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'Seinfeld's' Uncle Leo was working on a memoir

Len Lesser, the working actor who got a big break late in life when he was cast as Uncle Leo on "Seinfeld," once visited the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, one of the holiest sites in Judaism.
/ Source: Reuters

Len Lesser, the working actor who got a big break late in life when he was cast as Uncle Leo on "Seinfeld," once visited the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, one of the holiest sites in Judaism.

Surrounded by hundreds of Jews and tourists from around the world paying homage at a remnant of the ancient wall that surrounded the courtyard of the Temple Mount, Lesser was caught up in the majesty of the occasion.

Until an Orthodox Jew broke the spell by approaching Lesser to demand, "Where's the watch?"

It probably wasn't the first time someone had asked him the same question, but the setting was certainly novel and Lesser broke out laughing.

It was a reference to a "Seinfeld" episode in which Uncle Leo innocently retrieves a broken timepiece that has been tossed in the trash by Jerry Seinfeld's character, inadvertently setting off a chaotic chain of events.

Years later Lesser duly titled his memoir, "Where's the Watch? And other tales from Seinfeld's Uncle Leo."

Sadly, the book will be a posthumous release. Lesser died on Wednesday, near his home in Burbank, Calif. succumbing to pneumonia triggered by a battle with blood cancer. He was 88.

The book, which he worked on for a year with New York author Tama Ryder, is currently being shopped to publishers.

It details his inexorably slow rose to fame, starting out as an acting student in New York under Lee Strasberg and Uta Hagen, to guest roles in TV and supporting work in such films as "Papillon" and "The Outlaw Josey Wales," through to his starmaking turn on "Seinfeld."

"People just don't realize what an accomplishment it is to be a true working actor in Hollywood for over 60 years," Ryder told Reuters. "They don't understand the perseverance that's required to stay in the game for this long, and Len was certainly able to do that."

All the while Lesser remained active in theater, and actually turned down "Seinfeld" work because of prior stage commitments, she said. Weeks before his death, Lesser was auditioning several times a week. He will be seen on Jada Pinkett Smith's TNT medical drama "Hawthorne" next season.

A guest appearance in another female-driven TV show, Marlo Thomas' 1960s vehicle "That Girl," led to his "Seinfeld" job more than two decades later. Seinfeld and series co-creator Larry David remembered watching the show as youngsters and always viewed him as "a real TV star," Ryder said.

Lesser appeared in 15 episodes of "Seinfeld" between 1991 and 1998, often greeting his nephew with an overly boisterous, "Jerry! Hello!" His character was usually an innocent bystander in nefarious schemes hatched by Jerry and his pals.

Perhaps the one exception was in the 1998 episode "The Bookstore," where Uncle Leo had a major role as a shoplifter. Jerry confronted him, and was shocked to learn that all old people steal and just feign confusion when caught.

Lesser loved the writing on the show and the intellectual challenge. "He likened being on the 'Seinfeld' set and being directed by Larry David to being on the set and being directed by Clint Eastwood, being on the set and working with Barbra Streisand," Ryder said.

He starred with Eastwood in "Kelly's Heroes" and "The Outlaw Josey Wales," and with Streisand in "The Main Event."

The 1973 prison drama "Papillon," on which he worked with Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman, could have been a big breakthrough. But much of his performance was left on the cutting room floor.

"He had a lot of almost-breaks," said Ryder, noting that Lesser enjoyed a strong audition for Alfred Hitchcock's 1956 film "The Man Who Knew Too Much."

Despite the setbacks, Lesser enjoyed pursuing his craft and the camaraderie of other working actors such as Ed Asner, Jerry Stiller and Doris Roberts, Ryder said. Back in the 1960s his neighbor in Malibu was Ronald Reagan, who once helped Lesser fix a flat tire so that he could get to an audition.

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