially wanted him for the role of another gangster, Eddie Dane, in their violent tale on underworld treachery and murder. But, after reading the script, Polito held out for the part of Dane’s boss Johnny Caspar.

“My career changed with Miller’s Crossing, and therefore there was a gangstery thing that went with a moustache,” Polito said. “So I would say the character Johnny Caspar and Miller’s Crossing led to a whole bunch of recognition.”

As well as Miller’s Crossing and Lebowski, Polito also appeared in the Coen Brothers films Barton Fink (1991), The Hudsucker Proxy (1994) and The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001).

His more recent films include Clint Eastwood’s Flags of Our Fathers (2006) and American Gangster (2007) and he made guest appearances in such hit television series as Seinfeld (1998), Desperate Housewives (2005) and Modern Family (2014-16).

However, he revealed in one interview that while the big stars were making tens of millions in a year, as a successful character actor he never made more than $120,000, which is about £90,000 at present exchange rates, and although he got recognised people rarely knew his name.

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“We all shop for ourselves and we’re in the local hardware store. And of course, all they ever do is say, ‘I know you. Oh, my God. You were…’ They don’t know what my name is, but usually they know the favourite performance that they like.”

Polito had been suffering from multiple myeloma. He is survived by husband Darryl Armbruster, an actor whom he met in the 1990s and married last year.