Obituary: Phil Leeds

Tom Vallance
Sunday 30 August 1998 23:02

"I AM the guy about whom people say: `Here comes whats-his-face'," said the comedy actor Phil Leeds just three years ago, after he had spent more than 50 years in show business as a stand-up comic and as an actor in films, theatre and television.

His face, if not his name, was particularly familiar to television viewers. He is currently to be seen on Channel 4 in the popular series Ally McBeal (as Judge Boyle), and last May in the United States he appeared in episodes of four different series on the same night: Ally McBeal, Murphy Brown, Everybody Loves Raymond and the final episode of Ellen. "Casting agents always call me when they want a funny old man," he said. "I'm not pretty, but I'm warm and feisty."

Born and educated in the Bronx, in New York City, Leeds had no theatrical background - his father was a post office clerk - but was stage-struck from an early age. He developed an act as a stand-up comic, breaking it in at summer camps, while supporting himself as a peanut vendor at the Yankee Stadium and Polo Ground.

He made his Broadway debut in a revue Of V We Sing (1941), produced by the Youth Theatre, described by the critic Brooks Atkinson as "a band of frisky ideologists who are stage-struck". A socially conscious topical revue, it was followed by Let Freedom Ring (1942) produced by the same group of performers, who included the former child star Mitzi Green and the future film star Betty Garrett (who did a duet with Leeds entitled "Johnny is a Hoarder").

Atkinson described Leeds as "a cadaverous, loose-joined noody", while the critic Howard Barnes wrote that "Leeds is fine when he isn't remembering Bert Lahr". The small comic with a rumpled face would frequently be compared to the great Lahr, and even understudied the more famous actor later in his career.

From 1943 to 1946 Leeds served with the Army Special Services Unit, entertaining troops in the Pacific. Back in New York, he was on radio in The Jane Pickens Show (1947) and in early television shows with the comics Milton Berle, Jackie Gleason and Jimmy Durante. Leeds did his solo stand-up act at such clubs as the Blue Angel and Village Vanguard, and later won parts in Broadway shows. In Cole Porter's Can Can (1953), as the artist Theophile, he took part in the numbers "If You Loved Me Truly" and "Never Be an Artist" and understudied Hans Conreid in the featured role, a sculptor called Boris. He was the First Soldier in Peter Ustinov's Romanoff and Juliet (1957), was standby for both Bert Lahr and Shelley Berman in the revue The Girls Against the Boys (1959) and had the feature role of Victor in Ronald Alexander's hit play Nobody Loves an Albatross (1963).

In 1973 he starred with Jose Ferrer in an acclaimed production of Neil Simon's The Sunshine Boys in San Francisco. The same year he played in Two Gentlemen of Verona in Los Angeles and decided to settle in that city, where he obtained steady work in films and television.

He was in such television shows as All in the Family, Golden Girls, Roseanne and the Larry Sanders Show, and notable films included Roman Polanski's Rosemary's Baby (1968), as Doctor Shand, a role Leeds himself described as "the mute, mean wizard", and Ghost (1990), in which he was the literally cadaverous emergency-room ghost.

Tom Vallance

Philip Leeds, actor: born New York 1916; married Toby Brandt (died 1987); died Los Angeles 16 August 1998.

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