Len Lesser: Character actor who found late-flowering fame as Uncle Leo in ‘Seinfeld’

For six decades, virtually from the birth of American television, Len Lesser toiled as a jobbing actor, his height, sharp features and strong Bronx accent always making his presence felt, even in small roles. He plied his trade for some 41 years before, finally, in his late sixties, his talent in a small comedy role on the hit show Seinfeld propelled him to a modicum of well-deserved fame.

Lesser played Jerry Seinfeld's Uncle Leo, whose loud "Jerry! Hello!", and insistence his nephew respond in kind, expressed his enthusiasm for family while highlighting the natural, old-fashioned New York Jewish gaucheness which was the polar opposite of Jerry's detached, self-absorbed urban cool. When Seinfeld ended after a nine-year run (1989-98), Lesser took the character almost intact to Everybody Loves Raymond, complete with a new catchphrase, "Hey, Ray's here!"

Had he been born in Italy, Lesser might have made a living playing villains in spaghetti westerns, his exaggerated features in extreme close-up in Sergio Leone's films. Indeed, Clint Eastwood used him exactly that way in a small part in The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976), after the two had worked together on the Second World War comedy Kelly's Heroes (1970), arguably Lesser's best film role.

Leonard King Lesser was born in December 1922 in the Bronx, where his father, a Polish immigrant, ran a grocery. A tall, geeky bookworm, he finished high school at 15 but found confidence in local youth theatre while attending City College of New York, from which he graduated at 19 with a degree in government and economics. He enlisted the day after the attacks on Pearl Harbor, and served in Burma and India.

After the war, he studied acting in New York on the GI Bill, at the American Theatre Wing, and worked as an extra at the New York City Center Opera. He made his television debut in 1949 in the live drama series Studio One, in "The Sharp Knife", based on a Dashiell Hammett story. The show also marked the debut of another tall and distinctive New York character actor, Abe Vigoda.

His resumé for the next four decades reads like a history of network television. He married Janice Burrell in 1954 and moved to Los Angeles, landing bit parts in films like Somebody Up There Likes Me and Lust for Life (both 1956), but by 1959 he was working regularly in dozens of television westerns, detective shows, and comedies, once playing the same character for both Jack Benny and Ernie Kovacs. He went uncredited in the Doris Day film Please Don't Eat the Daisies (1960) and Burt Lancaster's Birdman of Alcatraz (1962) before working on lesser projects like How to Stuff a Wild Bikini and McHale's Navy Joins the Air Force (both 1965). After Kelly's Heroes he had a small western role in Dirty Little Billy (1972) and played a guard in Papillon (1973). His later films saw him often used for comic effect in B-movies like Truck Stop Women (1974) and in 1990, with the prescient name of Uncle Ray, in Sorority Girls and The Creature from Hell.

Through all this time he worked on stage. His final appearance on screen was in 2009, in the TV series Castle, but by then he was already suffering from cancer. However, in 2010, he had two memorable roles on stage, being well-reviewed in Ronald Ribman's Cold Storage at the George Ignatieff Theatre in Toronto, and in Clifford Odets' Awake and Sing! with the Los Angeles company A Noise Within.

He told an interviewer in Toronto how Seinfeld changed his life. "Uncle Leo became a whole new thing for me," he said. "After sweating out every job, my God. Now it's everywhere I go. I was at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, watching people put notes in the wall, it's an esoteric day, very silent, very nice. All of a sudden: 'Uncle Leo, where's the watch?'"

Leonard King Lesser, actor: born New York 3 December 1922; married 1954 Janice Burrell (divorced 1984; one son, one daughter); died Burbank, California 16 February 2011.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: SEO Account Manager

£15000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An SEO Account Manager is requi...

SThree: Associate Recruitment Consultant - Global Leader - FTSE 250

£18000 - £23000 per annum + competitive: SThree: As an Associate Recruitment C...

Recruitment Genius: Field Sales Representative

£22000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This family run school photogra...

Recruitment Genius: Area Sales Manager - OTE £42,000

£28000 - £42000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: You will be joining a leading s...

Day In a Page

Seifeddine Rezgui: What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?

Making of a killer

What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?
UK Heatwave: Temperatures on the tube are going to exceed the legal limit for transporting cattle

Just when you thought your commute couldn't get any worse...

Heatwave will see temperatures on the Tube exceed legal limit for transporting cattle
Exclusive - The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Swapping Bucharest for London

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Meet the man who swapped Romania for the UK in a bid to provide for his family, only to discover that the home he left behind wasn't quite what it seemed
Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Solar power will help bring down electricity prices over the next five years, according to a new report. But it’s cheap imports of ‘dirty power’ that will lower them the most
Katy Perry prevented from buying California convent for $14.5m after nuns sell to local businesswoman instead

No grace of God for Katy Perry as sisters act to stop her buying convent

Archdiocese sues nuns who turned down star’s $14.5m because they don’t approve of her
Ajmer: The ancient Indian metropolis chosen to be a 'smart city' where residents would just be happy to have power and running water

Residents just want water and power in a city chosen to be a ‘smart’ metropolis

The Indian Government has launched an ambitious plan to transform 100 of its crumbling cities
Michael Fassbender in 'Macbeth': The Scottish play on film, from Welles to Cheggers

Something wicked?

Films of Macbeth don’t always end well - just ask Orson Welles... and Keith Chegwin
10 best sun creams for body

10 best sun creams for body

Make sure you’re protected from head to toe in the heatwave
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Milos Raonic has ability to get to the top but he must learn to handle pressure in big games

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon files

Milos Raonic has ability to get to the top but he must learn to handle pressure in big games
Women's World Cup 2015: How England's semi-final success could do wonders for both sexes

There is more than a shiny trophy to be won by England’s World Cup women

The success of the decidedly non-famous females wearing the Three Lions could do wonders for a ‘man’s game’ riddled with cynicism and greed
How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth: Would people co-operate to face down a global peril?

How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth

Would people cooperate to face a global peril?
Just one day to find €1.6bn: Greece edges nearer euro exit

One day to find €1.6bn

Greece is edging inexorably towards an exit from the euro
New 'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could help surgeons and firefighters, say scientists

'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could become reality

Holographic projections would provide extra information on objects in a person's visual field in real time
Sugary drinks 'are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year'

Sugary drinks are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year

The drinks that should be eliminated from people's diets
Pride of Place: Historians map out untold LGBT histories of locations throughout UK

Historians map out untold LGBT histories

Public are being asked to help improve the map