January 3, 2013
Uncle Leo, helloooooo
“Seinfeld” was never really “a show about nothing.” Rather, not unlike the Bible, it was a work of the imagination that had something to say about nearly everything.
One episode, for example, focuses on the moral ambiguity of old people stealing from a chain store. The culprit is Jerry’s uncle, a boastful, conniving but ultimately lovable alte cocker played unforgettably by Len Lesser. After Jerry reports the petty crime to a store manager in the confident expectation that Uncle Leo will be merely admonished, Jerry is tormented by a nightmare of his uncle behind bars, where the old man spends his idle hours dreaming of revenge while doing pull-ups. We see a close-up of the crude prison tattoo on his muscled back: “Brentano’s.”
Brentano’s is long gone, and so, alas, is Len Lesser, the deeply familiar character actor who played Uncle Leo. Like many other aging actors and comedians in “Seinfeld” — and later in “Curb Your Enthusiasm” — Lesser was a seasoned performer who was given an opportunity to shine by producer and co-creator of both shows Larry David. And now we have an opportunity to hear from Lesser himself in “Where’s the Watch?! and Other Tales,” a posthumously published memoir co-written with Tama Ryder (Staff Picks Press, $17.50).
“Uncle Leo, not Len Lesser, is usually what people call me — and I don’t mind,” Lesser writes. “My mom used to say, ‘As long as they don’t call you chopped liver, you’re gonna be fine.’ She was right.”
“Where’s the Watch?!” offers some fascinating tidbits for “Seinfeld” fans. According to Lesser, the 1990 casting call where he tried out for the role of Uncle Leo was “just another day in my busy life of auditions,” but, fatefully, he came up with the comic delivery of a key line — “Jerry, helloooo!” — that won him the part and became his trademark. Seinfeld credits writer-producer Larry Charles with the original idea to cast Lesser in the role of Uncle Leo. Lesser himself calls co-creator Larry David “the best [director] I’ve worked with besides Clint Eastwood,” but he also understood that Larry Charles was a key man in the success of the show: “the Double L’s, as I called them.”
Lesser reveals that the character for which he is now best remembered was, in fact, a stretch for him. “I’m not a comedian — never have been,” he says. “It was a tricky role for an actor who was best known for playing bad guys. Frankly, I didn’t think I had the comedic chops to pull it off.” About his famous tagline, he recalls: “Who knew a simple greeting would become my legacy? Certainly not me.”
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But Lesser also shows us the struggles and rewards of an acting career that lasted seven decades. After his Army service in World War II, he set out to become an actor, a dues-paying era of summer stock and off-Broadway plays where the men’s bathroom doubled as the dressing room. His early notices were promising, but he was reduced to working as a costumed extra on the stage of the New York City Opera for two bucks a night. “I was a real ‘starving artist — hungry, literally and figuratively,” he recalls.
By the mid-1950s, Lee Marvin, whom Lesser had met in a New York acting class, suggested that Lesser come out to California, where he won a small role in a wholly forgotten B picture called “Shack Out on 101.” Lesser called his wife back in New York and told her to pack her bags. “Do you think Los Angeles has rats?” she asked. “Only in the studios, hon,” he answered. So began a career that eventually put Lesser on the same movie sets and sound stages with iconic stars ranging from David Niven and Doris Day to Frank Sinatra and Barbra Streisand — and put his face, if not his name, in the pantheon of our popular culture.
That’s exactly why Lesser caught the eye of the “Seinfeld” producers. “I grew up watching Len on television — I remember him on ‘That Girl’ with Marlo Thomas,” says Seinfeld. “You don’t ever expect as a kid that, years later, you’d get to work with someone you watched on television — a real TV star.” Indeed, Lesser’s star turn on “Seinfeld,” as we see for ourselves in his memoir, was only the crowning moment of glory “in the life of an actor whose longevity in theater matches Lou Gehrig’s and Cal Ripkin’s in baseball,” as Jerry Stiller puts it.
Ironically, both Len Lesser and the Brentano’s chain exited the world in 2011. But we owe a debt to Tama Ryder, whose co-authorship of “Where’s the Watch?!” — a charming and endearing Hollywood memoir that bestows upon Lesser a measure of the immortality that he deserves.
Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of The Jewish Journal. His next book is “The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi Diplomat, and a Murder in Paris,” which will be published in 2013 under the Liveright imprint of W. W. Norton to coincide with the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht. Kirsch can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.