Len Lesser (1922–2011)

Len Lesser (1922–2011)

First Published: March 2003
Len Lesser | "Today You Are a Fountain Pen" (2002)

Len Lesser | "Today You Are a Fountain Pen" (2002)

Len Lesser, Burt Lancaster, Chris Robinson | "Birdman of Alcatraz" (1962) [a]
Len Lesser | "Blood and Lace" (1971)
Len Lesser, Melody Patterson | "Blood and Lace" (1971)
Len Lesser, Gloria Grahame | "Blood and Lace" (1971)
Len Lesser, Bob Newhart | "The Bob Newhart Show" (1972)
Clint Eastwood, Sam Bottoms, Len Lesser, Doug McGrath | "The Outlaw Josey Wales" (1976)
Len Lesser | "The Outlaw Josey Wales" (1976)
Len Lesser, Quinn Meyers | "Today You are a Fountain Pen" (2002)
Len Lesser, Quinn Meyers | "Today You are a Fountain Pen" (2002)
Len Lesser | Working Actor
Len Lesser | Working Actor [b]
Len Lesser | Working Actor [b]
Len Lesser | Working Actor

Len Lesser was born and raised in the East Bronx. His first brush with acting was at a local Community Center called Juvenile House. He was 16 and didn't tell anyone he was taking a "Dramatics Class" because: 'That was real sissy stuff in my tough neighborhood'; he tells us.

He did two plays there. Ironically, in his first role he played 'Lenny Small' in "Of Mice and Men" and then Clifford Odets' "Golden Boy". He did Papa Bonaparte - character roles even at 17. He also read Odets' play "Awake and Sing" which took place on the exact street on which he lived. He remarked that, 'Seeing The Franklin Theater, Goldman's Restaurant and Beck Street in print really excited my imagination and acting opened up a whole new world of expression for me as I was quite shy and inarticulate, and the applause and attention was really heady'.

Following college, Lesser's career was put on hold as he enlisted in the Army where his tour lasted 4 years including 18 months in the China/Burma/India Theater of Operations. Discharged as a Sergeant in 1946 and forty pounds lighter, he returned to his family's new home in Boston where he spent only a few days before heading off to New York with a buddy to "Try Show Business".

They enrolled in the American Theater Wing and started 'making the rounds' of the theatrical offices. 'I quickly found out what was meant by the phrase - Starving Actor', he joked. However he eventually go a job at what he calls a 'Supernumerary' (AKA Extra) in the New York City Center Opera Company. It paid $2.00 a performance and he was happy to get it. The third season he was put in charge of all the other extras and was given the title "Super Chief" which included a raise to $10.00 per performance. 'I took all the good acting and mime roles for myself'; he confided.

Lesser's favorite story from those days goes as follows: 'In 'Aida', during the triumphal march (The coronation), all the extras were dressed as Egyptian Soldiers. We wore skirts, sandals, helmets, spears, long black wigs and brown body makeup. We were to walk up a long staircase at the rear of the stage, slowly cross above the audience who sat far below and then rush around to the staircase and begin the process again. By doing so 5 or six times, 20 extras would appear as 300.'

'After the first time around, the stage manager came rushing up screaming....', he tells us. 'What the hell are you doing?, What the Hell are you doing???' He pointed up to the soldiers crossing above and I turned ashen as most of my troops were not wearing any underwear and everything was in full view of the audience. The audience went absolutely berserk, laughing and screaming (this was 1949). One lady was lying in the aisle, yes lying and yelling; Oh, Oh!. It was in all the N.Y. papers the next day and I was blamed for it, but no one told me to tell my soldiers to wear brown G.I. underwear!'

In 1948 Lesser auditioned for CBS who started using him for small parts in their live TV shows such as "Studio One", "Suspense", "You Are There", and "Playhouse 90". This was before the TV Union was created and they were paid something like $15.00 a show.

He spent a good deal of time over the next 8 years doing summer stock for just room and board. 'We did a new play each week, performing 6 nights a week and rehearsed the next show during the day', but he was playing major roles. 'Hard to believe', he said, 'but when you're young, you can do anything'.

