Len Lesser was born December 3, 1922 in New York. In 1954, he moved to Los Angeles to find work in TV and commercials. He began landing small parts in films and shows. Throughout his career, he co-starred with Hollywood legends like Steve McQueen, Robert DeNiro and Clint Eastwood. But he wouldn't truly become a household name until 1991, when he landed a recurring role on the sitcom Seinfeld.
Len Lesser received a bachelor's degree in economics and government from the City College of New York in 1942. At the age of 19, shortly after graduation, Lesser felt the call to join the U.S. Army. "Pearl Harbor had just happened and, like many guys, I wanted to get involved," he later explained. "I tried getting into the B7 program, the officer program, but one of my eyes was lousy and I didn't get in. I went down to the army and they didn't think twice. As long as you were walking, they took you."
Lesser served for four years before his discharge in April of 1946. He returned home to his family in Boston shortly after. "My mother opens the door, there's this pause and she says, 'Yes?' I'd lost 40 pounds and was brown as a berry in my uniform," he said. "The first thing she did was drag me into the kitchen." After reuniting briefly with his family, Lesser headed to New York with a new dream: to become an actor.
In 1954, after failing an audition to get into the prestigious Actors Studio headed by Lee Strasberg, Lesser moved to Los Angeles to find work in television and commercials. He began landing small parts in films and shows such as Kelly's Heroes (1970), Papillon (1973), and The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976). Throughout his career, Lesser co-starred with Hollywood legends, including Steve McQueen, Robert DeNiro and Clint Eastwood. But he wouldn't truly become a household name until 1991, when he landed a recurring role on the sitcom Seinfeld. "I didn't think anything was particularly funny about Seinfeld," Lesser reflected later. "I started doing this scene at an audition ... and everyone started laughing. I'm thinking, 'What the hell are they laughing at?' Nothing I said was particularly funny and I didn't say it in a funny way."
Casting agents disagreed, however, and Lesser landed the part. For the next nine years he would entertain audiences with his unlikeable Uncle Leo character, a sour and scheming relative of title character, Jerry Seinfeld. Uncle Leo was always looking to make life difficult for his nephew; in one memorable scene, Uncle Leo chastises his nephew Jerry for not greeting him while he was shoplifting a book ("You always say hello!" he insists).
After Seinfeld ended in 1998, Lesser landed bit parts in a variety of TV shows, including Just Shoot Me! (2003), Everybody Loves Raymond (1994 - 2004) and Castle (2009).
On February 16, 2011, Lesser died from cancer-related pneumonia at his home in Burbank, California. He was 88 years old. "Heaven got a great comedian and actor today," his daughter, Michele, said in the statement. "Thank you to all the people who helped make my father's last journey special and surrounded with love." He is survived by his daughter, Michele; son, David; daughter-in-law, Julie; and grandchildren, Jonathan, Kayla, and Mayah.
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