The Philadelphia born actor, whose death yesterday was just announced, was a fixture in countless movies and TV shows but will be best remembered for working with the Coen Brothers in five films. The partnership was based on mutual admiration. In the 1980s as they were starting their career, the Coens had seen Polito perform in Death of A Salesman and kept him in mind for a future production. In turn, he admired their first two films, Blood Simple and Raising Arizona. When he read the script for Miller’s Crossing he was determined to land the role of Johnny Casper, the hot-heated gangster who is forever complaining about “getting the high hat.” The Coens had actually wanted Polito to play Casper’s psychotic henchman, the Dane, but he pushed for the Casper role. During the audition, Polito stayed in character so much he yelled at the casting director for having a lapdog whose barking interrupted the performances. The Coens liked what they saw and Polito turned in a wonderfully twitchy, agitated performance as the murderously nervous Casper.
Polito was often described as a character actor, which is perhaps why he alliance with the Coens was so fruitful. In their early films, they didn’t really have stars but rather an assemble of character actors. Every performer was expected to be individualistic, quirky and weird. Aside from Johnny Casper, Polito also played the studio flunky Lou Breeze in Barton Fink, the hero-worshiping detective Da Fino in The Big Lebowski, and the dry cleaning huckster Creighton Tolliver in The Man Who Wasn’t There—he also had a small role as Mr. Bumstead in The Hudsucker Proxy. Of these performances, perhaps the best was as Tolliver, a figure who is both grotesque but also evokes genuine pathos when he is killed due to a misunderstanding.
Character acting is often dismissed as a secondary version of the thespians art, but Polito proved that the best character actors could have the range and complexity usually reserved for headlining stars.