Many people saw Jon Polito as the effervescent, rambunctious mafioso character actor, a playful scene stealer never short on buzzing bumblebee characteristics and zesty Italian American energy, and indeed some of his greatest roles showcased that. But given the right script he was also capable of a disarming centre of gravity, a melancholic, thoughtful presence in certain key projects that to me was just as compelling as his loopy side. He has passed on now but here are my top ten performances from this incredible actor:
10. Officer Sherman in Stuart Little
A classic NYC beat cop, Sherman warns the Little family about an incident involving their… littlest member with deadpan comic relief, and Polito shows off his skill for situational comedy nicely. I have fond memories of this film from my childhood and him being a brief part of it was always cool to see.
9. Agent Chester Hymes in Big Nothing
This indie cult comedy sees two hapless conmen (Ross from Friends and Shaun from Shaun Of The Dead) try and pull off a bunch of dummy level schemes and constantly get thwarted by Ross’s cop wife (Natascha McElhone). Jon plays an eccentric, Colombo type FBI forensics guru who appears to be thick as hell at first but proves to be anything but. With hysterical coke bottle glasses and a spluttering line delivery he makes the character stand out.
8. Ashcan in Homeward Bound II: Lost In San Francisco
Ashcan is the belligerent villain of this urban set sequel, an obnoxious boxer dog who makes life difficult for the heroes with his sidekick Pete (Adam Goldberg). Jon’s trademark gravelly voice lent itself to lots of cool voiceover work in his career, this being one of the most memorable.
7. Rossi in Ridley Scott’s American Gangster
A brief but affecting cameo, Italian crime boss Rossi reflects to Denzel Washington’s Frank Lucas in regards to the changing of the times, the way the mafia operates and essentially laments that things ain’t what they used to be. It’s an important scene because as he speaks we can see the wheels turning in Frank’s mind and this interaction could have largely spurred the now legendary actions of Lucas and his organization. Who better than Polito to carry such a pivotal scene.
6. Montesquino in Masters Of Horror: Haeckel’s Tale
This wonderful horror anthology series saw many of the biggest names in the genre get to play in the sandbox for various mini movies. This one sees Jon play a demented necromancer who brings back people from the dead, at a high cost. Adorned in a top hat and more hair than we ever saw him have in his career, he gets to ham it up and lay on the creep factor big time in one of his showiest genre turns.
5. DaFino in The Coen Brothers’ The Big Lebowski
Another quick cameo, he’s been in nearly half the Coen’s filmography and always amps up the scene. Da Fino is a ‘private snoop’ in his own words, a ‘brother shamus’ to which Jeff Bridges’ The Dude aloofly replies ‘Your mean like an Irish monk?’ It’s a priceless little exchange of dialogue between the two actors that allows Jon to impart some important exposition in the highly convoluted plot and have some cheeky fun while he’s at it.
4. Steve Crosetti in Homicide: Life On The Street
One of the most well rounded characters he got to play, Steve is a Baltimore cop trying to keep the pieces of his life together in between tough job stress and the serious injuring of a friend and fellow detective (Lee Tergesen). He’s got a daughter he fights to see and the twilight of his arc sees him leave to Atlantic City where he apparently commits suicide. It’s a tragic turn of events that ends on a bittersweet note in the follow up film where we see him return in an epilogue that can only be described as heaven for cops. It’s so touching to see him sitting by his wounded friend’s side in the hospital, putting the man’s Walkman on for him with his favourite music even though the fellow is unconscious and listening in himself so that he might share a moment with someone he cares about a lot. Polito plays this character beautifully and I wish he got to play more like him in his career.
3. Johnny Caspar in The Coen Brothers’ Miller’s Crossing
A feisty Italian crime boss constantly at odds with his two Irish rivals (Albert Finney and Gabriel Byrne), Johnny has a short fuse, volatile nature and has simply had enough bullshit or, as he idiosyncratically puts it, “I’m sick of the high hat!!!!” The amount of energy and frenzy Jon could whip up in his work was really something else, and this is a prime example.
2. Gideon in Alex Proyas’s The Crow
Motor City’s meanest pawnbroker, Gideon is a sleazy, amoral, nasty piece of work who serves as conduit between ill gotten goods and dirty money to a pack of savage local thugs. Fast talking, profane, volatile and ultimately a straight up fucking coward, he gets all the films’s funniest lines and Jon delivers them with effortless, scummy magnetism and milks the character for all its worth. “You’re lookin for a coroner, shit for brains!!”
1. Eddie Scarpino Giannini in Millennium
Eddie is a low level mobster who thinks he’s about to kick the bucket when he finds himself in the middle of the woods on the wrong end of an assassin’s gun. Then something very special happens to him. This is not only the finest work he’s done as an actor for me but the best guest arc on the fantastic Millennium. Eddie transforms from a selfish, murderous criminal into a fiercely protective guardian angel with something and someone to live for. It’s a beautiful performance that might have been nominated if it wasn’t just one episode. Plus we get to see him act alongside Lance Henriksen’s Frank Black as the two share a quiet moment at Christmastime.