Jewish Journal

Uncle Leo Fulfills a Dream

by Tom Tugend

Posted on Nov. 13, 2003 at 7:00 pm

"If you're a pretty good actor and live long enough, you can play any role," said Len Lesser, sitting on a worn couch just after finishing an evening performance at A Noise Within in Glendale.

At 80, and after close to 60 years on stage, screen and television, Lesser has proven his own adage. During the last 15 years, he has even become a public face, mainly through recurring roles as Uncle Leo in "Seinfeld" and Garvin in "Everybody Loves Raymond."

But before that, "I played gangsters, heavies, Russians and Italians," he reminisced. "I've done everything."

Altogether, the long-time Burbank resident figures he has appeared is some 50 feature films and more than 400 TV shows, plus theatrical performances at the Taper Forum, Ahmanson and at venues across the country.

A recent stint included a moving role as an avuncular Holocaust survivor in Israel director Dan Katzir's "Today You Are a Fountain Pen."

Now Lesser is fulfilling a decades-old ambition by playing Gregory Solomon, a wizened New York secondhand furniture dealer, in Arthur Miller's "The Price."

One of Miller's less frequently performed plays, "The Price," written in 1968, wrestles with the author's familiar themes -- family conflict, personal and social responsibility and the price we pay for our past actions.

A Noise Within, a repertory company that over the years has maintained an enviable standard as one of the most professional and skilled theatrical venues in the Los Angeles area, does full justice to the subtleties and complexities of the Miller drama.

Its two protagonists are middle-aged brothers Victor and Walter Franz, who are selling off the furniture left behind by their recently deceased father.

When the once-wealthy father was wiped out by the Depression and became a physical and emotional wreck, son Victor (Geoff Elliott) sacrificed his ambition to become a scientist to take care of the father and became a local cop.

Brother Walter (Robertson Dean) shrugged off his responsibilities, left home and became a successful surgeon, while Victor's wife (Deborah Strang) has turned into an unhappy and unfulfilled woman.

The fourth character is Solomon, come to appraise the furniture. It is not a comic role per se, but Lesser turns the man into a true original.

A lifelong New Yorker, Solomon has seen and survived everything, including four wives (he said the current one stays at home with her "100 boids"). He is a man who would rather talk than deal and is blessed with some of Miller's best lines.

Though written in the supposedly idealistic and rebellious '60s, the play has a very contemporary feel when Solomon observes, "When people were unhappy, they used to go to church or start a revolution. Now they go shopping."

At one point, while Victor keeps pressing him for an appraisal, Solomon leisurely takes a hard-boiled egg and a jar of water out of his briefcase. In a wonderful ritual of consuming this repast, he will remind old timers of Charlie Chaplin's classic shoe-eating routine in the "Gold Rush."

Lesser said he has seen "The Price" many times but was never satisfied with the depiction of Solomon.

"They played him like a Yiddish stereotype in a vaudeville show, like a caricature," he said. "That was all wrong. Like all Miller characters, Solomon is multidimensional."

Lesser was born in the Bronx, the son of a grocery clerk, and vividly recalled a bar mitzvah from hell when he forgot the text and started singing instead. He got his acting start at 17, playing Lenny in "Of Mice and Men" at the neighborhood Settlement House.

"I was very shy and introverted, and I liked the applause and the communication with the audience," he reminisced. "In my family, we didn't talk much.

He earned a degree in economics and government at the City College of New York, but after he was discharged following Army service in the Pacific, he asked himself what he wanted to do the rest of his life. Lesser decided on an acting career and studied under Uta Hagen and Lee Strasberg.

After that, "I became a starving actor in summer stock, but when television came in, I got my first part with the CBS 'Philco [Television] Playhouse,'" he recalled.

In the early '50s, with some change in his pockets, Lesser met and married a farmer's daughter from California, and in his first visit to her very WASPish and conservative parents, he felt as out of place as a Woody Allen movie character in a similar situation. (At the wedding ceremony, Lesser forgot the ring and substituted a cigar band.)

But he liked California enough to settle down here.

He has continued on the TV circuit, and although a lot of the sitcoms he played in were pure "chazerai," using the Yiddish term for junk. "You made more money in one day than in six months in New York," he said.

Now married to actress Jan Burrell, Lesser closed the interview close to midnight.

"You gotta excuse me," he explained, "I have an early TV shoot in the morning."

"The Price" will play though Dec. 4, in repertory with Shakespeare's "Coriolanus" and Moliere's "The Miser." For tickets and information, phone (818) 240-0910 or visit www.anoisewithin.org .

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