Jon Polito is beloved to film fans for his roiling supporting turns in the films of the Coen Brothers (Barton Fink, Miller's Crossing, The Hudsucker Proxy, The Big Lebowski, and The Man Who Wasn't There) and his memorable turn as Steve Crosetti on Barry Levinson and Tom Fontana's television series Homicide: Life on the Street (one of the best series of the 1990s), though his other work ranges from the Dustin Hoffman Death of a Salesman on stage to the role of a landlord on smash sitcom Seinfeld. His latest film is the truly independent Charlie the Ox, directed by Scott Smith. A true raconteur, Polito spoke to me—about Charlie the Ox and his storied career—while in town to accept the Maverick Spirit Award at the 2005 Cinequest Film Festival. Appropriately, most of our conversation took place on a bench outside of the San Jose Repertory Theatre.
Groucho: Aside from Charlie the Ox, which I'm sure we'll all enjoy, which role of yours do you wish more people would seek out and watch?
Jon Polito: You know, it's a funny thing, because of DVD itself. There was a while I wanted more people to catch Miller's Crossing. Now, it's quite a cult film. It's the kind of thing where, you know...I think eventually they'll be cutting that thing into commercials and you know, 2000 beer commercials, I'll be talking about ethics or something. It's just—it's turned into a really great cult film. There's a couple of performances I'm very proud of. Some of which were seen...for television, Seinfeld: absolutely everybody seems to know that. But there was a performance of me as a woman—uh, either a woman with a glandular problem, or it could be a man in drag—on The Chris Isaak Show, which many of you haven't seen. Which I wish—I can't wait for the DVDs. It's the great thing that's happening now. Your work really continues on and on and on. You have for you all these wonderful actors in the '40s movies...in the 20's movies. Now they're being seen by people. There's a cult following. It's a great gift that we have. By having the collections of videos, the collections of television. So everything that I wish would have been seen, I'm sure will be seen...And there's a couple of independents, that haven't gotten enough of this kind of—that I would like to be seen...
G: What do you recall about Arthur Miller and the experience of filming Death of a Salesman for TV?
JP: It was a terrific—well, first of all, we were up in the play for a year. We actually did the play: opened out of town, played on Broadway. He was with us for the whole procedure. There was actually a question of whether I would stay with the play. We were having a little problem with the middle of the play, when I fire—I played the character of Howard that fires—in the famous scene where he says, "The death of a salesman is what he earns." And we had a lot of problems with that for Dustin, during the early run. But then, when it ran, he was around and very supportive throughout the entire run and especially the film version, as well. I also remember that it was his 70th birthday during the run of the play. Whoopi Goldberg was running on Broadway, and she used to go to our after-theatre every night after the show. So for Arthur Miller's 70th birthday party, which I have on the old video tape—remember the port-a-packs you used to have carry with your videos? Those 12-to-25-pound things? I video'd the birthday party where I have Arthur Miller singing "Georgia On My Mind." And I'll tell you, that guy can sing. And of course, it's just wonderful the way he—I mean, he was just a wonderful showman...
G: How sanguine are you about typecasting? Do you turn down certain roles as "been there, done that"?
JP: You know, it's a funny thing. I don't have a problem—first of all, my theory is there are only gangsters and cops. There are also fathers, but they are really boring unless some tragedy happens to the father. I think the movies we remember the most are, let's say, for Brando's "Godfather" or Pacino's gangsters or Pacino's cops or—they are the roles. I don't mind typecasting, but I will not do the same thing over again. The horrible flaw that young filmmakers have made with me has been when they say, "I wrote a role for you," and what they really did was rewrite Miller's Crossing. The great gift of this event was that Scott said, "I wrote a role for you" and instead, it was an actor playing a gangster. So therefore, you get your ya-ya's off by redefining the stereotype. When I did a thing in Dream On, I was the same gangster as Miller's Crossing, but I came out of the closet with it. Or when you get somebody like Chris Isaak, who calls you directly and says, "I want you to play a woman," that's a wonderful thing; there's no stereotype there. The interesting thing is—I don't mind playing a gangster as long as it's redefined in some way.
G: On this film, how is it that you were approached to do this part?
