A Few Words About Gene Wilder and Jon Polito

by Dennis Cozzalio Sep 04, 2016

GENE WILDER 1933 -2016


In all likelihood, the events of this past week probably didn’t offer any more or less sadness and pain to be distributed among willing and unwilling recipients, a.k.a. all of us currently participating in the game of Life. It’s a strange, unsettling time to bear status as a citizen of the world, wherever it is in that world one happens to call home. But speaking as only one of billions buffeted about by the weirdness of a human condition in which terrorism has started to feel commonplace, and in which the policies of political campaigns are used as flimsy opportunities to stir fear, prejudice and an increasingly volatile mythology of helpless American victimization at the hands of hordes of murderous invaders, the sorrow contained in this past week crested perhaps a little higher than might have even been expected.

Gene Wilder had been diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 1989, but according to his nephew, Jordan Walker-Perlman, when the actor died this past Monday it was from complications from Alzheimer’s disease. In a statement released to the press, Walker-Perlman said, “We have been among the lucky ones– this illness-pirate, unlike in so many cases, never stole his ability to recognize those that were closest to him, nor took command of his central-gentle-life affirming core personality. The decision to wait until this time to disclose his condition wasn’t vanity, but more so that the countless young children that would smile or call out to him, `There’s Willy Wonka!’ would not have to be then exposed to an adult referencing illness or trouble, causing delight to travel to worry, disappointment or confusion. He simply couldn’t bear the idea of one less smile in the world.”


Wilder came into the world in 1933 as Jerome Silberman, later trading in for his more familiar name when, as an aspiring actor, he couldn’t imagine “Jerry Silberman as Hamlet” on a theater marquee. But when he left this world last week at the age of 83 he was known by quite a few other names as well—Leo Bloom, Quackser Fortune, the Waco Kid, Dr. Frederick Frankenstein (you know how it’s pronounced) and Willy Wonka. Wilder’s gift was not only just neurotically walking the line between mania and compassion but sometimes doing pendulum swings between the two and expertly mining the tension on the approach to both for comic gold. In The Producers (1968) Bloom’s hysteria upon discovering that the plan to produce a Broadway flop-for-profit has instead resulted in a hit is hilarious, but the sudden, momentary silence after his partner, Max Bialystock, has doused him with a glass of water, is even funnier, because you can see in the actor’s manic eyes that it’s only a very brief break in the storm.


Young Frederick Frankenstein’s attempt to control himself while trying to understand what Igor (Marty Feldman) is telling him about the abby-normal brain he’s stitched into his monster is even more brilliantly tantalizing in its perfectly choreographed approach to emotional explosion. “Are you saying that I put an abnormal brain…” he posits to his assistant, the façade of calm now slipping away in delectable measure, “into a seven-and-a-half-foot-long… 54-inch-wide… gorilla?! Is that what you’re telling me?!!” It’s that beautiful combination of the staccato strangulation gesture and the sharp intake of breath just before “gorilla” which really sends Wilder into the comic stratosphere (Here’s the whole scene).

And few actors ever managed such a sublime balance between an accessible, gentle countenance and the eccentric, perhaps even pathological authoritarianism bubbling up around the edges of that welcoming exterior as Wilder did in portraying candy man extraordinaire Willy Wonka. It’s a performance that, despite being the centerpiece of a very mainstream attempt to capture the strange magic of its source novel, absolutely honors the sardonic delight Roald Dahl took in putting gluttonous, deceptive parents and children through their paces before revealing the sweetness at the center of its eponymous protagonist. (Not for nothing was the film known as Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, better to emphasize Wilder’s magnetic turn over the film’s somewhat treacly Charlie who had starred in Dahl’s title.)


