My Dinner with Uncle Leo
written by Jeanne
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Musings of a peaceful instigator
I always had a fond place in
my heart for actor Len Lesser after I spent an evening with him when he
appeared at the San Jose
Film Festival in 2004. The name may not sound familiar but mention the
good-natured, cantankerous Uncle Leo on the “Seinfeld” sitcom
knows who is he is. Lesser, 88, passed away peacefully in his sleep on
Feb. 16, 2011 in Burbank, Calif. from cancer-related
pneumonia. Here is the
story of our night together in 2004.
One night you’re watching TV reruns of “Seinfeld,” the next evening you’re having dinner with Uncle Leo. Call it serendipity or deja vu, it happened to me.
The 12th Annual San Jose Jewish Film Festival featured invited guest, Len Lesser, better known as Uncle Leo, the scene stealing actor on the “Seinfeld” sitcom. I met him as he wolfed down a chopped liver sandwich at Camera 3’s Deli in San Jose. A gentleman, he stood when introduced, shook my hand firmly and flashed me a wide smile. Hello, Uncle Leo.
Wearing a rakish beret tilted over the right side of his head, 81-year-old Lesser looks like the character he played on the series complete with dark circles under sparkling blue eyes, hawkish nose and broad shoulders. Missing is the scowl, replaced by a constant easy smile. What lurked under the tweed hat?
“The best thing I ever did was buy the house in Burbank 40 years ago,” said Lesser as he shared his life with a full table of strangers who now are all his friends. Without taking a breath he described doing the Hollywood Hills thing (visions of Uncle Leo, a swinging bachelor enter my mind). He talks of his two children, a boy and a girl, now in their 40s, as he reaches in his back right pocket and pulls out a wrinkled wallet displaying three grandchildren, blond and cherub.
Lesser tells the large group of fans gathering around the table about his start in show business. Born in a tough part of the East Bronx, no one admitted they wanted to be an actor “unless you enjoyed being in a scuffle and called a sissy.” After a four year stint in the Army, he wasn’t sure what to do. He asked himself what he enjoyed doing most. The only thing that gratified him was playing Lenny in “Of Mice and Men” in college. Act, that is what he would do.
Shy by nature, Lesser came alive on stage. He studied at The American Theatre Wing with notable instructors Lee Strasberg and Alfred Luntz. He made the rounds auditioning and landed a job as an extra with the New York City Center Opera for two dollars a performance. The third season he was put in charge of the extras for the opera “Aida.”
“The extras were dressed as Egyptian Soldiers,” shared Lesser. “We wore skirts, sandals, long black wigs and brown body makeup. We were to walk up a staircase at the rear of the stage, cross the audience and rush around to the staircase and begin the process again. Twenty extras would appear as 300.After the first time around the stage manager came rushing up screaming, ‘What the hell are you doing?’ while pointing to the soldiers. My troops forgot to put on their underwear and everything was in full view of the audience who were laughing and screaming. It was 1949. I was blamed for the incident as I was in charge. It made all the New York papers.” Uncle Leo gives me a wink.
What followed were acting roles in the golden age of television. “Playhouse 90” and “Philco Play House” among many others paid him ten dollars a role. Uncle Leo, the starving artist.
His friend, Lee Marvin, told him there were more opportunities in Los Angeles. He came out west with his new bride and acted in an assortment of bit parts as “heavies, cowboys and gangsters” from “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” to “The Outer Limits.” Film credits included “Some Came Running” (1958), “Please Don’t Eat the Daisies” (1960), “Birdman of Alcatraz” (1962), “The Main Event” (1979) and “The Outlaw Josey Wales” (1976). Less notable films were “How to Stuff a Wild Bikini” (1960), “Sorority Girls” and the “Creature from Hell” (1990).
Not a leading man type, Lesser relished telling the story of working with acting heavyweights Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman on “Papillion” (1973). Playing a hard edged prison guard on Devil’s Island, the director told Lesser to give McQueen a good shove. He gave the heartthrob a weak one and when they cut McQueen said, “Look, don’t think of me as a movie star, think of me as a character in a show.” After the scene ended and McQueen left, Hoffman said pokerfaced, “Think of me as a movie star.” Lesser, ecstatic to have scenes with A-list stars, thought this would be a turning point in his career only to have his scenes end up on the cutting room floor. “That’s show business, but at least I saw Jamaica.” Ba-da-bum.
“What a great welcome you’ve all given me. I feel like family,” the showman says warming up to the crowd even more. I feel like he’s my uncle now.
Overnight success came 40 years later when writer/creator Larry David auditioned him for the role of Uncle Leo on “Seinfeld.” He didn’t think he had the part but David liked him and the rest is sitcom history. He considers the part “the best thing that happened to me in show business.” Now, Uncle Leo is a household name, at least for “Seinfeld” aficionados. He admits he only did 12 episodes though scripts were written with story lines centered on Uncle Leo but commitments to stage work, his first love, prohibited him from doing the parts.
“Working on the ‘Seinfeld’ set was a joy,” Lesser said. “There were no egos and everyone was very generous, not like some sets. And [now] everyone knows me. I go through an airport and it’s ‘Hey, Uncle Leo.’”
Lesser was in the Bay Area promoting his American Film Institute movie, “Today You are a Fountain Pen” (2002). He shared that he acted in other AFI films and had been disappointed with the finished product but liked Director Dan Katzir’s poignant script and took the part. Uncle Leo has developed his own cult following appearing at Film Festivals where he relishes sharing his stories in Hollywood as much as the dinner at Hawgs Seafood Restaurant in downtown San Jose after the showing of his new film.
“We met Len at the San Diego Jewish Film Festival when we were doing research,” said Mark Levine, president of the San Jose Jewish Film Festival. “He was so charming, we asked him to come to San Jose for our Film Festival. We really appreciate him taking the time to be here.”
Lesser continued answering questions throughout dinner; which was your favorite part, who did you like working with the least?
“The one I’m working on now,” Uncle Leo answers to the former, “but oy vey, you never know what the finished product will be.”
He shared a few criticisms of actors he worked with through the years but swore me to secrecy. Hey, Uncle Leo, we’re family, don’t worry. Asked about the use of makeup, he said he “never needed very much, if any.” His skin is supple with rosy cheeks. Just a little powder for the bald pate he had revealed under his hat.
As for now, Lesser has a continuing role as Garvin in “Everybody Loves Raymond.” He’s also doing the Arthur Miller play “The Price at A Noise within the Theater” in Burbank. He loves his work in plays, “you can stretch your acting chords.” While many actors are looking for scripts, 81-year-old Len Lesser is savoring his third act.
Copyright 2011 Jeanne Carbone
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