JP: Scott sent my managers the script. He got in touch with me through my managers. I read the script. I think it's a great script. I didn't know anything about Cory McAbee, as the lead. I didn't know anything about any of the casting, but I loved the role. And he was actually very generous with me in terms of the finances that he drummed up for me. So that was attractive. But even that wasn't the turning point. The turning point was that I met Scott, or talked with Scott. This guy is a really good—an important figure. And the script does every standard thing in a new way. That's why I did the film. I felt like he's playing with the norms that we know—noir that we know—but redefining it with a little gray. Not just noir.
G: Right. (Laughs.) One of my favorite roles of yours is Steve Crosetti. You mentioned cops being one of the roles. How did you see that character and did you ever disagree with the writers?
JP: No, I'll tell ya—not disagree with them. The funny thing about this was I was sent—I was told that Homicide was happening. I was not gonna do it. I did not want to read for it because I knew that they were low-budget. They were gonna shoot in Baltimore. I'm from Philadelphia. I had just moved lock, stock and barrel from New York City—my apartment—to my new apartment in L.A. And I wasn't about to go to Baltimore, a hop, skip, and a jump away from Philadelphia where I started. So I said, "I don't want to see it." My agents very wisely sent me three scripts, with—at the bottom of the three scripts—three pages from this Homicide show. And they were the first three pages of the show that was aired. There were two characters talking. They weren't called Crosetti and Meldrick at the time. There were two characters, and the one character I liked—which I eventually got to play—was an Irish name; it was based on a real policeman. So I said, "I want to read for the Irishman." I was told: no, I couldn't. So I went to the audition reading the other role—which Clark Johnson, a wonderful actor and director eventually got—but I read for the other role, but on my audition tape, I said, "Mr. Levinson, I'm going to read for this part, but I'm only gonna get—if you want to see me called back, I'll only come for the callback if you read me for the other part." And God bless Barry Levinson and Tom Fontana, they brought me back for the other part, and they renamed it and retitled the character for me. And the—it was an Irishman and a Polishman. The Polishman was given to Clark Johnson, a black man, and the Irishman was given to Jon Polito, a diva.
JP: I'm everywhere. I'm like poo.
G: How did your departure from the show shake out? I know that was kind of tricky. And did you watch the show after your departure?
JP: No, to watching it after, especially after my death. We had some conflicts on the show. I was also not in the best of shape: I was feeling very passionately about the show, and I was very annoyed about NBC's—what NBC was doing with it. I was very passionate about it. I stepped on the wrong toes. And I made a major mistake. I did not know at the time that Tom Fontana—when Tom Fontana tells you, "You have to be dropped now, but I'll bring you back"—I didn't believe that because I'd been screwed by so many producers over the years. He is a serious man when he says that. I didn't know that. I didn't trust him. So after he said, "NBC wants to get the girl on the show, and they have to replace somebody, and we're gonna choose you, but I'll bring you back in the fall," I instead, very stupidly, went to the newspapers. And I said, rather openly, I said some very vicious comments, both about the way it was being handled by NBC and the way Fontana and Levinson were handling listening to NBC. I was totally wrong because, in fact, the changes they made meant that NBC put it on a better night, and it became a success. But aside from that, I was wrong to jump at Fontana and all that, and not believe in Fontana and Levinson, because they're great people and would've been faithful to me, but I just didn't trust it because I'd been screwed too many times before. I actually said in one newspaper, "The producers of the show are like the people on the Titanic," and the writer said, "You mean they're the captain of the ship?" and I said "No, no. They're on the iceberg saying, 'This way. Come this way.'" That's in print and that was wrong.
G: But you did end up getting some closure by doing the movie.
JP: Well, that was much after the fact. They brought me back as a dead person. I asked Tom specifically—after we had our words and he was angry at me—I said, "Look, I don't care how angry you are with me, please don't have me commit suicide or anything negative with this character" because I knew the real policeman who I was playing. But he instead chose to have me commit suicide in a ridiculous way, I thought. So I never agreed with my death, and I never watched the show until they called me years later, and we had sort of patched it up and he said "You'll come back as a ghost," which I did. Out of respect for them because I realized how right they were in certain ways—and I was wrong to fight them—but I didn't trust the situation and I was very hurt. That's a true statement, dear God. What have you brought out of me after a martini?
G: (Laughs.) You've obviously been associated with the Coen brothers quite a bit—they've called you back many times. How did you first come to their attention or they to yours?
