You may not have heard of Polizos, but you've probably seen him. The 60-year-old actor has appeared in more than 80 films and TV shows, often as an FBI agent or a police detective. His credits include such TV shows as "NYPD Blue" and "Jericho" and films including "Harlem Nights" and "Prizzi's Honor."
A barrel-chested man with a theatrical voice that hints of his Southern roots, Polizos often plays New Yorkers, though he was raised in Montgomery, Ala., where his father owned two Greek restaurants.
After studying acting at Temple University in Philadelphia, Polizos worked on and off Broadway before landing his first film role in Robert Redford's 1980 movie "Brubaker."
The film, in which he played trustee prison guard Billy Blalock, gave him his first residual check: a $900 payment when the movie ran on cable TV. That was three times his weekly wage in New York, where he waited tables between theater gigs.
"It was enough money for me to see my folks [in Alabama] and buy a few Christmas presents," he said. "It was like God had tapped me on the shoulder."
After moving to Hollywood in 1984 with his first wife, Polizos landed guest appearances in shows such as "Seinfeld" and films including Stephen King's "Graveyard Shift."
Then he went nearly two years without steady work, earning as little as $30,000 a year from small jobs while relying on residuals to support his family.
"I don't know what I would have done without the residuals," he said.
Writer-producer Brian Scully, now a writer for the Fox TV show "Family Guy," gives his own testimonial. The onetime comedian from West Springfield, Mass., thought he was set once he landed a job on the syndicated TV series "Out of This World." When the show ended after several seasons, Scully spent more than a year out of work.
He thought he might have to return to selling TVs at JCPenney in Glendale until he received a $20,000 check for reruns of the show.
Such residual checks have helped Scully, 47, keep his health insurance benefits, which are tied to minimum earnings, something he appreciated recently when his wife gave birth to a premature baby weighing 2 1/2 pounds. "If that had happened in a year when I didn't have health insurance," he said, "I'd lose everything."
Anne-Marie Johnson, best known for playing Althea Tibbs in the NBC series "In the Heat of the Night," never gave much thought to residual checks until circumstances intruded on a busy career.
In 2001, Johnson was on the set of the TV series "JAG" when she got a phone call that her mother had been hospitalized, severely ill from sepsis.
The news hit Johnson hard. She was close to her mother, a former high school teacher. Determined to be at her side, Johnson walked off the set and didn't return, leaving behind a show she had worked on for five years.
"I had to make a choice of continuing to work or care for my mother," said Johnson, a former first national vice president of the Screen Actors Guild. "I told my manager, 'Don't call me.' "
She moved into her mother's Silver Lake home and cared for her around the clock, operating respiratory equipment, administering medicines and coordinating home nursing care. "She was my best friend in the world," said Johnson, whose father had passed away in 1987.
For the next two years, Johnson lived off residuals, collecting as much as $37,000 annually from reruns of "In Living Color" and other shows. The money paid her bills and helped defray nearly $100,000 in out-of-pocket home-care expenses for her mother, who died in February 2005.
"Residuals," she said, "saved my life."