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.”