JP: I'd read the script for Miller's Crossing, and I assumed they wanted me to read for the character of Johnny Casper, the head gangster—Italian gangster against the Irish mob. But they didn't. They had seen me, I believe in Death of a Salesman, four years before, looking very different: 150 pounds and playing a Jewish guy, and they did not want to see me for that. They thought about me for the Dane, which was eventually played by J.E. Freeman. So when I heard they wanted me for the Dane, I said I wouldn't read for it. So we had a little bit of a tussle. I loved the guy—their guys' work but I didn't know them. I would never do this at this point, but I said I won't read for anything but Johnny Casper. And, after a long casting session, where they had almost cast someone, they eventually came back and asked me to read, to see what I would do with Johnny Casper. And not only did I read and they liked it, but they made me go through the entire role. I had to read every scene from the movie. And then they finally cast me as that part.
G: It seems like you're really at your best when you get to do those cold reads and prove that you can do the role.
JP: I'm at my best when I'm challenged. It's that simple. I think everybody is. I think that's where your mettle is proven—your (pause) mettle. You know the word, I hope.
JP: Don't misspell it, because I've often—.
JP: Thank you—you do understand. Your mettle is tested at times. And you stand up for what you can at times. Many times you do not win. And there's nothing wrong with losing when you stand up. If you can accept the fact that you made that choice. Sometimes I've lost, and in the case of Homicide, I would say, I made the wrong decisions. I was hurt, and it was reflected the wrong way. I believe Tom Fontana's a truly great artist, as is Levinson. And I don't think I will—y'know, I'd like to actually redefine myself with them in the future at some point.
G: When you were talking about Death of a Salesman earlier, you talked about how you almost didn't click with Dustin Hoffman. Why do you think that was, and what turned the tide?
JP: The real truth of that story was: when we opened in Chicago, Dustin did not get good reviews. And I was brought to the theatre—a very early morning, after the bad reviews—and when I arrived at the theatre, kicking and screaming, Hoffman was asking me to change my performance. I deliberately—I wanted that role and always planned that role as being a much more—not a mean guy, as it's sort of written in the old-fashioned way—but making him a businessman who's just an officious prick. And that's the reason why he fires him because he has no time for a man because Willie Loman is failing at his job. But Hoffman and I, and Arthur Miller and the director, Michael Redmond, were all on the stage of the Blackstone Theatre in Chicago, and Hoffman kept on saying, "Well, you gotta do this" and "You gotta do that," and I finally screamed at him, "Why? Why? Why did you cast me? Why are you having these problems? What do you want?" And Hoffman said, almost crying, "I can't finish the play." And I said, "What do you mean?" And he said, "I look in your eyes. And I can see in your eyes that you can see who I really am. And it makes me cry, and I can't stop crying until the end of the play." So I immediately changed my tune and said, "That's what out-of-town previews are about. What do you need?" And then we started to rehearse a different performance. But I also said to him, "Do you promise if you get it together, when I open in New York, I can do my performance?" and he said, "Yes." And God bless that genius actor—what he needed was an artificial memory, for those scenes, to be able to finish the play. He was failing because he was weeping much too early. It wasn't only the death of a salesman, it was the salesman who knew he was dying from the beginning of the second act. And so that process worked well. It turned out, in the end, the director, Michael Redmond, who I greatly respect, had been told before, in rehearsals, to tell me this. But he didn't do it because he wanted Hoffman to find that part of his performance on his own. Instead, he never told me the note, I never did it, so we had to do it after we'd previewed. But it was a brilliant idea from Hoffman—it was a brilliant acknowledgement from Hoffman to say, "I've got to have somebody else fire me, at least in my mind." And that was what we did out of town. And by the time I opened in New York, I got to do my performance. But it was a great moment. And my job was in jeopardy because they were talking about having to fire me unless I found this note to help Hoffman. As well you should. It ain't about Howard; it's about Willy Loman. And it was a great moment in my career and my life as an artist. It's a funny thing because a friend of mine ran into Michael Redmond, the director, who was eventually fired from the show, as Hoffman often does fire people. But you can cut that part out or leave it in.
JP: But actually, Michael Redmond told a friend of mine—a friend of mind said, "Do you remember Jon Polito?" and he said, "I will never forget the morning in Chicago when we rehearsed, and Jon Polito changed his performance, and they worked in the most beautiful way together." We were dancing on that stage together, and Hoffman was finding his new performance. He's a great genius. But he had a problem, and I didn't know it. Together we worked on it. That's the true story.
G: You've been very generous with your time. I think I'd probably better let you go.
JP: Nev-er! I shall never leave you all.