Len Lesser (1922–2011)
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.
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.
Elmer Gibbins '07
Manny & Mort Goldberg
Nick Pappasmearos Jr.
Uncle Leo / Leo
Clayton - WWII Vet
Dr. Obediah Stern
Old Grave Robber
Trainer At Big Bear
Pelky / Salesman
Hinton / Mr. Morgan
Cop at the Precinct (uncredited)
Man at Accident
Fancher / Fred Gaskell
Red / George
Vogel / Luden / Rudolph
Ed - the Bartender (uncredited)
Killer McBumpoff / Big Mike Miller / Legs
Junk Shop Owner
Man in Garage
Carlo / Hank
North Dakota Pete
The Restaurant Owner
Sforza Water & Power worker
Detective / Leo
Chief Petty Officer
Charlie Bessemer (uncredited)
Waiter at Sardi's (uncredited)
Prisoner on Bunk
Matt Kiley / Brad
Steve - Henchman
Muggsy McGurk / Second Bank Robber
Indianapolis Poker Player (uncredited)
Man with a Gun
Charlie, Newspaperman (uncredited)
Goon #2 / First Card Player
Townsman / Townsman Listening to Dobie's Tirade
Piano Tuner (uncredited)
Reporter at Sparring Session (uncredited)
Man at Baseball Game
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
[a] © - 1962 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
[b] Photo by Don Lewis