Jon Polito, Actor in Coen Brothers Films and 'Homicide: Life on the Street,' Dies at 65

20th Century Fox Pictures/Photofest
Jon Polito as gangster Johnny Caspar in the 1990 film 'Miller's Crossing.'

A Philadelphia native with scores of credits, he stood out in 'Miller's Crossing' and 'The Big Lebowski', and in funny guest stints on 'Seinfeld' and 'Modern Family.'

Jon Polito, the veteran character actor who had a memorable story arc as an anguished cop on Homicide: Life on the Street and was a familiar presence in Coen brothers films, has died. He was 65.

Polito, a specialist in playing no-nonsense types like cops and off-kilter criminals during a too-short career that still included nearly 220 credits listed on IMDb, died Thursday at City of Hope hospital in Duarte, Calif., of cancer, his managers announced. He was first diagnosed with multiple myeloma in 2010.

An Italian-American actor from Philadelphia, Polito and his distinctive bald pate showed up recently on Modern Family as Jay's (Ed O'Neill) business rival and former best pal Earl Chambers, the owner of Closets Closets Closets Closets. And on It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, he appeared as Danny DeVito's long-lost brother.

On a ninth-season episode of Seinfeld, Polito played Sylvio, the flabbergasted building super who attempts to evict Newman (Wayne Knight) after the postal carrier installs a "reverse peephole" so he can spot anyone in his apartment before he enters.

Polito portrayed Baltimore detective Steve Crosetti on the first two seasons of NBC's acclaimed drama Homicide: Life on the Street. His character becomes distraught when his officer friend is shot in the head while catching a suspect and blinded.

Crosetti commits suicide, and Polito was publicly bitter about having the cop written out of the show (though he patched things up and returned as the deceased Crosetti for a 2000 telefilm).

Aficionados of the Coen brothers' work will recognize Polito for his characters Johnny Caspar, the gangster who offers advice on how to shave, in Miller's Crossing (1990); Lou Breeze, the studio flunky, in Barton Fink (1991); Mr. Bumstead, the restless executive, in The Hudsucker Proxy (1994); Da Fino, the private investigator sniffed out by Jeff Bridges' The Dude in The Big Lebowski (1998); and Creighton Tolliver, the eccentric businessman with the awful toupee, in The Man Who Wasn't There (2001).

Asked in a 2005 interview about being typecast, Polito said: "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 don't mind typecasting, but I will not do the same thing over again."

He also played crime boss Phil Bartoli opposite Dennis Farina on the 1980s Michael Mann NBC drama Crime Story.

Born Dec. 29, 1950, Polito studied acting with Irene Baird in the theater department at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. He landed a standby role in the original Broadway production of David Mamet's American Buffalo in 1977 and made his onscreen debut as Thomas "Three Finger Brown" Lucchese in the 1981 NBC miniseries The Gangster Chronicles.

Polito starred on Broadway with Faye Dunaway in 1982's The Curse of an Aching Heart and played Howard Wagner, who fires Dustin Hoffman's Willy Loman, in the 1985 Tony Award-winning revival of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, which the cast later reproduced for CBS.

His film résumé also includes Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins (1985), Critical Condition (1987), Homeboy (1988), The Freshman (1990), The Rocketeer (1991), The Crow (1994), Stuart Little (1999), The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle (2000), View From the Top (2003), Flags of Our Fathers (2006), Gangster Squad (2013) and Big Eyes (2014).

He is survived by his husband and partner of many years, Darryl Armbruster.

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