“He had hundreds of television and movie credits to his name, yet there he was, spending hours [volunteering] at a school in an out-of-the-way, low-income San Fernando Valley neighborhood…”
by Dave Riley
Several years ago I gave a pitch for one of my favorite charities, Meals on
Wheels, before about 300 people at the Ritz-Carlton in Laguna Niguel. Let me say right off the bat that the Ritz-Carlton is not my customary hangout. I can barely afford the valet parking there, much less a meal and certainly never a room. And while the attendants seemed to regard my ten-year-old Camry with suspicion , they nevertheless allowed me to enter.
The point of my talk wasn’t just to get the people to loosen their wallets, but to become Meals volunteers, people who would give up a half day each week to deliver meals to the homebound. And to do that I wanted to tell about some other people who were notable volunteers, not just for Meals but for various causes.
“I’ll bet not a dozen people in this room know who Len Lesser is,” I said at one point.
I vastly over estimated. Not a single hand went up.
“Okay — show of hands. Who knows who Uncle Leo is?” Instantly dozens of hands went up and there were smiles and murmurs of recognition all around the room.
“You’re Seinfeld fans, right?” I said, and they nodded in a kind of ragged unison. Len Lesser played the lovable Uncle Leo on the show.
But long before Seinfeld, Lesser had a solid career as a talented character actor. He 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 like a chronology 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 Daisies, Papillon, and Kelly’s Heroes.
From 1949 through 2009 he amassed hundreds of 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, when Len Lesser was 68, he caught lightning in a bottle. He was cast as Uncle Leo on Seinfeld, a role he would play until the series finale in 1998.
Moral for seniors: It’s never too late. Never too late to write your bio or learn the drums or take ballet lessons. Never too late to chase your dream, whatever it is.
The part changed Lesser’s life. He 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.
In 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 in 2011, Education Editor Beth Shuster described Lesser’s life as a volunteer acting coach at Canterbury Avenue Elementary School in the Los Angeles suburb of Arleta.
“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 in Burbank, California, at the age of 88. The kids at Canterbury lost a great friend and, in what could have been his epitaph, his daughter Michele said, “Heaven got a great comedian and actor.” It is a wonderful irony that the passing of the actor who spent so many years laboring in anonymity received a 700-word notice in the New York Times.