Yet one of Wilder’s for-real sweetest, genteel comic performances might just be his turn in Mel Brooks’ raucous, racially potent Western free-for-all Blazing Saddles. Only once does his alcoholic ex-gunslinger the Waco Kid let his placid demeanor slip (“Little bastard shot me in the ass!”)—otherwise, the Kid is the face and voice of reason, providing quiet, moral reassurance to Cleavon Little’s prejudicially besieged Sheriff Bart, in addition to, upon drying out, a supernaturally fast draw. There’s a screening of Blazing Saddles happening tonight in Burbank, and even though I’ve seen the movie probably 40 times (including most recently in the presence of Mel Brooks, who introduced it at the Grauman’s Chinese Theater during the Turner Classic Movies Film Festival two years ago) I’m awfully tempted to go see it again. I just can’t think of a better way to say good-bye to Gene Wilder than seeing him in full cowboy regalia at movie’s end, feet up on a crate, munching on a box of popcorn and asking Bart where he’s headed next. As he has every other time I’ve seen the movie, tonight Bart will answer his friend, and the Waco Kid will respond in kind: Nowhere special. I always wanted to go there.” And this time I’ll think of the journey Wilder has taken us on as moviegoers, as connoisseurs of comic genius and seekers of good, prickly laughs. Perhaps I’ll shed one last tear, I’ll tip my hat and then forever count us all, alongside Wilder’s nephew and the rest of his family, among the lucky ones who got to travel a small part of the way in the company of this very talented man.

JON POLITO 1951-2016


I did not know Jon Polito by name until I saw Joel and Ethan Coen’s Miller’s Crossing in 1990. It’s the sort of performance that needs no introduction—it announces itself. Polito, as small-time gangster Johnny Caspar, opens the movie in the manner to which it will soon become accustomed, with a monologue steeped in hard-boiled stylization, an attempt to convince Albert Finney’s bigger boss Leo of the proper ethics (or as Caspar pronounces it, “ettics”) of rubbing out a hood who has scammed Caspar and happens to be the brother of Finney’s lover. As the conversation slowly moves from a friendly summit to a confrontation charged with tension and possibly violent repercussion, Polito seems to consume the richly detailed dialogue given to him by the Coens, digesting it and using it to produce a characterization fueled by vanity, insecurity, bombast and old-country, common-sense justice, all etched and detailed with a grandiose comic flair which compliments and enhances the Coen’s vision with something uniquely Polito. It’s a brilliant, one-of-a-kind performance, the sort of eye-catching turn that might have opened doors to “bigger” opportunities.

Yet in the wake of Miller’s Crossing, Jon Polito seemed content to keep on his course, continuing to work to create roles, both small and large in TV, movies and on the stage as he had done steadily since the beginning of the ‘80s, adding depth and seasoning to even the most routinely conceived gangster, hardened detective or sniveling yes man. His appearances on shows like Crime Story, Homicide: Life on the Streets, Seinfeld, Modern Family, N.Y.P.D. Blue and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, as well as turns in films as varied as The Freshman, The Crow, American Gangster, Big Eyes, The Rocketeer and Flags of Our Fathers, added volumes to his experience as an experienced character actor. He won an Obie award in 1980 for his off-Broadway performances and appeared on Broadway in 1982, with Faye Dunaway, in The Curse of the Aching Heart, and in a 1984 revival of Death of a Salesman with Dustin Hoffman, John Malkovich and David Huddleston.


But for all this bounty, much of which I have yet to catch up with, it will be Polito’s performances for the Coens—five in all—for which I will most fondly remember him. Polito followed Miller’s Crossing with a turn as a beaten-down, low-level studio suit in Barton Fink (1991), a demanding executive in The Hudsucker Proxy (1994), a hapless private eye in The Big Lebowski (1998) and a shady businessman in The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001). But Johnny Caspar was his meatiest opportunity with the Coens. The role, like Miller’s Crossing itself, seems endlessly quotable and made all the more delicious in the imagining of those great lines sounding out from Caspar’s pointedly pugnacious, Humpty Dumpty-esque physical presence. (“You got references? You been to college? We only take yeggs what’s been to college, ain’t that right, Dane? I’m joking, of course.”) With that hard-boiled dome, pencil-thin squiggle mustache and an overemphatic confidence often betrayed by a persistently sour stomach, Johnny Caspar comes off like nothing less than the growling, hot-tempered ground zero for Italian-American Little Man Syndrome. And for a likable villain who actually meets his fate off-screen, Polito gets a wonderful throwaway exeunt from the film—as he’s delivered by his driver to the apartment house where that fate will be met, he offers the driver some advice, probably unsolicited, on personal grooming:

CASPAR: You put the razor in cold water, not hot. ‘Cause metal does what in cold?
DRIVER: I don’t know, Johnny.
CASPAR That’s what I’m tellin’ ya. It contracts. That way you get a first class shave.

Twenty-six years later, I follow that advice every time I lather up. Thanks, Johnny.

