Saturday, December 29, 2007

I'm talkin' about character

Look at this face, jut look at it.
You've seen him before. Maybe dozens of times. You can probably even hear his voice, lightly Italian accented, when he laughs it seems a little too hard, maybe you've seen him beg with desperation, or crack a yawn like he's been working a case all day. Or maybe you've been lucky enough to see him drive himself into a frenzy yelling to the point of near hoarseness at some flunky who has screwed up. This is the kind of face that fills out the edge of a film, you look at him and think "yeah I know what the deal is, this guy is probably trouble."

They most certainly do NOT make them like Jon Polito anymore that is a fact.

In honor of Jon Polito's birthday, I think a look back at some of his work from a long and storied career is in order. Oh sure there are number of other film related birthdays we COULD be celebrating; pretty boys like Jude Law and Diego Luna, long-time stalwarts like John Voight and Mary Tyler Moore and no doubt the actress-sexuals have Patricia Clarkson covered. But damn it here on The Sickness' Cinema we love guys like Polito. He's the kind of guy who can turn up in a movie and provide that sense of relief where you think "ah at least the next scene with THIS guy will be good." The invaluable resource for character actor fans like me, Hey! It's That Guy puts it succinctly.
Jon Polito just wasn't made for these times.
There used to be an era, back in the days of The Maltese Falcon, Casablanca and Peter Lorre in M, when Hollywood valued the weasel, the slippery rat, and the rotund double-crosser. Unfortunately for Jon Polito, those times are not these times, and we're all the poorer for it.
If you need proof look what happened to him in 1994. Polito, an actor who, with his spherical stature and shifty, sweaty demeanor, often comes across as a snowman made of Crisco had finally procured a feature role on a smart new TV series: that of Detective Steve Crossetti on the critically lauded Homicide: Life on the Street [...] Pre-Homicide, Polito had established himself as an art-house Joe Pesci, a thinking man's Danny DeVito. Now, it seemed, he'd have a weekly national platform from which we could all indulge in his particular talents.
But Homicide's ratings flatlined, and in an effort to improve them, the producers tossed out many of the compelling character actors and trucked in more photogenic, less interesting replacements. Out went Polito, in came the hunky Reed Diamond, and, to our mind, the show was never quite the same.
Getting rid of Polito did illustrate a larger shift in this much beloved police procedural. He did get an excellent goodbye episode where (spoiler alert) his character was found dead, entitled, appropriately enough, "Crossetti." Polito has lucked out since though, being a valued recurring player in the Coen brothers acting ensemble. Polito has appeared in five of the brothers films and in parts of various sizes and is dynamite in all of them. While he may never be a matinee idol the man gets the job done and has been a ubiquitous presence in many a period film and genre picture. Most recently he could be seen as part of Denzel Washington's competition in American Gangster a perfect sort of movie for finding a casting director's ace like Polito.

But Polito has done more, much more. He was Willy Loman's boss in the excellent Dustin Hoffman TV version of Death of a Salesman. He was Mr. Bigelow, the air-field owner in the retroactively beloved The Rocketeer. He infamously thought Dr. Reed was a man and lived the dream by whacking Sarah Chalke on her bottom in an episode of Scrubs. He's menaced superheroes in The Crow and Blankman and beloved children's character in Stuart Little and The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle. He showed up in Flags of Our Fathers and will actually play one of the titular brothers in the forthcoming (and friend of the blog edited) Marconi Brothers. For god sakes the man was in C.H.U.D. Jon Polito is greatness.

But it all comes down to the man's Coen Brothers work. His most famous role to date being Johnny Caspar the villain of the masterwork Miller's Crossing. Caspar cuts a mighty figure, ranting and raving ad making all manner of moves against our "heroes" Gabriel Byrne and Albert Finney. Talking out f one side of his mouth about "morals" and "ethics", while at the other end nearly exploding about being given "the high hat." Polito gets to chew scenery like nobody else.

Look I've talked enough, if you haven't seen it with your own eyes let me SHOW you the greatness that is Polito in this glorious tribute vid that I found honoring Polito before receiving his Cinequest award. It sums him up nicely.

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