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March 1, 2011

Remembering ‘Uncle Leo’

http://www.jewishjournal.com/obituaries/article/remembering_uncle_leo_20110301

Despite a vast acting resume, Len Lesser’s career as a character actor probably didn’t prepare him for his late-career fame as Jerry Seinfeld’s annoying but lovable Uncle Leo on the 1990s sitcom “Seinfeld.” Lesser died Feb. 16 at 88.

Lesser’s “hawklike profile and Noo Yawk accent” saw him through 15 episodes of “Seinfeld” and won him lasting fame that even carried over to Israel, The New York Times wrote. In an interview available online, Lesser described what happened on his first visit to the Western Wall: “I was standing there and I was quite taken with what was going on. People going up to the Wall and praying. Putting notes into the Wall. And I’m feeling very religious. (Eulogizer: Lesser says this with a self-deprecating smile and a shake of the head). Very quiet. And all of a sudden, I hear, ‘Uncle Leo, where is the watch?,’ which is from one of the shows. It’s like sacrilege at the Wall.”

Actor Jason Alexander, who portrayed George Costanza on “Seinfeld,” said in a post on Twitter: “He was a smart actor/comedian who knew exactly what he was doing in the creation of Uncle Leo. ‘Hellooo’ Uncle Leo. And goodbye. Sleep well. Much love.”

Lesser’s acting career started long before “Seinfeld” and continued after it, notably as a recurring character on “Everybody Loves Raymond.” He appeared in numerous major Hollywood films, including “The Outlaw Josey Wales” and “Kelly’s Heroes,” both with Clint Eastwood, “Papillon,” “Lust for Life” and “Birdman of Alcatraz.”

His small-screen resume is a veritable history of American television, with appearances from the 1950s through the 2000s. Here are some of the more notable shows on which Lesser appeared (in reverse chronological order): “ER,” “Everybody Loves Raymond,” “Just Shoot Me!,” “Sabrina, the Teenage Witch,” “Mad About You,” “thirtysomething,” “Falcon Crest,” “Remington Steele,” “Quincy M.E.,” “Police Story,” “McMillan & Wife,” “The Rockford Files,” “Medical Center,” “Kojak,” “The Bob Newhart Show,” “The Mod Squad,” “Bonanza,” “Ironside,” “All in the Family,” “Green Acres,” “Judd for the Defense,” “The Monkees,” “Get Smart,” “My Favorite Martian,” “The Munsters,” “Ben Casey,” “The Wild Wild West,” “The Outer Limits,” “The Untouchables,” “Bat Masterson,” “Peter Gunn,” “Have Gun—Will Travel,” “Gunsmoke” and “Dragnet.”

In 2002, Lesser appeared as a Holocaust survivor in an award-winning short film, “Today You Are A Fountain Pen,” in which he teaches his grandson about the true meaning of a bar mitzvah.

Lesser was a working actor who also appeared in films of lower quality. Other titles on his resume include “Frankenstein & the Werewolf Reborn!,” “Sorority Girls and the Creature from Hell,” “Moonshine County Express,” “Supervan,” “Truck Stop Women” and 1965’s camp classic, “How to Stuff a Wild Bikini,” which also featured Mickey Rooney, Annette Funicello, Frankie Avalon and Buster Keaton.

Lesser was born in the Bronx, N.Y., in 1922. His immigrant father was a grocer. Lesser told a Jewish newspaper in 2003 that he had a “bar mitzvah from hell when he forgot the text and started singing instead.” He graduated from City College in New York at 15, spent World War II in the China-Burma-India theater, and began acting on his return. Lesser continued to perform on stage and on TV until 2010.

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