Jon Polito: That Guy From That Thing (Who You Definitely Know)

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Take a good look at the guy talking to the Dude in "The Big Lebowski" photo above. You know it right? But can you place it?

Even though he's appeared in over 200 film and television projects, many of which are classics, we won't hold it against you if you can't place Jon Polito. That's just the life of a character actor.

"I do consider myself a character actor because everything I've played has been one hell of a character," Polito told us over the phone last week while promoting his latest film, the horror anthology "Locker 13," which opens in limited release and On Demand today.

Since we had him on the line, we also took the opportunity to chat character acting in general, and specifically about some of our favorite films (and one very important TV show).

[Related: Clint Howard: That Guy From That Thing (That You Definitely Know)]

This Guy on Being a That Guy

What is a character actor?
Jon Polito: I think a character actor, more than a leading man, is someone off to the side. They're either the baddie, or they are the best friend. A mother role is a character actor part. It's the stuff that fills in the plot from the center of the movie, which is usually your leading man or leading woman.

How many parts would you say you've had?
Well, I just reached the 200 mark on IMDb, and now I'm over it by about four or five [for the record it's 203 and counting]. That includes films and television, and it doesn't include all the different episodes of shows. So I'm up there. I've been working since the beginning of time and it shows.

Do you get a gold watch when you hit 200?
No. I didn't get anything when I got 200. I got a tax bill. You know that happened. It's a funny thing about character actors. ... You hear stories about when there was demands for better salaries and stuff for actors. What happened to us was when these stars went up into the $20 million range, they cut the salaries of the character people way down. And yet people think character men are rich, but in fact in the end, some years were as low as $50,000 and less, and some years they were maybe as high as $120,000. But not more than that. They're really middle class, and most of the time lower middle class. That's what an actor is, except in the fact that they have panache and charm.

What role would you say people recognize you most for?
I think that generally my career changed with "Miller's Crossing," and therefore there was a gangstery thing that went with a mustache. So I would say the character Johnny Caspar. And Miller's Crossing led to a whole bunch of recognition. But then again, I was on "Seinfeld" in the "Reverse Peephole" episode where I had a comb over and talked with a bad accent. I played his landlord. And of course, "Seinfeld" at the time was major and that lasted for about five years. Now I'm only recognized for surviving this long.

Has anybody ever said to you, "Hey, you're that guy from that thing!"?
Yes. Yes. Please. I know what your articles are about. I've seen them. And the funny thing is, I read one on Clancy Brown who I'd worked with in "The Highlander," and I think that's a genius actor. But there are many of us out there. And especially in Hollywood now, when people come to visit because 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 favorite performance that they like.

I must tell you, as I'm getting to this age — 97 years old, just kidding — but as I'm getting older, finally people seem to at least either mispronounce my first name and say Joe instead of Jon, but they do get something.

Who was the first big star you shared a scene with? Do you remember?
I do remember very well. Alan Arkin. I had done a couple of performances, and I'd been in a couple of shows, and I did a couple of independents. But I got a role in a thing called "A Deadly Business." Michael Learned was the female lead and Alan Arkin was the male lead. And he was just incredible. ... And I had a very good scene with him. I remember it well. I remember shooting it in a diner in Toronto and how proud I was to feel like I held my own with an actor of that caliber.

[Related: Clancy Brown: That Guy From That Thing (Who You Definitely Know)]

Some of the Things You've Seen This Guy In...

How did you score that first role with the Coen brothers? How did you become Johnny Caspar in "Miller's Crossing"?
I got to read for it. And I knew they were looking for the part and were close to casting. ... I was asked initially to read for another part by the casting person. I don't think the Coens knew this. I was asked to read for the Dane. But I had read the script and the only part I ever wanted to play was Johnny Caspar. So I said, "No. I will not read for anything but Johnny Caspar."

But they didn't think I was the right age because I was 39 and the character was supposed to be 50, 55, or at least late 40s, because it was originally going to be done with Trey Wilson, the actor who played in "Raising Arizona." He was the original casting that Albert Finney took over when [Wilson died suddenly, at the age of 40].

So anyway, I would not read for the Dane, and I went off and did a play, "Other People's Money," and I did an arc on "Miami Vice." And they came back to me after about a month and a half ... and said, "We still haven't cast the part, we would like to see Polito for this part." And I only read the first scene, and the Coens stopped and said, "Wait outside." And then they asked me to come back in, and then without even prepping, they wanted me to read the whole role, the whole scene, the whole performance. So I read, I sat in that casting room and read every scene.

And what about "Barton Fink," did you pick your part in that one?
I wanted to play the role that Michael Learner played, which was the producer. But the Coens said, "No," and they said, "We wrote this other part with you in mind, this part of Lou Breeze." And I said, "No." And then I brought them to see me in "Other People's Money." I was doing it in New York, and I brought both Frances McDormand and Joel and Ethan, and Ethan's wife at the time. And we all had dinner afterwards and I was convinced that I had convinced them that I was so fabulous that I would have to play the producer. And they said, "No, no, no. We want you for the part we told you." And so I kind of said, "No."

I thought it was a very dark script, I couldn't figure it out, and I left that restaurant. And Frances McDormand came running after me. It was raining and I had one of those small New York umbrellas. ... And she went under my umbrella, and I remember her being soaking wet. And she said, "Jon, you've got to take this part." And I said, "Why? I want to play bigger parts now that I'm a big star." And she said, "No. No. They want you for this. And if they wrote it for you, you have to play it."

I did not want to play it. She said, "I did not want to play the smaller part in 'Raising Arizona' after playing the lead of 'Blood Simple,' but I did take it, and it changed my career." And she was right. So I said, "OK, I'll do it."