Following his marriage in 1954 to Jan Burrell, the young couple set out for Northern California to meet her parents. While there, Lesser was convinced by a friend to pop down to L.A. and take a look around. They fell in love with the place, and soon relocated there. Two jobs soon followed; "Shack Out on 101", and a TV show called "General Electric Theater" which was hosted by a guy named Ronald Reagan. 'I made more money in one day then I made in 3 months in NYC...... It seemed like Shangri La!'

During his vast career Lesser has accumulated hundreds of stories. One of his favorites comes from the filming of "Papillon" in 1973. 'We were working on the Island of Jamaica. I was a playing a guard on a prison ship. We had just docked at Devil's Island and the convicts were disembarking. The Director, Franklin Shaffner, yelled up to me, 'When Steve (McQueen) goes by, give him a shove'. McQueen turned to me and said, 'Give me a good shove'. So, on the next take, I did. Or at least I thought so. Following the take, McQueen turned to me and said, 'Look, don't think of me as a movie star, think of me as a character in a show'. He meant well but I couldn't believe I was hearing that. After McQueen left, Dustin Hoffman who had been standing there, took a pause and said, deadpan, 'Think of me as a Movie Star'........ I about fell off the ship laughing!

Known for so many of his characters in such films as "Kelly's Heroes", "The Outlaw Josey Wales", "How to Stuff a Wild Bikini", he may be best know by modern audiences for his popular 'Uncle Leo' on "Seinfeld", Len Lesser's career spanned over six decades. He passed away from Pneumonia resulting from Cancer at the age of 88 on February 16, 2011 in Burbank, California.

Len Lesser's advice to the aspiring actor:

By all means give the business a try. If it is meant for you, and you for it, you'll stay with it through thick and thin. (and there's much of both) If its not meant for you, you'll know that too and you will probably find your dream someplace else.

