Interview: Jon Polito of The Last Godfather

Jon Polito pictureFamiliar-faced, raspy-voiced actor Jon Polito took a break from his busy schedule — one that has built a resume of nearly 200 film and television credits over the past three decades — to speak with Disc Dish about his involvement with the comedy mafia film The Last Godfather (DVD $27.98, Lionsgate, released on Aug. 9, 2011).

From South Korean comedy superstar Hyung Rae Shim (the film’s writer, director and star), The Last Godfather is a zany Mob movie wherein Shim is the goofy grown-up love child of an aging New York Mob boss (Harvey Keitel, Taxi Driver) and has been chosen by his dad to head up the family business. Not surprisingly, this decision does not go down well with the outgoing Don’s associates or his many rivals, led by Polito’s hysterically huffy and frustrated Don Bonfante.

Disc Dish: One of your mentors is the New York theater director and puppeteer Theodora Skipitares, an avant garde artist if ever there was one.

Jon Polito: When I was an undergraduate at Villanova, Theodora came to the school as a visiting professor where she designed costumes and sets, as well as teaching courses. She was a really fringe artist, known as a “performance artist” back in those days. I can tell you that her designs and puppets and courses were brilliant. She turned me on to all the great filmmakers and playwrights, popular ones and others I’d never heard of.

DD: She directed and designed a production of Aristophones’ Lysistrata earlier this year at La MaMa in New York with her trademark puppets and masks and costumes. Real wild stuff.

The Last Godfather DVD boxJP: Yeah, that’s what Theodora does! When I was in New York a couple of months ago, she gave me a poster from the production. Basically, my feeling is coming from that kind of artistic background, I wanted to combine my education and style in any kind of form for the work that was out there. Voiceovers in cartoons, shticky half-hour sitcoms and comedies, anything. When you get a good artistic background, you want to use it for shtick as well as art. Before going into the artistic side of things, avant training and so on, I was a standard actor who came up with the older, more traditional theater styles.

DD: That said, The Last Godfather is pretty shticky. Almost vaudevillian.

JP: Oh yes! All you have to do is look at Mr. Shim’s work. Watching his films is like looking at Keaton or Chaplin, and then it’s slammed all together for Korean audiences. He became a star in Korea doing slapstick. He hadn’t a done a slapsticky thing like The Last Godfather for years.

DD: Was there any communication problem between you and Mr. Shim? I know that English is not his native tongue.

JP: He speaks choppy English and it was a little tough at the very beginning. But when Mr. Shim would talk to me, he would also do a lot of gesturing and through that, I understood what he wanted. I believe that physical, slapsticky comedy is a universal thing, and so does he. There was a translator on the set, but it wasn’t really necessary.

DD: You worked alongside a pretty varied bunch of co-stars in The Last Godfather, from actors like Michael Rispoli (Kick-Ass) and Harvey Keitel to cult dude Jason Mewes (Zack and Miri Make a Porno) and stand-up comedian John Pinette.

The Last Godfather movie scene

Jon Polito (r.) gets involved in a mob scene as Don Bonfante in The Last Godfather.

JP: John Pinette is a physical force to be reckoned with — a comedian with a great presence, a very physical presence. Rispoli is also a real physical kind of actor and someone who always delivers. Mr. Shim had the same sort of visual communication with them as he did with me.

DD: You pop up in so many TV and movie projects, more than a dozen in the past year alone. There are undoubtedly some scripts that leap to the top of the pile, but how do you sort through all the other possibilities that come your way?

JP: I’m basically kind of a whore when it comes to work. Whatever comes down the pike, I’ll do it. It’s what I’ve been doing since working with the Coen Brothers for the first time [in 1990’s Miller’s Crossing]. So many filmmakers all basically feel they have their own Coen Brothers kind of project and they call me to do it.

DD: Well, certainly you don’t do every project that’s offered to you…

JP: You’re asking me if I have standards and the answer is no. (Laughs). I try to do any style of show that there is. I’m like the Eve Arden of my generation. Does anyone know who Eve Arden is these days?

DD: Okay, so what’s next on your standards-less schedule?

JP: After all these years, I got to work with Danny DeVito on an episode of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. I play his older brother and it’s a funny episode, a real funny one. It’s a flashback episode, so you see DeVito and I wearing tight pants, doing disco dancing and simulating doing drugs, which was hard to remember — not!! It’s such a disgusting and dirty show — right up my alley!

About Laurence

Founder and editor Laurence Lerman saw Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest when he was 13 years old and that’s all it took. He has been writing about film and video for more than a quarter of a century for magazines, anthologies, websites and most recently, Video Business magazine, where he served as the Reviews Editor for 15 years.