Few TV series have had as many memorable characters as Seinfeld, even when the central quartet isn't included. (Hell, some of them weren't even seen.) It surprisingly took until Season 9 for veteran character actor Jon Polito to show up, but he made an indelible mark when he did as the apartment building landlord Silvio. And it turns out the character's signature details - the terrible hair and the indistinct accent - all spawned from a silly misunderstanding in which Polito erroneously thought the character was meant to be foreign. Sadly, the actor passed away today at the age of 65, but thankfully his story of Silvio can live on.
The dialogue was a scene with myself and Kramer in the hallway and I read the first line, which was 'What are you doing?' But my fax was so bad and the page curled, and what I saw was 'What are doing?' So, when I read that I thought, 'What are doing? I guess this guy has an accent.' I started using a Mid-Eastern European accent as I'm preparing the character. . . . They called my name: "Jon Polito!" I stood up and I'm panicked. I walk into the room and there's Seinfeld sitting with all these producers and all these people and I said, "Seinfeld! My fax machine didn't print right, and I came up with this accent and I'm using this hairpiece..." Seinfeld interrupts me: 'Where's the hairpiece?' And I said, 'This,' and I start pointing to my strings of hair, 'This is a hairpiece.' Seinfeld says, 'Try the accent,' and I started to read. The first person never gets the role and I got the role.
Without a doubt, that's one of the most brilliant ways a character can come into existence. Sure, if Jerry Seinfeld had written it as such, it would have showed off his good instincts, but there isn't any amusing imagery to go along with him typing or jotting down notes. Picturing Jon Polito innocently mulling over the kind of accent he'd want to affect in a mirror, however, is hilarious. As you might have imagined from his tone, Polito didn't even realize he wasn't supposed to use an accent until just before he was called into his audition.
Jon Polito talked with Uproxx last year about a completely different topic, but the Show About Nothing is never too far away from any conversation. Another part of the story had him revealing the hairpiece he used in the episode was actually the one he used in the the Coen brothers' Barton Fink, making that one of the coolest sitcom easter eggs I can think of.
It wasn't just the hair and accent that Jon Politio won over the Seinfeld creative team with, either. Apparently he went a little over the top for some of his scenes, which Jerry Seinfeld liked a lot, so they made him even more extravagant. Such is the power of funny people working together. Can you imagine watching "The Reverse Peephole" and having Silvio be some well-coifed American? I think not.
An actor best known on the big screen for his work in the Coens' films, Jon Polito was seen much more frequently on television, most notably for Modern Family, The Chronicle, Crime Story - Polito and Dennis Farina are probably tearing up the afterlife right now - and Homicide: Life on the Street. I'm hoping we get some behind-the-scenes stories about that show next.