Len Lesser's Credits
 2009 Castle (TV Series)
- Nanny McDead (2009) ... Neighbour
 2008 Turbo Dates (TV Series)
 2008 'Til Death (TV Series)
- Speed Bumps (2008) ... Gus
 2007 Cold Case (TV Series)
Elmer Gibbins '07
- World's End (2007) ... Elmer Gibbins '07
 2007 The Wedding Bells (TV Series)
Peppy Miller
- For Whom the Bells Toll (2007) ... Peppy Miller
 2005 ER (TV Series)
Woody Ebbots
- Two Ships (2005) ... Woody Ebbots
 2005 Raw Footage
Grampa Joey
 2004 Quintuplets (TV Series)
- Battle of the Bands (2004) ... Morty
 1996-2004 Everybody Loves Raymond (TV Series)
- Debra at the Lodge (2004) ... Garvin
- The Bachelor Party (2003) ... Garvin
- Who Am I? (2002) ... Garvin
- Pet the Bunny (2002) ... Garvin
- The Skit (2002) ... Garvin
 2003 Rock Me, Baby (TV Series)
- Prior Engagement (2003) ... Harvey
 2003 Baadasssss!
Manny & Mort Goldberg
 2003 Just Shoot Me! (TV Series)
Uncle Jimmy
- The Comedy Stylings of Rivers & Red (2003) ... Uncle Jimmy
 2002 Son of the Beach (TV Series)
Nick Pappasmearos Jr.
- Bad News, Mr. Johnson (2002) ... Nick Pappasmearos Jr.
- Jailhouse Notch: Part 2 (2002) ... Nick Pappasmearos Jr.
- Taco Lips Now: Part 1 (2002) ... Nick Pappasmearos Jr.
 2002 Today You Are a Fountain Pen (Short)
Grandpa Sam
 2001 Sabrina, the Teenage Witch (TV Series)
- Tick-Tock Hilda's Clock (2001) ... Eugene
 1999 Tracey Takes On... (TV Series)
- Books (1999)
 1998 The List (Short)
 1998 Smart Guy (TV Series)
- Love Bug (1998) ... Sidney
 1991-1998 Seinfeld (TV Series)
Uncle Leo / Leo
- The Finale (1998) ... Uncle Leo
- The Bookstore (1998) ... Uncle Leo
- The Package (1996) ... Uncle Leo
- The Shower Head (1996) ... Uncle Leo
- The Doodle (1995) ... Uncle Leo
 1998 Caroline in the City (TV Series)
- Caroline and the Sandwich (1998) ... Waiter
 1998 True Friends
Mr. Slotnick
 1997 Life with Roger (TV Series)
Mr. Mitchell
- Dial M for Muffin (1997) ... Mr. Mitchell
 1997 Mad About You (TV Series)
Uncle Arnold
- Citizen Buchman (1997) ... Uncle Arnold
 1997 Boy Meets World (TV Series)
Arnie Heck
- B & B's B'n B (1997) ... Arnie Heck
 1996 The John Larroquette Show (TV Series)
- Independence Day (1996) ... Preacher
 1995 Platypus Man (TV Series)
Rabbi Rosenbaum
- Lower East Side Story (1995) ... Rabbi Rosenbaum
 1994 Rave Review
 1991 Babes (TV Series)
- 11 Angry Men and Charlene (1991) ... Eberhardt
 1991 Thirtysomething (TV Series)
Mr. Sidel
- The Wedding (1991) ... Mr. Sidel
 1990 Ain't No Way Back
Papa Campbell
 1990 Mob Boss (Video)
Don Caglianoti
 1990 Tour of Duty (TV Series)
Clayton - WWII Vet
- Payback (1990) ... Clayton - WWII Vet (uncredited)
 1990 Faith
Uncle Sal
 1989 Spy (TV Movie)
Dr. Obediah Stern
 1988 Grandmother's House
 1988 Falcon Crest (TV Series)
Professor McCloud
- False Faces (1988) ... Professor McCloud
 1985 Airwolf (TV Series)
- Annie Oakley (1985) ... Villain
 1985 Amazing Stories (TV Series)
Old Grave Robber
- Mummy Daddy (1985) ... Old Grave Robber
 1984 Du-beat-e-o
 1983 Remington Steele (TV Series)
Anthony Torrance
- Steele Knuckles and Glass Jaws (1983) ... Anthony Torrance
 1983 Whiz Kids (TV Series)
- Deadly Access (1983) ... Arab
 1983 Hardcastle and McCormick (TV Series)
- Man in a Glass House (1983) ... Sam
 1981 The Time Crystal (TV Movie)
 1981 Simon & Simon (TV Series)
- Details at Eleven (1981) ... Slater
 1981 Death Hunt
 1980 Enos (TV Series)
 1979 The Main Event
Trainer At Big Bear
