Jon Polito, a veteran character actor who had roles in The Big Lebowski and other Coen brothers films and was an original cast member in the acclaimed NBC crime drama Homicide: Life on the Street, died today of cancer complications at City of Hope Hospital in Los Angeles. He was 65. His family confirmed the news this morning.
Polito had more than 200 film and TV credits dating to the 1981 miniseries The Gangster Chronicles. He worked steadily for 35 years, including appearances on Modern Family and Major Crimes last season. But the Philadelphia native probably is best known for his work in films by Joel and Ethan Coen, including Miller’s Crossing (1990) and Barton Fink (1986), The Hudsucker Proxy (1994) and The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001). He played a memorable role in their 1998’s cult classic The Big Lebowski as a quirky private eye who initially pesters and then helps Jeff Bridges’ the Dude.
Fans of the exceptional and influential NBC drama Homicide recognize Polito as Detective Steve Crosetti, who was in the series’ opening scene. Partnered with Meldrick Lewis (Clark Johnson), he was a conspiracy theorist who liked waxing on about the Lincoln assassination. He would appear only in the first two seasons of the Friday night show, having been written out of the series after Season 2 as the character was on an unexplained leave of absence.
A public tiff with producers led to Crosetti’s being written out permanently by committing suicide. In the sixth episode of Season 3, titled “Crosetti,” his fellow detectives learn of his death and take it hard. At first Lewis refuses to believe that his friend would kill himself and investigates the case as a murder. The suicide led to one of the most enduring scenes in the series’ seven-year run. Baltimore Police brass refuse to have an honor guard for Crosetti’s funeral, but Detective Frank Pembleton (Andre Braugher) shows up in his dress blues, complete with white gloves, and gives a solo salute from the precinct steps as the procession went by. It’s a captivating image.
His character would return — as a spirit — in the 2000 reunion telepic Homicide: The Movie.
Polito landed another series regular role with The Chronicle, which aired for one season on Syfy in 2001-02. He played Donald Stern, an editor-publisher at the titular tabloid newspaper whose staffers come to realize that the monsters, aliens and mutants they “report” on turn out to be real.
He also guested on dozens of popular TV series ranging from Crime Story, Miami Vice and The Equalizer to NYPD Blue, Gilmore Girls and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. He notably played Silvio, the landlord of Jerry and Kramer’s building, in the Season 9 Seinfeld episode “The Reverse Peephole.” Polito also did voice work on such projects as Thundercats, Ben 10, Handy Manny, Avatar: The Last Airbender, American Dad! and various Batman cartoon series.
Polito also appeared in more than 100 films, including such diverse fare as C.H.U.D. (1984), Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins (1985), The Freshman (1990), The Rocketeer (1991), The Crow (1994), Clint Eastwood’s Flags of Our Fathers (2006), Ridley Scott’s American Gangster (2007), Gangster Squad (2013) and Tim Burton’s Big Eyes (2014).
Polito also appeared on Broadway, including as Willy’s boss Howard Wagner in the 1984 revival of Death of a Salesman.
He is survived by Darryl Armbruster, his husband and partner of many years.