And what it did was kind of cinch that there was no pegging me just as a gangster, because the "Barton Fink" role was a big, nebbish, high-voiced, strange little man. And so whatever they chose from then on, and I just did.

One last Coen Brothers question: How about your role in "The Big Lebowski"?
I just remember I had no idea what I was facing when I saw the way Jeff Bridges was playing Lebowski. I mean, there's nothing in film like it. I think now there's a reason why everybody loves it. He looked like he smelled. I mean, he was in his pajamas, barefooted, and he was so much like those hippies that I knew from college. ... These are great actors. Jeff Bridges is a great actor.

And so I remember being a little intimidated, but I was just throwing it in the role, because I was supposed to be a private dick, just like him, a "brother shamus" that was supposed to be a little intimidated by how good he was. And that was all just thrown in.

We shot for one night, only one night for that scene. ... I remember it was a very short shoot for me. And I just remember trying to get on my toes because I felt that he was taller than me and I wanted to be equal with him. So the joke would sort of be that when I spoke I'd try to go on my toes. You don't quite see it, but you can see me bouncing a lot.

What was it like working with Marlon Brando on "The Freshman"?
That was an amazing experience. Of course, there's the intimidation factor, but he's a big goof, really.

And he would do his own makeup, too, which I thought was great. So you'd see him go in the trailer, this little … he was 65 at the time, and not at all looking like how he ended up looking. And he would turn himself from Brando into "The Godfather" character, Corleone. And that was all done with makeup, and he didn't need the jowls by the time we did "The Freshman," which was a takeoff on "The Godfather." He had his own jowls. It was funny that what he had created, his face turned into, really, later on. So there was no need for the jowls. But he made himself much larger using platform shoes, and the way he would gray his hair, it was quite beautiful to watch.

And working with him was amazing because he would improv. ... He was very generous on the set, but he went with the moment. And he had the earphones in, so his lines were coming in over the earphones. Goodness.

How did you land that wonderful "Seinfeld" role?
I had an old fax machine when I got the script, and I got it on a Friday night and was told I was going to meet Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David on Saturday for a show that was going to start shooting on Monday. And my old printer printed it wrong. The first line was from the scene in the hallway with Kramer, and the way my printer printed it was, "What are doing," instead of "What are you doing?"

So I thought, "What are doing?" That means he has an accent. So I added this generic mid-Eastern, European accent. And when I saw myself in the mirror, I thought, if I've got an accent, I'm going to use a combover. So I had the combover [hairpiece] from a movie, "Barton Fink," that I put on. So then I walk into the audition and find all my character guys saying, "What are you talking about? You don't have an accent. The first line is, 'What ARE you doing?'" I said, "Wait a minute. What ARE you doing? Wait a minute." And then all of a sudden [they called], "Jon Polito," first one in to read, which is usually the kiss of death. But instead I went in, I said to Seinfeld and David, I say, "Guys, I had a misprint. I thought this and that. ... So I tried this accent and I used this hairpiece." And Seinfeld goes, "Where's the hairpiece?" I said, "This combover. This is a hairpiece." And he said, "So try the accent." And I tried the accent and I got the role.

There was a lot of mystery on the set of "The Crow," as well as tragedy. What was it like on that set?
It was a haunted set, I felt. We were shooting, and at the same time the Coen Brothers were shooting "The Hudsucker Proxy." All I remember is, that besides the [Brandon Lee] shooting, the horrible death, there was a boy who was electrocuted the first night, an electrician whose cherry-picker electrical system fell into a hole and he was pushed up to the top of the telephone pole, or electrical pole, and electrocuted. We had a fire on the set the third day. There was a tornado during the shoot. It was generally, I would say, a haunted set.

And having sat with him, with Brandon Lee, and discussing the fact that there was a curse ["The Crow" was shooting around the same time as the fictionalized biopic "Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story," in which the Lee family is haunted by an ominous phantom] ... and he said, "No, no. No, I don't believe in the curse, and I don't believe that anything bad will happen." It was kind of a horrific event.

You were reunited with Alan Arkin on "The Rocketeer"...
We had to walk up and down a lot of steps. I remember that Arkin and I were just yelling and bitching. … There was another scene where an actor was going to come in after us, so we had to walk in, do the bit, walk up the steps, ... and that second set of actors were quite the divas and they insisted on doing take after take after take. I remember, me at whatever I was, 300 pounds at the time, and Alan Arkin were both breathing and panting the same way.

What about your latest film, "Locker 13"?
Here's the story here, talk about accidents... I knew one of the producers and the editor was a terrific guy I had worked with before, Erik Andersen. But he said, "Do you want to do this cameo, a walk-on part in 'Locker 13?'" All I was going to do was play a fighter coach for a one-scene character. But the day before we began the shoot, I was going to come in and come out, I got a call from [director] Matthew [Mebane] in a panic, that Keith David, who was playing the role of the manager of the fighter, was ill and was not able to do the shoot. And they had everything set up and all the money in place. They could only shoot these two days. Was there any way I could pull this role together overnight?

And so I had to learn the whole role overnight. Actually not overnight. I don't think I got the call till 6 p.m., and I think I had to get the lines down, I had to be on the set at 6 a.m. So there was very little time. But I somehow threw it together. It was one of those adventures that you have in life. And threw it together including a wardrobe and was able to get over there and do that performance. And more importantly, got to work with Ricky Schroder, who I think is terrific, and pulled together a performance under the direction of Matthew, who very, very kindly got me right into the role in a very short time.

See Jon Polito in the "Locker 13" trailer:

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