 1978 Someone's Watching Me! (TV Movie)
Burly Man
 1978 Quincy M.E. (TV Series)
Dr. DeGroot
- The Last Six Hours (1978) ... Dr. DeGroot
 1978 Police Story (TV Series)
Mr. Marcovicci
- A Chance to Live (1978) ... Mr. Marcovicci
 1978 House Calls
 1977 The Amazing Spider-Man (TV Series)
- Spider-Man (1977) ... Henchman
 1977 Joyride to Nowhere
 1977 Ruby
 1977 Moonshine County Express
 1977 Supervan
 1977 Code R (TV Series)
- The Drifter (1977) ... Leo
 1975-1976 Switch (TV Series)
Pelky / Salesman
- Maggie's Hero (1976) ... Pelky
- The James Caan Con (1975) ... Salesman
 1976 Wonderbug (TV Series)
Hector Pryor
- No Foe Like a UFO (1976) ... Hector Pryor
 1976 McMillan & Wife (TV Series)
Benny Carr
- Point of Law (1976) ... Benny Carr
 1975 The Ghost Busters (TV Series)
Mr. 'C'
- The Canterville Ghost (1975) ... Mr. 'C'
 1975 Barbary Coast (TV Series)
- Crazy Cats (1975) ... Clerk
 1975 McCoy (TV Series)
- The Big Ripoff (1975) ... Phil
 1975 The Rockford Files (TV Series)
- Say Goodbye to Jennifer (1975) ... Colby
 1974 Medical Center (TV Series)
- Three on a Tightrope (1974) ... Sam
 1974 Kojak (TV Series)
Hinton / Mr. Morgan
- Nursemaid (1974) ... Hinton
- Therapy in Dynamite (1974) ... Mr. Morgan
 1974 Kolchak: The Night Stalker (TV Series)
 1974 Death Wish
Cop at the Precinct (uncredited)
 1974 Truck Stop Women
 1974 It's Good to Be Alive (TV Movie)
Man at Accident
 1974 The Bob Newhart Show (TV Series)
Mr. Schwab
- Clink Shrink (1974) ... Mr. Schwab
 1973 Papillon
 1973 Slither
 1972 Mod Squad (TV Series)
 1972 Dirty Little Billy
 1972 The Delphi Bureau (TV Series)
- The White Plague Project (1972) ... Mockthornton
 1970-1972 Bonanza (TV Series)
Fancher / Fred Gaskell
- Heritage of Anger (1972) ... Fancher
- Caution, Easter Bunny Crossing (1970) ... Fred Gaskell
 1971 Ironside (TV Series)
Frank Bender
- But When She Was Bad, ... (1971) ... Frank Bender
 1971 The Partners (TV Series)
- North Is Now South (1971) ... Novack
 1971 The Bold Ones: The New Doctors (TV Series)
Joe Boland
- Close Up (1971) ... Joe Boland
 1971 All in the Family (TV Series)
Billy Pendergast
- Success Story (1971) ... Billy Pendergast
 1971 Blood and Lace
Tom Kredge
 1970 Kelly's Heroes
 1970 Green Acres (TV Series)
- Uncle Fedor (1970) ... Man
 1969 The Bill Cosby Show (TV Series)
- Rules Is Rules (1969) ... Supervisor
 1969 The Outsider (TV Series)
Max Davenport
- The Old School Tie (1969) ... Max Davenport
 1969 Land of the Giants (TV Series)
- Brainwash (1969) ... Prisoner
 1968 Judd for the Defense (TV Series)
Rex Hajuk
- The Gates of Cerberus (1968) ... Rex Hajuk
 1968 Death Valley Days (TV Series)
- Prince of the Oyster Pirates (1968) ... Spider
 1967 The Second Hundred Years (TV Series)
- The Abominable Iceman (1967) ... Norton
 1966-1967 The Monkees (TV Series)
Red / George
- Monkees in Texas (1967) ... Red
- Monkees in a Ghost Town (1966) ... George
 1965-1967 Get Smart (TV Series)
Vogel / Luden / Rudolph
- The Spirit Is Willing (1967) ... Vogel
- The Decoy (1966) ... Luden
- Satan Place (1965) ... Rudolph
 1967 The Last Challenge
Ed - the Bartender (uncredited)
 1959-1967 The Red Skelton Hour (TV Series)
Killer McBumpoff / Big Mike Miller / Legs
- The Seven Ages of Man (1967) ... Killer McBumpoff
- The Nine Lives of Freddie (1962) ... Big Mike Miller
 1967 Mr. Terrific (TV Series)
- The Sultan Has Five Wives (1967) ... Novnik
 1967 That Girl (TV Series)
