Uncle Leo

By Riley McDavid   Riley McDavid

One evening, more years ago than I want to remember, when Mrs. McD and I were on a week’s stay on the South Shore of Lake Tahoe, we went to dinner at the main showroom of Harvey’s — without reservations.  The room was packed, but the maitre d’, far from laughing us out of the place, invited us to follow him and said he was going to put us next to one of the most famous actors in Hollywood. He then took us to the very front of the room, and seated us just a few inches from the stage.

We turned to the couple next to us, smiled and made some pleasantries, but neither of us recognized this “most famous actor.”   He did look familiar.  Not vaguely familiar, but very familiar. Eventually he got up and said he needed to go cash a check. Once he was gone, I said to his wife, “I apologize, but although your husband is very familiar, I can’t remember his name.”

She laughed.  “That’s the story of our lives,” she said.  Her husband turned out to be Elisha Cook, Jr., one of the most prolific character actors in the history of film and TV. From 1930 until 1988, he had 212 film and TV credits. Everybody knew his face, but not everybody knew his name. Because of that encounter, I gained a lot of respect for blue collar actors and actresses, and whenever one of them passes on, I pay them the respect of reading their obit from start to finish and maybe even looking up their full list of credits on the net.

So it was when Len Lesser passed away in mid-February.  Like Cook, Lesser labored for years in relative obscurity, sought after by casting directors and respected by actors and others in the profession, but not well known among the public. He played both comic and serious roles in both film and TV.  His TV credits read a history of the medium: Playhouse 90, Mr. Lucky, Tombstone Territory, The Untouchables, The  Red Skelton Hour, Ben Casey, The Munsters,  My Favorite Martian, Get Smart, The Monkees, All in the Family, Bob Newhart, Kojak, Rockford Files, Quincy, Seinfeld, Everybody Loves Raymond, Castle and many, many more. His movies included The Outlaw Josey Wales, Please Don’t Eat the DaisiesPapillon, and Kelly’s Heroes.

From 1949 through 2009 he amassed 168 film and TV credits. Yet even though he worked regularly, like many character actors he frequently had a nagging fear that his next role would be his last — that the phone calls from casting directors to his agent would eventually dry up.

But in 1991, Len Lesser caught lightning in a bottle.  He was cast as Uncle Leo on Seinfeld, a role he would play until the series finale in 1998. It changed his life. Lesser achieved a kind of cult status in the role of Leo with his boring stories about his son Jeffrey who worked for the New York City Parks Department.

Now people recognized him on the street, in restaurants — wherever he went. “Hey, Uncle Leo,” they would yell.  Lesser said they couldn’t remember his real name, but he didn’t mind.

Uncle LeoIn one famous Seinfeld episode, Uncle Leo picks up a broken sixty-dollar watch that Jerry had thrown in the trash, has it repaired, and, after intense bargaining in a restaurant men’s room, sells it back to Jerry for $350. Some time later Lesser was at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, and even there someone recognized him.. “It’s an esoteric day, very silent, very nice,” Lesser said.  Then all of a sudden someone yells out, “Uncle Leo, where’s the watch?”

After Seinfeld ended its run, Lesser went on to play a similar character on the hit series Everybody Loves Raymond. And it turns out, he had another role that hardly anyone knew about.  In a beautiful piece in the Los Angeles Times a week or so after Lesser’s death, Education Editor Beth Shuster described Lesser’s life as a volunteer acting coach at Canterbury Avenue Elementary School in Pacoima.

“He had hundreds of television and movie credits to his name, yet there he was, spending hours at a school in an out-of-`the-way, low-income San Fernando Valley neighborhood,” Shuster wrote. “He worked with students who’d never acted before; some were immigrants more fluent in the language of their parents. He urged them to project, look at each other, feel the emotion of the plays. When the script called for it, he urged the squirmy elementary kids to hold hands, even kiss. It could be incredibly awkward. I never saw him lose his temper or heard him raise his voice.”

Lesser loved acting and he wanted to pass on his passion to others.  He helped the school mount productions as complex as Fiddler on the Roof and Oliver. “But really he was just one of us,” Shuster wrote. “The moms who could sew made costumes, the dads who could paint made the sets and the rest of us found any job we could do.”

His volunteering wasn’t limited to Canterbury Avenue.  Lesser’s son David said he also volunteered at a North Hollywood senior citizens home and taught drama to special education students.

Len Lesser died February 16 in Burbank, California, at the age of 88.  The passing of the actor who spent so many years in anonymity received a 700-word notice in the New York Times. In what could have been his epitaph, his daughter Michele said, “Heaven got a great comedian and actor today.”

One Response to “Uncle Leo”

  1. admin says:

    Great story of one giving back to where his passion lies.