Though many of the characters Polito played throughout his career might have been classified as the usual variety of brusque tough guys, snivelers or various other dwellers of the collective societal underbelly, he lived his life in defiance of yet another pervasive stereotype. Polito was openly gay and married his longtime partner last year, 16 years from the day they met. I took it as a good sign, a meter of an actor’s ability to live his own life separate from his roles and the expectations and prejudices of the society at large, that I didn’t know of Polito’s sexuality until yesterday, when his death was announced. It certainly didn’t factor into my perception of him as an actor or my appreciation of his work, and it hasn’t caused me to reevaluate Johnny Caspar through a “new” prism. But it did illuminate on another performance for me and validate the current I’d always felt running just underneath it.


Early on in The Man Who Wasn’t There, a traveling salesman by the name of Creighton Tolliver (and played by Polito) gets a trim from morose barber Ed Crane (Billy Bob Thornton) and discusses his interests in a string of dry-cleaning operations. Tolliver at first seems like just another of Polito’s usual richly observed characterizations, mixing the scent of Maysles-esque desperation with a more typical hustler’s confidence and even an oddly touching vanity—the salesman sports a misapplied toupee that looks as though a small poodle were perched on his dome and threatening to slide straight down his slick, sweaty temple, and he daintily removes it when Crane tends to his sidewalls. Later, Ed visits Tolliver at the salesman’s low-rent hotel room, where he finds Tolliver sitting on his rickety bed, bald-pated. Only when he recognizes Ed as a barber and realizes he’s interested in putting up money to start the business does Tolliver suddenly reach over and replace the furry rug onto his head. Tolliver explains the business deal while Crane regards him from a chair in the corner of the room, and once they’ve reached a tentative agreement, Tolliver pours Crane a drink and returns to sit on the bed, this time leaning back in a much more relaxed manner. Legs splayed out, loosening his tie, he stops and gives Crane a look, a slow blink. When Crane makes it clear Tolliver is “way out of line, mister,” Tolliver composes himself and vows to keep things “strictly business.”

It’s a scene we’ve seen in one form or another in countless other movies, usually pitched with a heightened degree of comic anxiety, and with the audience typically put in the position of identifying with the Ed Crane figure, who is most often portrayed as a victim of the predatory gay guy’s impulses. Here, however, Polito and the Coens may be poking fun at Tolliver’s desperate sense of personal fashion, but his gesture toward Crane, however ill received, is not the punch line of another joke. Polito manages to navigate the tricky task of reserving respect for Tolliver even after his misguided move, and even though we suspect he may be setting Crane up for a con. (Tolliver needn’t worry—Crane sets himself up just fine.) I always thought that scene was remarkable in the way it presented Tolliver’s move, made more out of loneliness than lust, as something that could be discarded by Crane and moved past, and certainly something that could be used to richen Polito’s characterization rather than as a cudgel with which Tolliver might be needlessly bludgeoned. I always loved Polito in this movie, and now knowing that he had to have been aware of how this scene might be played—indeed, had been played in various other conjurings— and that he must have felt something of a responsibility to make it something other than the usual cheap shot at homosexuals, makes me appreciate the scene, and Jon Polito, even more, and even sadder to be denied another 20 years of his work.


For more background on the life and career of Jon Polito, listen to this marvelously entertaining podcast, an interview with the actor from 2013 conducted by Tom Wilson (Biff Tannen in the Back to the future trilogy) in which the two discuss Polito’s life, New York’s La Mama 
DRIVER Okay, Johnny.Theater, working with the Coens, sharing the stage with Dustin Hoffman, and much, much more.

About Dennis Cozzalio


Dennis Cozzalio has been writing his all-purpose, agenda-free film criticism blog Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule since 2004. Cozzalio studied film at the University of Oregon in the late ‘70s and currently resides in Glendale, California where he lives with his wife and two daughters. He spends his (precious little) free time writing, cooking and trying to reconcile himself to a new reality weighted more toward catching up on movies at home, where distractions abide, and less in the overpriced, chatter-infested environs of 21st-century cinemas. His favorite movies include Nashville, The Lady Eve, Once Upon a Time in the West, Fellini Roma, His Girl Friday, Dressed to Kill, Amarcord and 1941, and he thinks Barbara Stanwyck can do no wrong.

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