2012-03-29 / Dining & Entertainment
Character actor takes leading role
“I believe it’s very hard to find your way in the arts,” said the 61-year-old character actor. “Being able to persevere in the face of rejection is the hardest thing.”
Last week, Polito sat onstage with professor Markus Flanagan in California Lutheran University’s Preus-Brandt Forum to his share experiences and advice with about 40 theater students and several community members.
Over a pot of hot tea, Polito— who’s best known for his role as the private investigator “Da Fino” in “The Big Lebowski,” a 1998 comedy hit from the Coen brothers —answered Flanagan’s questions on the highs and lows of working in show business.
Polito found his passion for acting in high school.
“I was a very scared kid,” he said. “No confidence, fat, strange . . . that was it until I found the theater.”
After high school, the raspyvoiced actor attended Villanova University in Pennsylvania on a fully paid drama scholarship before moving to New York, where he carved out a good career as a character actor.
“That’s my area,” he said. “I was never the leading man at all.”
During his roughly 40-year career, Polito has worked alongside many A-list actors, including Marlon Brando, Paul Newman and Jeff Bridges.
In 1985, playing Howard Wagner— Willy Loman’s boss—Polito shared the stage with Dustin Hoffman in Arthur Miller’s classic play “Death of a Salesman.”
“(Hoffman) was a brilliant actor onstage,” Polito said.
During every performance, he and Hoffman would do something unrehearsed. Hoffman encouraged Polito to improvise onstage, a skill Polito says is very important.
“Acting is like when you’re a kid and you’re pretending,” Polito said. “You (can) change the rules instantly.”
Playing an Italian crime lord in the 1990 cult classic “Miller’s Crossing” was a career highlight, Polito said.
“It changed my career.”
A self-professed “hoarder of work,” Polito offered the students no-nonsense advice through personal stories and anecdotes.
“Pray for typecasting,” said the bearded Philadelphia native, who generally landed roles as a toughtalking Italian-American. “If you are a type, then you can work.”
Years of working in a dog-eatdog business hasn’t cost Polito his sense of humor.
“If you have a great body, get it on camera,” he told students with a laugh. “When you’re 60, you’re going to love the footage.”
Flanagan, an actor in his own right, said the series benefits student actors who have professional aspirations.
“It’s very up-to-date, practical, go-to-work-the-next-day advice,” said the 47-year-old Westlake Village resident.
Most young actors look to other young actors for advice—a big mistake, Flanagan said.
“It’s always bad advice because they don’t know any more than you know,” he said. “When a guy who’s done a hundred films comes and talks to you, it’s like gold.”
The onstage conversations put collegian learning into reallife context, said Flanagan, the author of “One Less Bitter Actor: The Actor’s Survival Guide.”
“It’s all theory until someone who is bulletproof in their credibility says it to you in plain language.”
Polito is the sixth actor to participate in the series, which has also featured “Little House on the Prairie” actress Melissa Gilbert and “Air Force One” actor Spencer Garrett.
Flanagan said his students appreciate the opportunity to speak with established actors in an intimate setting.
“The students feel privileged,” he said.
Jessica Butenshon, a 19-yearold theater arts major, said the series is a valuable part of her education.
“To be able to hear actors talk about how they became involved in acting and how they’ve managed to work all these years has been one of the best experiences I’ve had as an undergraduate,” she said.
The aspiring actress found Polito to be especially inspirational.
“I liked how he told the students to know who they are as people and as actors,” Butenshon said. “You have to go into a casting room being confident in yourself.”
What is the biggest mistake an actor can make?
“I don’t think actors make any mistakes,” Polito joked. “I think it’s the people who reject them that make the mistakes.”
To see clips from the “Conversations With . . .” series, visit www.westlakeactingstudio.com.