 1967 How I Spent My Summer Vacation (TV Movie)
The Greek
 1966 Run Buddy Run (TV Series)
- The Bank Holdup (1966) ... Lou
 1966 Love on a Rooftop (TV Series)
Junk Shop Owner
- The Big Brass Bed (1966) ... Junk Shop Owner
 1966 The F.B.I. (TV Series)
- The Price of Death (1966) ... Ghost
 1966 Fireball 500
Man in Garage
 1966 Laredo (TV Series)
- A Very Small Assignment (1966) ... Dirk
 1965-1966 My Favorite Martian (TV Series)
Carlo / Hank
- Humbug, Mrs. Brown (1965) ... Hank
 1966 The Munsters (TV Series)
- Big Heap Herman (1966) ... Manikoo
 1965 Honey West (TV Series)
Mr. Crimm
- In the Bag (1965) ... Mr. Crimm
 1965 Ben Casey (TV Series)
Lieutenant Bentley
- Then I, and You, and All of Us Fell Down (1965) ... Lieutenant Bentley
 1965 The Wild Wild West (TV Series)
- Night of the Casual Killer (1965) ... Mason
 1965 How to Stuff a Wild Bikini
North Dakota Pete
 1965 McHale's Navy Joins the Air Force
NKVD commissar
 1965 Bob Hope Presents the Chrysler Theatre (TV Series)
Le Bombard
- Escape into Jeopardy (1965) ... Le Bombard
 1965 The Rogues (TV Series)
- Grave Doubts (1965) ... Priest
 1965 Kentucky Jones (TV Series)
- Bad Penny (1965) ... Shoelace
 1964 Channing (TV Series)
The Restaurant Owner
- The Face in the Sun (1964) ... The Restaurant Owner
 1964 The Outer Limits (TV Series)
Sforza Water & Power worker
- The Invisibles (1964) ... Sforza Water & Power worker
 1964 Arrest and Trial (TV Series)
- An Echo of Conscience (1964) ... Biggy
 1964 The Great Adventure (TV Series)
 1963 Temple Houston (TV Series)
Orley Baldwin
- Billy Hart (1963) ... Orley Baldwin
 1963 The Travels of Jaimie McPheeters (TV Series)
Wes Matlock
- The Day of the Giants (1963) ... Wes Matlock
 1962-1963 Stoney Burke (TV Series)
Detective / Leo
- Kincaid (1963) ... Detective
- Bandwagon (1962) ... Leo
 1962 Kraft Mystery Theater (TV Series)
 1962 Smog
Lelio Marpicati
 1962 Birdman of Alcatraz
Burns (uncredited)
 1962 Follow the Sun (TV Series)
Little Joe
- Chicago Style (1962) ... Little Joe
 1961 The Investigators (TV Series)
- In a Mirror, Darkly (1961) ... Puppeteer
 1961 Holiday Lodge (TV Series)
- The Secret Convention (1961) ... Charlie
 1961 The Law and Mr. Jones (TV Series)
- Accidental Tourist (1961) ... Gangster
 1961 Hennesey (TV Series)
Chief Petty Officer
- The Specialist (1961) ... Chief Petty Officer
 1961 Hong Kong (TV Series)
- Lesson in Fear (1961) ... Carl
 1960 The Untouchables (TV Series)
- A Seat on the Fence (1960) ... Gunther
 1960 Lock Up (TV Series)
Carl Kincaid
- The Seventh Hour (1960) ... Carl Kincaid
 1960 Bat Masterson (TV Series)
Frank Holloway
- Blood on the Money (1960) ... Frank Holloway
 1960 Bells Are Ringing
Charlie Bessemer (uncredited)
 1960 Please Don't Eat the Daisies
Waiter at Sardi's (uncredited)
 1960 Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse (TV Series)
 1960 Hotel de Paree (TV Series)
Cleve Turnbull
- Hard Luck for Sundance (1960) ... Cleve Turnbull
 1960 The Detectives (TV Series)
Jack Hasset
- Blue Fire (1960) ... Jack Hasset
 1960 Tombstone Territory (TV Series)
Hugh Dawson
- Eyewitness (1960) ... Hugh Dawson
 1959 Grand Jury (TV Series)
Max Schneider
- Prison Scandal (1959) ... Max Schneider
 1959 Mackenzie's Raiders (TV Series)
Jack Corey
- Blood on the Rio (1959) ... Jack Corey
 1959 U.S. Marshal (TV Series)
- Federal Agent (1959) ... Stan
 1959 Mr. Lucky (TV Series)
- Hijacked (1959) ... Gunman
