Within minutes of director John McNaughton’s post on Facebook, social media was filled with tributes to Jon Polito, who passed away on Thursday at 65. A phenomenal character actor, Polito appeared in more than 200 TV shows and films in his career that began with a mob-based miniseries in 1981, and recently featured hilarious appearances on hit comedies like Modern Family and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. The latter, of course, was a character firmly in Polito’s wheelhouse, as Gino Reynolds was one of the biggest scumbags Polito ever played, and he certainly played some great creeps and lowlifes in his career.
One truly great creep was Sylvio, the building superintendent for Jerry, Kramer, and Newman in Seinfeld’s “The Reverse Peephole.” This particular episode is a perfect example of the absurd nature of Seinfeld’s final season. Writers Alec Berg and Jeff Schaffer have previously described how the creative process got even more ridiculous once Larry David left. Last year, we spoke with Polito about the 1990 film The Freshman, but of course we had to ask him about Sylvio’s hilarious combover and his hatred of Newman and fancy boys.
As it turns out, Sylvio is a reminder of how great Polito was. The character wasn’t written to be an Eastern-European weirdo with a sad toupee. He just ended up like that because of Polito’s bad fax machine, as he told us, in his own words:
I don’t know if it was common, but it was the last year of Seinfeld, and because they are comedians and they have a beautiful system, the way they worked on the show, I got a call on a Friday evening saying we’re faxing you dialogue for a Seinfeld episode that actually starts shooting on Monday, in front of an audience Tuesday. I had an old-fashioned fax. A roller fax. You wouldn’t remember any of these things because you’re probably young, but they would roll out the stuff on these really bad pages. It was almost like a mimeograph sheet — it wasn’t very good.
The dialogue was a scene with myself and Kramer in the hallway and I read the first line, which was “What are you doing?” But my fax was so bad and the page curled, and what I saw was “What are doing?” So, when I read that I thought, “What are doing? I guess this guy has an accent.” I started using a Mid-Eastern European accent as I’m preparing the character. And the more I did this on Friday evening for a Saturday morning audition, I pulled a hairpiece out that I used in the movie Barton Fink, and I put it on the side of my head and I did the combover, which is a wonderful hair piece. I had my look and I had my character.
I went in and of course wonderful actors were sitting in the room. We were all converging in the room. I was the first one to sign in. Now, that first position is the kiss of death. I didn’t want to be the first but nobody did, so everybody stood back and waited for me to sign. I was the first person to go in and I sat down while waiting, and Seinfeld came in and said hello, and we were all prepared. Then I turned to the other actor and asked, “What accent are you using? That first line is ‘What are doing?’” This actor turned to me and said, “No it isn’t, it’s ‘What are you doing?’” And I said, “What?” And he said, “We’re not using an accent.”
They called my name: “Jon Polito!” I stood up and I’m panicked. I walk into the room and there’s Seinfeld sitting with all these producers and all these people and I said, “Seinfeld! My fax machine didn’t print right, and I came up with this accent and I’m using this hairpiece…” Seinfeld interrupts me: “Where’s the hairpiece?” And I said, “This,” and I start pointing to my strings of hair, “This is a hairpiece.” Seinfeld says, “Try the accent,” and I started to read. The first person never gets the role and I got the role.
Immediately on Monday we’re shooting an outdoor scene, which is the last scene where I have to do this fur coat/man purse scene in the snow and said, “Love me, wuv me.” I started doing this really over-the-top thing and Seinfeld said it was really funny. So, they wrote it stronger for the scene I was going to do next night for an audience, which was the Kramer hallway scene. The hallway scene with the coat. “Look at this, Svetlana gave me coat.” It was wonderful the way they incorporated that and we also shot live the scene where my wife is behind me and I’m talking to Kramer and my wife is flirting with Newman, who is also a wonderful actor. It was all very quick.
It was very, very fast, very exciting, and very much like improv theater, so it was a joy to work on. I’m very proud to have been part of Seinfeld even if it was the last season, but it turns out that’s really a very terrific episode that incorporates the three themes: the fur coat, the man purse, and the episode is called, of course, “The Reverse Peephole.”
As far as being a fan of Seinfeld, Polito didn’t really discover the show until syndication. But as he watched it, he knew when it became great and why it became great – he compared it to Cheers, another series he admitted to catching in syndication – and he was a huge fan of Julia-Louis Dreyfus’ performance as Elaine Benes.
“That’s a wonderfully, self-centered, annoying person and still attractive and funny as hell,” he explained. “I think one of the great things for me always has been watching beautiful women be funny. I was raised on Lucille Ball and I love a beautiful woman who can make fun of themselves and create frightening characters, as is the case with her character.”
Seinfeld was hardly the first big TV series that Polito appeared on and, again, it wasn’t his last. Miami Vice, Seinfeld, Modern Family, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Mike & Molly, The Mentalist, Monk, Two and a Half Men… the guy was no stranger to popular television. He certainly had a knack for making the best of his limited screen time, and he told us that all simply comes from the excitement of being a part of something special.
“When there are great shows like that, I don’t know if it’s pressure you feel as much as excitement,” Polito said. “A lot of times a guy like me, we’re guest starring on this show or that show. Some of them are good and some of them aren’t. When you’re lucky enough to guest star on a top-rated show, at least when you call home to tell your mother to watch, you know that millions of people are going to be watching it as well so mom and dad are going to be getting more calls, because this wasn’t one of those shows that nobody ever watched when you’re playing what you think is your greatest work and nobody sees it. In that way it was exciting.”