You may not know the name but you probably know the face. You might recognize him from that one time you went to your local insurance broker and spoke to that friendly middle-aged guy behind a desk who treated you like an old college friend. Or maybe it was the grocer who used to hand you a free sweet when you went shopping with your mother as a kid. Even if you’d only seen one of his films, there was something innately familiar about Jon Polito that made him instantly likeable. He had that rare quality shared by all character actors of his calibre, that little je-ne-sais-quoi that made you think “Yes. I know that guy.”

The above comparisons with fantasized mercantile figures is more than just a folkloric image; not only did many of Polito’s roles consist of merchants and businessmen of all stripes, but the very persona he projected in most of them, whether honest or crooked, was that of a salesman advertising that most difficult of all merchandises to sell: His own self.

With his shiny balding head, humpty-dumpty physique and classic pencil moustache, he brought to mind the image of an overgrown schoolboy in a prom suit trying to conceal his shyness and insecurities behind a winning smile and an overtly enthusiastic attitude. No matter the size of the part, the morals of the character or the quality of the film, Jon Polito appealed to you because he wanted you to like him and to share his happiness of being here.

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A classically-trained actor of stage and screens both large and small, Jon Polito was known to TV audiences for his role in the Boston-set police drama Homicide: Life On The Street as the devoutly Catholic police detective Steve Crosetti, a character whom he would play for two seasons until the writers had him commit suicide off-screen in season 3 – a decision which resulted in a very public rift between Polito and the show’s producers. After a subsequent reconciliation, he reprised the role one last time in spirit form on the show’s TV-movie finale, Homicide: The Movie.

In cinemas, Polito rarely got to play characters as prominent as Crosetti but he always left a lasting impression. He never “stole” his scenes, as moviegoer jargon commonly describes supporting players who stand out; like all good tradesmen, he negotiated them fairly, knowing just what portion he could allow himself to eat without starving out his colleagues. Whether he was a sleazy pawnshop owner in The Crow or nightclub owner Enrico Banducci in Big Eyes, Polito reacted to his leads with humble yet self-assured vigour. The performance was always at the service of the narrative and emotional demands of the scene, never an opportunity to show off.

Yet amidst the hundreds of film and TV roles Jon Polito amassed in the course of his most versatile career, his collaboration with the Coen brothers undoubtedly constitutes his richest and most enduring body of work. His distinct appearance, raspy voice and sneaky brand of charisma made him an ideal fit for these filmmakers’ uniquely American gallery of idiosyncratic personages. If the Coens’ characters all inhabited the same town, Polito would be its mayor: jovial, welcoming, blissfully unaware of his own quirks and limitations but too authentic to ridicule.
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In this universe, Polito found a terrain in which to flourish and renew his skills in even the smallest of parts: Think of his turn as Hollywood studio yes-man Lou Breeze in Barton Fink, where his body seemed to shrink with every command issued by his loudmouth boss. Or that deeply humanizing moment of cringe comedy in The Man Who Wasn’t There, when Creighton Tolliver attempts a clumsy pass on his would-be business partner with an awkward little wink and a loosened tie.

But of course, the most famous product of this long and fruitful working relationship remains their first: Miller’s Crossing, which Polito’s mob boss Johnny Caspar opens with a memorable monologue on the ethics of fixed fights, only to be coldly reminded by his powerful rival that he’s “exactly as big as [he] lets him be, and no bigger”. Words which Polito spends much of his performance contradicting in the most physical way possible; his body language is a marvel to behold, positively bubbling with barely-suppressed frustration as he huffs, puffs and blusters his way to the top like a frog trying to reach the size of an ox. Crucially, however, he never plays his character as a simple buffoon. The ethnic and class-based source of his resentment – that of the self-made Italian immigrant struggling to be taken seriously by his Irish social superiors – powers his comical presence in a manner that invites understanding, if not outright empathy. Even his inept attempts at eloquence (particularly his recurring expression “the high hat” to denounce condescension) are delivered with an element of sincerity that undercuts such humour’s inherent form of mild classism. It’s small touches such as these that make characters like Johnny Caspar transcend caricature, and imprint actors like Jon Polito into our minds.

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Jon Polito, who died on the 1st of September 2016, is survived by his husband, actor Darryl Armbruster, his brother Jack Polito and the broad range of characters he brought to life in the course of a 35 year-long career. Long may they keep enlivening the films and shows in which they forever dwell.

By Thomas Ricard

Franco-British American cinephile. Critical role models include Roger Ebert, Armond White, Stephanie Zacharek and Ray Carney. Favourite films include Mulholland Dr., Taxi Driver, Vertigo and Persona.