Word on the street is that Mr. Polito succumbed to cancer today at age 65.
You may not be familiar with the name, but Polito, with his compact build and unique voice, was a very talented and recognizable character actor. In terms of exposure, he’ll probably best be remembered for playing Det. Steve Crosetti in the first two seasons of Homicide: Life on the Street.
Personally, I’ll always think of him as mobster Johnny Caspar in the Coen brothers’ 1990 gangster flick, Miller’s Crossing.
(For a closer look at that great film, feel free to click here for an earlier Conflicted Film Snob post.)
More specifically, I’ll fondly recall how Polito breathed life into the wonderful monologue that opens the film, a scene in which Casper asks for permission to whack small-time grifter Bernie Bernbaum (John Turturro). His audience? The town’s godfather, Leo O’Bannon’s (Albert Finney), who sits quietly and listens as Casper makes his pitch, working himself into a righteous lather:
I’m talking about friendship. I’m talking about character. I’m talking about–hell, Leo, I’m ain’t embarrassed to use the word–I’m talking about ethics. You know I’m a sporting man. I like to lay the occasional bet. But I ain’t that sporting. When I fix a fight, say I pay a 3-to-1 favorite to throw a goddamned fight, I figure I got the right to expect that fight to go off at 3-to-1. But every time I lay a bet with the son of a bitch Bernie Bernbaum, before I know it the odds is even up, or worse I’m betting on the short money. The sheeny knows I like sure things, he’s selling the information I fix the fight. Out of town money comes pouring in, the odds go straight to hell. I don’t know who he’s selling to, maybe Los Angeles combine, I don’t know. The point is, Bernie ain’t satisfied with the honest dollar he can make off the VIG. He ain’t satisfied with the business I do on his book. He is selling tips on how I bet. And that means part of payout that should be riding on my hip is riding on somebody else’s. So, back we go to these questions. Friendship. Character. Ethics. So it’s clear what I’m saying?
It’s getting so a businessman can’t expect no return from a fixed fight. Now, if you can’t trust the fix, what can you trust? For a good return you got to go bettin’ on chance. And then you’re back with anarchy. Right back in the jungle. That’s why ethics is important, what separates us from the animals, the beasts of burden, the beasts of prey. Ethics. Whereas Bernie is a horse of a different color, ethics-wise. As in he ain’t got any.
A great piece of acting (not to mention writing).