 1959 The Man and the Challenge (TV Series)
- The Visitors (1959) ... Les
 1959 Adventures in Paradise (TV Series)
- The Bamboo Curtain (1959) ... Lasser
 1959 Johnny Staccato (TV Series)
Prisoner on Bunk
- The Wild Reed (1959) ... Prisoner on Bunk
 1959 Tightrope (TV Series)
The Hood
- Man in the Middle (1959) ... The Hood (uncredited)
 1958-1959 The Texan (TV Series)
Matt Kiley / Brad
- Traildust (1959) ... Matt Kiley
- The Widow of Paradise (1958) ... Brad
 1959 Peter Gunn (TV Series)
- Kill from Nowhere (1959) ... Speaker
 1959 Crime & Punishment, USA
Desk Officer
 1959 M Squad (TV Series)
Red McShane
- Death Threat (1959) ... Red McShane
 1957-1959 The Thin Man (TV Series)
Steve - Henchman
- The Fashion Showdown (1957) ... Steve - Henchman
 1959 The Third Man (TV Series)
- A Question of Price (1959) ... Najian
 1958-1959 The Jack Benny Program (TV Series)
Muggsy McGurk / Second Bank Robber
- Ernie Kovacs Show (1959) ... Muggsy McGurk
- Bachelor TV Lives (1958) ... Second Bank Robber
 1959 Mike Hammer (TV Series)
Zig Segman
- Requiem for a Sucker (1959) ... Zig Segman
 1958 Some Came Running
Indianapolis Poker Player (uncredited)
 1958 Playhouse 90 (TV Series)
Man with a Gun
- Old Man (1958) ... Man with a Gun
 1958 I Want to Live!
Charlie, Newspaperman (uncredited)
 1958 Tales of Wells Fargo (TV Series)
- Faster Gun (1958) ... Conger
 1957-1958 Schlitz Playhouse (TV Series)
Goon #2 / First Card Player
- Curfew at Midnight (1958) ... Goon #2
- Storm Over Rapallo (1957) ... First Card Player
 1958 Panic! (TV Series)
John Bates
- Parole (1958)
- Survivors (1958) ... John Bates
 1958 Have Gun - Will Travel (TV Series)
- Deliver the Body (1958) ... Boldt
 1957-1958 Gunsmoke (TV Series)
Townsman / Townsman Listening to Dobie's Tirade
- Carmen (1958) ... Townsman (uncredited)
- Sins of the Father (1957) ... Townsman Listening to Dobie's Tirade (uncredited)
 1958 The Brothers Karamazov
Jailer (uncredited)
 1958 Official Detective (TV Series)
- Hijackers (1958) ... Andrey
 1957 The Sheriff of Cochise (TV Series)
Harry Nixdorf
- Federal Witness (1957) ... Harry Nixdorf
 1957 Alfred Hitchcock Presents (TV Series)
- Heart of Gold (1957) ... Thug
 1957 Slaughter on 10th Avenue
Sam (uncredited)
 1957 This Could Be the Night
Piano Tuner (uncredited)
 1957 General Electric Theater (TV Series)
- The Bitter Choice (1957) ... Friedman
 1957 Dragnet (TV Series)
- The Big Close (1957)
 1956 The Rack
Officer (uncredited)
 1956 Lust for Life
Cartoonist (uncredited)
 1956 Somebody Up There Likes Me
Reporter at Sparring Session (uncredited)
 1956 TV Reader's Digest (TV Series)
 1955 Shack Out on 101
 1955 Cavalcade of America (TV Series)
 1953 Man Against Crime (TV Series)
- Third Rail (1953) ... Hoodlum (uncredited)
 1950 Suspense (TV Series)
Man at Baseball Game
- The Parcel (1950) ... Man at Baseball Game (uncredited)
 1949 Studio One in Hollywood (TV Series)
Theater (L.A. Partial)
  • CAPT. BRASSBOUND'S CONVERSION / Ahmanson Theatre / Joseph Anthony
  • THE MOTHS / Mark Taper Forum / Ed Parone
  • THE BIRTHDAY PARTY / ACT, Seattle / Greg Falls
  • HADRIAN VII / Alley Theatre, Houston / Nina Vance
  • THE LEGACY / Old Globe Theater, San Diego
  • MY FATHER'S HOUSE / 7 Angels Playhouse, Waterbury, CT

 Photo camera Credits 
[a] © - 1962 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
[b] Photo by Don Lewis

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